Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately (Streaming Video Edition)

I know y'all have probably seen all of these already, but humor me. I'm really happy to be getting reacquainted with YouTube.

The Sith Who Stole Christmas
Making Sand Art 
Last Dictator Standing
Chocolate Biscuit Cake - a recipe in stop-motion animation
From mental_floss, a compilation of Newsies mashups. Paperboys and Lady Gaga go surprisingly well together.
Stories We Make Up About Our Cats
TED Talk: How to Spot a Liar
For those of you in cold places, 25 Ways to Tie a Scarf
Conlanger - n. - one who constructs new languages
And a non-video submission: old-timey technology, deconstructed

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Vicarious Tourism: The United States of America

They have malls here!
Have you seen this place? Like really seen it? It's unreal.

Everything's so clean! There are no burning trash piles on the side of the road or random chickens or goats walking around, like you'd normally expect. The streets are so wide and so smooth, with lane lines and informative road signs and lights that actually work! There's so much light everywhere, and it hasn't cut out or even wavered in and out since I arrived. There are elevators and escalators and moving walkways and automatic doors and big tall glass-and-steel buildings to put them all in. No tin-and-cardboard-and-plastic-sheeting shacks anywhere.

There are so many restaurants where you can get delicious food and be pretty sure you won't get food poisoning. There's fajitas and kolaches and bagels and sushi and steak! Coffee shops! And when the check comes you can pay it with a credit card instead of a giant stack of odorous nearly-worthless bills. There are stores everywhere, that contain things you might actually want to buy, and they all take credit cards too! The grocery store has everything, everything! There are fresh raspberries, even though they aren't in season! YOU CAN DRINK THE TAP WATER.

The internet is so fast you just click on a link and the page is right there, without having to play a game of solitaire waiting for the page to load. I can watch video without it buffering at all! It's SO AMAZING! I can download music and update all my software! Google Maps can actually find things and give me accurate directions, no complicated landmark-based directions or hand-drawn maps required! I can watch Netflix and Hulu! There are so many TV channels! With commercials!

In case you can't tell, I'm pretty excited to be home.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fungus Among Us

Normally when fungus is growing in your spare room, that's something of a problem. Not this time. One of the many fresh cooking ingredients I have been missing since I moved to Guinea is mushrooms. I don't know why there don't seem to be any here - maybe it's too hot, or they just aren't a big part of the local diet so no one cultivates them - but the only mushrooms you can buy around here are canned.

Well, this week I will be having beef stir-fry with my very own fresh oyster mushrooms, homegrown from a sack of used coffee grounds full of mushroom spores I bought on the internet ( or on Amazon). I have a terrible track record on growing herbs and the like and I was worried that mushrooms would prove equally challenging, especially when nothing seemed to be happening for the first five or six days. But then on day seven suddenly fungus began to, well, mushroom forth, and now I  have a pretty tasty-looking crop I can't wait to sample. I'm going to declare this experiment a success, though if I should die a gruesome painful death from bad-mushroom consumption in the next few days I may be forced to reconsider that assessment.

Monday, December 12, 2011

If You Want Something Done Right...

On Saturday my friend Ricky* and I were invited over for paella at the Spanish Ambassador's house, and we were running late. Desperately late. Absurdly late. Embarrassingly late. Part of the problem was that we had misunderstood the start time for lunch, but the majority of the problem was that traffic was desperately, absurdly, embarrassingly bad. There's a key intersection in Conakry that has been under construction since before I arrived, and traffic pile-ups there are not uncommon. This one was uncommonly bad though - after perhaps 20 minutes of inching forward and then a good 10 minutes of solid standstill Ricky decided to walk up to the intersection and see what was going on.

I stayed in the car, being the driver and all, and noted to my pleasure and surprise that the situation did seem to have gotten better. The traffic was still very thick but seemed to be moving along at a swifter and more constant speed. The reason for the improvement was made clear when I got to the intersection and saw Ricky right in the middle, directing traffic. There he was in his flowered swim shorts and pink shirt, gesturing emphatically with his baseball cap and getting rather pink himself from sunburn and the exertion of giving Guineans spontaneous hands-on instruction in the theory and practice of the zipper merge. I wish I had taken a picture.

Meanwhile, the policemen who were supposedly in charge of managing traffic flows sat comfortably on a concrete barrier on the side of the road and gazed in bemused amusement at the crazy foté who had decided to take traffic law into his own hands. Once my car made it through Ricky jumped back into the passenger seat, after handshakes (and tips in small bills) all around. I hope they learned something about effective traffic management. We'll consider it our own small contribution towards security sector reform.

*Not his real name, but he picked it out.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Work It/Make It/Do It/Makes Us/Harder/Better/Faster/Stronger

I have never considered myself to be much of a networker. Parents and guidance counselors and other such sages told me over and over how important networking is, but it took me a long time to get comfortable with the idea. In high school and my early navel-gazing over-philosophized college years I thought of networking as dirty, cheating, smacking of cronyism, nepotism, favoritism and a dozen other -isms that have no place in the meritocracy I thought we all should be living in. I wanted no part of it.

