Sunday, July 31, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

RTFM: computer beats game after reading the manual. (Note: it works for humans too!)
Books meet video games in the digital adaptation. I don't know if I would enjoy this, but maybe it'll catch on.
Bodice-rippers - now with more historical accuracy!
Experimental archaeology: making history real
Endangered snow leopards being adorable
How do you keep an elephant out of your farm? BEES.
Mark Twain's illustrated "Advice to Little Girls"
The History Cookbook - a little more Brit-centric than I'd like, but if you've always wanted to eat like a Viking or a Tudor this is the site for you.

When humanity wanted to put its best foot forward, this is what we came up with:

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan's Earth Guide For Aliens from NPR on Vimeo.

Awesome pop song mashup:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


My things are here! I have so many, and I love them all. It's going to take days to get it all unpacked and washed and sorted and put away but I am up for the challenge. I did my consumables shipment first. Surprising best addition: bottled Starbucks mocha frappuccinos. I put them in kind as an afterthought, since I was already buying half of Costco anyway, but I was really happy to see them come out of the box. I guess I underestimated my addiction to overpriced vaguely coffee-flavored milkshakes. The biggest waste of money? Two giant bottles of detergent for my nonexistent dishwasher.

The arrival of my earthly effects has driven home how totally I have lost all green credentials in my new lifestyle. I used to live in half of a modest apartment and walk places and take public transportation. Now I live in a house powered entirely by diesel generators and go to work in my massive SUV full of leaded gasoline. I used to move by wrapping my stuff in newspaper and old towels and packing it in boxes rescued from dumpsters. Now as I watch my dining room fill with virgin forests' worth of once-used cardboard boxes and special packing paper my inner Captain Planet curls up in a ball and sobs. There's no recycling in Guinea - the standard trash disposal method here is to toss it in a pile on the side of the road and set it on fire once the pigs seem to be done with it. And let's not even think about the carbon credits involved in getting me and all of my stuff here from Washington. Maybe I should go club some baby seals while I'm at it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Eating For My Country

Madeleine Albright was on The Daily Show after wrapping up her term as SecState and said she had lost some weight since she was no longer eating for her country. It's not only the higher-ups who are called on to put their stomachs to the service of their homeland - on my trips this week I did it too.

Arriving at a mining town guesthouse on Friday night after six hours on a bone-shakingly bumpy road all I wanted was to crawl into bed, but my gracious hosts wished to honor me with a three-course meal. I ate, even the canned tuna and greyish green beans. What else could I do?

On Tuesday I visited the site of a juice factory currently under construction. The partners' wives made lunch for us: local specialties prepared under local hygiene standards. I ate, hoping to be spared the consequences I ended up enduring on Wednesday. How could I not?

Being Food People I fully understand that when someone offers you a meal it's not about nutrients. They are offering you a part of themselves, welcoming you into their life. It's a social thing but a personal thing as well, and as a diplomat you don't say no to that. You fill your plate with whatever it is and you eat it, at least a little bit of everything, and find genuine ways to compliment the chef. When I like people I feed them, and when people feed me I do my best to show them I appreciate it, even when the cuisine itself is not quite to my usual standards.

Who is my model food ambassador? Anthony Bourdain. I love No Reservations for the combination of food porn and travel porn, but I also love how good Anthony Bourdain is at realizing that sometimes the food isn't about the food. When he eats at fancy high-end restaurants he can be devastatingly critical, but when he eats at someone's house he's never anything less than absolutely complimentary and grateful that someone went to all the trouble to feed him whatever it is, even if it's yak butter tea.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


As it turned out, my job yesterday and today was to spend most of my time lying prostrate and compulsively hydrating as someone repeatedly pushed the self-clean button on my digestive system. Ugh.

I have now experienced the revenge of Montezuma's Guinean counterpart, whom a brief perusal of Wikipedia suggests is Samory Touré. It's not a perfect comparison though, because Touré was in fact little more than a local warlord when the French started moving into his territory. His Wassoulou/Mandinka Empire was smaller than the current territory of Guinea and existed for only 20 years before the French snuffed it out. On the other hand, he was under no illusions about the nature and intentions of the French and put up a lively resistance with more than 30,000 infantrymen armed with rifles purchased from the British. He is still remembered in Guinea today, with a major military base and a neighborhood of Conakry named in his honor. Of course, that probably has less to do with him than with his great-grandson Sékou Touré, who ruled Guinea for 26 years after independence.