That changed in my late-college, grad school period when I accepted that we don't in fact live in a pure ideal meritocracy, that the fickle finger of fate has a lot more influence over our lives than we might like to believe, and that networking is a way to nudge that finger a little in the direction we want it to go. But just accepting that networking was useful and important didn't make me good at it, and I was terrible. I was in the job-hunt phase then, and a large part of the problem was that I confused "job applicant" with "job supplicant". I could not bring myself to believe that I, a lowly job-seeker, could possibly have anything an employer might want, so I went to interviews with little more than sad puppy eyes and a begging bowl. (It is only now that I have done some hiring myself that I fully understand what a rare and precious commodity good employees are.) That unfortunate situation persisted until I interviewed for a job that required an attribute that even at my most self-deprecating I could not deny possessing: i rite gud.

My current job is essentially all about networking. Sure, there's some event planning and some light number crunching and some of that juicy writing stuff, but you don't get anything to put in the event agenda or the spreadsheet or the report (or get good jobs later) without going out and meeting people and talking to them. They hammered this into us in training, first in A-100 and then in pol/econ tradecraft, and I was scared. They threw a lot of frightening words around like "managing contacts" and "interagency coordination" and "corridor reputation" that made the whole thing sound very awkward and painful, and since I was already pretty sure I was a networking failure I just knew I was doomed.

Good news y'all: I'm not doomed. I'm still pretty lousy at cocktail party chit-chat, but it turns out this networking thing can be kind of fun. Yesterday in a meeting I mentioned a pet project I've wanted to get started on, and the other guy said "hey, that's a great idea, and I want to help!" With that encouragement I sent an email around to some other folks whose help I might need, and they were all excited too! So, having "managed" a "contact" and "coordinated" with the "interagency" with any luck we'll make something happen, not in order to puff up my "corridor reputation" but because I think it would be great if Guinea had an American Chamber of Commerce and a bunch of other people think so too.

Networking: not so horrible after all.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


I have been feeding the cat first thing in the morning for ages. It seemed convenient - I'm always home at that time and the cat makes a very effective backup alarm clock, as he values his chow over my beauty sleep. But recently Jabbers has become a little too effective in his alarm clock capacity, waking me up long before my radio alarm goes off with a variety of unignorable tactics - loud repetitive meowling, jumping up and down on my torso, and clawing at my face, gently. I can thrash around and swear and throw pillows at him all I want, but ten seconds later he's right back in the game. It's a lot like this:

This week I gave up. I decided, for the sake of my sanity, that it would be better to feed the cat right before bed and save myself the morning shakedown for kitty kibbles. I filled up his bowl and snuggled into bed, looking forward to eight hours of uninterrupted slumber. But then, at 5:30am, there he was - pawing at the duvet cover, pouncing my feet, and pulling my hair, affectionately.

All this time I had the cat pegged all wrong. It's not food he's so desperate for in the morning, it's LOVE. Awww. Owww.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Vicarious Tourism: Freetown

For my first vacation since arriving in Guinea a friend and I went down to Freetown for the weekend, about a 6-hour drive from Conakry. Before we left I emailed the econ officer at Embassy Freetown, a buddy from my A-100 class, to let him know we were coming; he said he'd be pleased to see me but was a little incredulous that anyone would go to Sierra Leone on vacation. Well, believe it, because not only did I go, I had a wonderful time.

The highlights of the trip were a tour of the Tacugama chimpanzee sanctuary, where I took the fabulous photo at left, a day at River No. 2 beach, and a glorious evening stuffing my face at the only sushi restaurant between Dakar and Monrovia. I have never been so excited about rice and fish and seaweed.

The beach was the best part though, no question. Guinea has plenty of coastline but it's pretty much all rocks and mangrove swamps. Freetown has some very pretty beaches, though the ones in town were occupied by an endless string of energetic soccer games, so not best suited for lounging. River No. 2 is about an hour down the peninsula and zoned for tourism, with chairs and umbrellas for rent and waiters to bring you frosty beverages and outstanding grilled lobsters. The sand was white and warm but not hot; the water was a lovely clear green and cool but not cold. And best of all it was luxuriously uncrowded, even on a Sunday.

Sierra Leone has clearly come a long way since the end of the civil war, no doubt helped significantly by the rivers of aid money that continue to pour in. The road from the Guinea border to Freetown is a West African engineering marvel, which is to say that it's a wide, smooth, paved, marked road you can actually travel on at something approaching highway speeds. This contrasts markedly with the road on the Guinea side, which appears to be a rambling country lane punctuated with potholes. Freetown itself is much cleaner than Conakry and has what feels like a real downtown with colonial buildings that seem to have been maintained rather than allowed to molder and collapse into decay, though the streets are much too narrow to accommodate modern traffic. In the suburbs planned housing developments are going up - beach condos and gated communities. There's no way that's going to happen in Conakry anytime soon.

And best of all, the progress seems likely to continue. Right now Freetown is at best an "off the beaten path" tourist destination, but that will probably change, and soon. Once a few newer, fancier hotels are built (which has already started) and the road down to the tourist beaches is widened and paved (which has already made great progress) there's no reason Freetown couldn't be the next Banjul, with a resort area outside town hosting hordes of holidaymakers from Europe. They'll have to do something about the airport, which is inconveniently situated across a large bay from the main town, but that obstacle can certainly be overcome. Go now, beat the rush.