Whatever the differences in historical fact, the revenge is very much the same. But the Cipro is doing its work and I should be back to normal in no time. And I got through a lot of my backed-up Economist articles, so it hasn't been a total waste.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


So, there was a little coup attempt in Conakry last night. Blocks away from my house, in fact. But I was out of town doing Roving Economic Officer-type things so I missed all the excitement. I was awakened not by gunfire but by a 4am phone call from the embassy, though I didn't get any sleep after that either. I kind of wish I had been home, for the street cred, though not so much for the fearing-for-my life bit. And then I didn't get to send any juicy coup-attempt-related cables or anything because that wasn't my job today. Today my job was to visit an agricultural research center and a women's co-op and a mango juice factory, so I shrugged off my sleepless night and did that. When I got back to Conakry the Chargé said my job was to go home and eat and shower and sleep as much as possible, because who knows what my job will be tomorrow.

I can't complain of boredom, that's for sure.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Opiate of the Masses

The State Department works really hard to recreate an American lifestyle abroad as much as possible, both to ease the culture shock for diplomats uprooted every 2-3 years and to maintain ties with the mothership. And what is it that binds us most firmly to our countrymen? What makes our American blood run red, white, and blue and our American hearts beat the rhythm of "The Star-Spangled Banner"? Television, naturally.

For our viewing pleasure all the USG housing in Conakry comes with free service from the Armed Forces Network (AFN). The selection is a grab bag of shows from network TV and basic cable grouped into a couple of thematic channels. It's actually pretty good: they have all my favorite shows, and our time zone 2 hours behind Germany means I can watch the Daily Show and the Colbert Report and still be in bed by 10 o'clock. The downside is that we're getting shows the day after they aired in the States, but nothing's perfect.

The other quirk of AFN is that there are no commercials. The time other stations use to sell cars and Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs AFN fills with mini news clips on heartwarming stories of the armed forces doing wonderful humanitarian things and PSAs exhorting them to not do less wonderful things like huffing paint, raping women, running up exorbitant credit card bills, and abandoning their pets on the side of the road when they deploy. I've heard of one warning women not to shake their babies but I haven't seen it yet. I guess I'm not watching anough TV.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Shop 'Til You Drop

Like driving - and like a lot of things actually - shopping in Conakry is a fairly chaotic activity. In my previous life if I wanted to buy a thingamabob I just asked Google, which gave me a selection of thingamabob purveyors in convenient map form. That doesn't really work here. The most reliable way to find out where to buy a thingamabob is to ask people where they get theirs, especially if you particularly admire the thingamabobs they have. Really, it's best to see if they will take you with them to their thingamaboberie of choice, since chances are you'll never actually find it on your own.

Like my definition of "street", my definition of "store" has altered significantly since my arrival in Guinea. Conakry does have stores like you probably think of stores - four walls, a ceiling, aisles of products, marked prices, checkout lanes, etc. - but those are exceptions rather than the rule. By far the most common form of dedicated retail establishment here is a shipping container. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Guinea imports much larger volumes than it exports, and it's probably cheaper to just dump the containers here than to ship them back to China empty so there's plenty of supply. They're well-made for what they are, and easy to lock securely at night. Conakry's version of a strip mall is a bunch of shipping containers lined up in a row, all selling something different.

The next step down is a stall at one of Conakry's many markets. These range from permanent, lockable installations to a folding table and an umbrella. Supplies vary and so do prices, widely. I'm not much of a haggler so I find the markets pretty intimidating, especially since my blazing whiteness makes it hard to pass unnoticed. On my first weekend my sponsor took me for a little a stroll around the Marché du Niger downtown, just to look, and in the space of two minutes we had accumulated a string of at least ten teenagers wanting to "help" me with my shopping, for a small fee.

And then there's the spontaneous retail sector - people selling mangoes from a table in the front of their house or on the side of the road. Traffic circles, construction sites, any reliable source of traffic congestion attracts a swarm of merchants selling just about anything portable. People think of America as the home of the drive-thru, but it's amazing what you can buy in Conakry without getting out of your car. There's the expected snacks and drinks, but I have also seen bath towels, CDs and DVDs, floor mats and steering wheel covers, mops and brooms, machetes and hedge clippers, maps of Guinea, and mens' pants.

However, except for perishables, I'm also buying things in Guinea the same way I've always bought them - I order them from the internet and have them mailed to my house. Amazon forever.

Side note: I reached 10,000 hits today! Thanks everybody!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Great Expectations

Yesterday I went to a reception to welcome Guinea's new Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) - twenty-some twentysomethings who will spend the next two years teaching English, math, or physics in remote villages scattered throughout Guinea's interior.

Most of them didn't know too much about Guinea - as I found out, it's a tough country to research - and were eager for my impressions, but I didn't have much to say. The life I live in Conakry is so different from the experience the PCVs are going to have it's like we'll be living in different countries. I wake up in my air-conditioned house next to the swimming pool, drive to work in my giant SUV and spend most of the day on a computer in my air-conditioned office. They will wake up in a tin- or thatch-roofed hut, walk to work and spend most of the day in a cramped classroom where air conditioning is last on a long list of badly needed supplies.

I thought about joining Peace Corps after college but I wimped out - I wanted to see the world, but in a way that would still let me take hot showers - so I went to grad school instead. And here I am in Conakry where my shower does make it if not quite to hot, at least to the upper reaches of warm. People back home tell me that my life is an adventure, but it's nothing compared to the adventures the PCVs are going to have. I wish them the best of luck.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Material Girl

Last weekend one of my fellow recently-arrived junior officers commented that living out of a suitcase for a couple of weeks made him realize how few material posessions it really takes to be happy. I couldn't disagree more.

I miss my stuff every single day. I've been here for four weeks today and my UAB is AWOL. It may be another month or so before the boat shipment with most of my posessions arrives. It's not like I'm depressed or anything, but every day without fail I feel a need to use something I know I own but do not have with me - a pair of shoes, a book, a kitchen utensil. (In fact, the majority of these wishes are kitchen-related.) I'm tired of wearing the same two suits to work. And aside from the utility of it, I want my things so I can hang up my pictures and set up my bookshelves and make my house feel like home instead of a very large hotel suite.

Mom has a little plaque-thing hanging on her wall that says, "Home is where your stuff is." Right now my home is in a shipping container somewhere in the Atlantic. I can't wait for it to arrive.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Never Drive Faster Than Your Guardian Angel Can Fly

Driving in Conakry is quite an experience. The infrastructure is, shall we say, limited. My definition of "street" has been vastly broadened in the last three weeks. The main streets in Conakry are paved and no more potholed than downtown Washington, but once you get off the main thoroughfares you are well advised to have a nice high clearance and good grips on your tires. Some of these lesser byways double as drainage ditches during the rains. The main roads are bordered not by a curb but by open sewers, so it's best not to be too close to the edge. Given the more challenging terrain 40mph now feels incredibly fast to me.

The rules of engagement are less actual rules and more traditions. The streets in Conakry are labeled with letter-number codes according to some sort of obscure grid system that doesn't seem to make sense to anybody, but as there are hardly any street signs anyway navigation is done almost solely based on landmarks. Conakry does have a few stoplights here and there, and people do obey them when they are working. Other than that it's a free-for-all. Lanes are not only unmarked but unheard of. I am working on cutting down my American following distance as a square inch of daylight between you and the car in front of you is an invitation for every other car on the road to occupy that space. Turn signals are used almost exclusively by taxis to signal when they are stopping. There are, by general agreement, some one-way streets, but the only way you'll know which those are is when bystanders yell at you when you try to go down them the wrong way.

And then there's night driving. The main streets have streetlights but they haven't worked in decades due to lack of power or having the wiring stolen or both. It's not that hard to see the other cars since they usually have at least some lights working, though you do have to be wary of the occasional fauxtercycle which is in fact a car with one headlight out. No, the harrowing part of night driving is the pedestrians - dark people in dark clothing crossing dark streets whenever and wherever the spirit moves them. This requires a delicate finesse on the headlight controls to have the high-beams on enough of the time to know where the pedestrians are but without blinding the other drivers.

I'm entering this new sport slowly and gingerly, and during daylight hours as much as possible. No casualties so far.