Thursday, March 29, 2012

Things I've Liked on the Internet as of Late

Mad Men: The Game
Did Hitler have a secret fortress in Antarctica? No. A ranch in the Hollywood Hills? Yes!
I'm all for adventurous eating, but glow-in-the-dark sushi may be a bit much even for me.
The guy who invented brunch. Toast him with your mimosas this weekend.
An ISP with a sense of humor. (Spoiler: not Comcast.)
Need to open a bottle of wine? Here's a giant steampunk corkscrew.
Dinosaur Comics knows me so well.
One guy shuffling around in snowshoes all day = incredible snow art
Mars Needs Chefs
Everything you ever wanted to know about the original $1 bill
Ninja cats!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Vicarious Tourism: Conakry

I've lived in Conakry for a good nine months now, but on Wednesday I got to experience it as a tourist, tagging along with my family on a guided tour of the city. Thanks to my connections at the Ministry of Tourism I found an English-speaking guide to show us the sights and provide some useful and interesting background information. We saw the bollard where the Portuguese slaving ships pulled in, the ruins of an old penitentiary, the island that inspired Treasure Island, Guinea's first bauxite mine, the national museum, and the mausoleum of Sekou Toure, Guinea's first president. I learned some botany too, and can now identify tamarind and breadfruit trees and a kelp-like bush whose name I don't know that Guineans use as toothbrushes.

However, the highlight of the tour was without doubt a private performance by Le Phare de Tamara, a group of twenty or so singers, drummers, and dancers, who entertained us for a good half hour with music, traditional dances, astounding acrobatics, and fire-eating. I was actually kind of embarrassed to have caused that many people to expend that much energy under the blazing tropical sun for my personal benefit, but it was an amazing show.

The rest of the family's stay went well too - visits to waterfalls, shopping in a local market, family Rock Band, drinks and hors d'oeuvres at the Charge's house, commissioning dresses from a tailor who makes house calls - but I really enjoyed the opportunity to see Conakry as a visitor and to see it with people who were here solely as tourists. Those are very few and far between.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Name That Fruit

"Name That Fruit" is the title of a TV game show mentioned in passing in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels, which I highly recommend for everyone of quirky disposition and literary bent. When I first started reading the books, being a foodie in a big city where dragonfruit and passionfruit and other specimens of their exotic ilk were readily available, I was pretty confident I would be a very competitive contestant. Now I am not so sure. Why?
Ladies and gentlemen, name that fruit!
Give up? That's a soursop, also known as guanĂ¡bana, graviola, or ten to fifteen other names depending on what country you're in at the time. It's closely related to the cherimoya, which you may have seen at some better-stocked latin groceries. Apparently they can get really huge in southeast Asia, but around here they're about the same size as a mango.  Soursop is popular as a juice, but you can also wait until it's really ripe (soft and very heavy for its size) chill it, and eat it like ice cream, watching out for the fibrous core and poisonous seeds. As the name implies it's a little sour, but in a tangy refreshing way, with a nice sweetness too and a kind of creamy coconut/banana note on the bottom.

Since moving to Conakry I have also sampled pain de singe or monkey bread, the fruit of the baobab tree, but only as a drink made from the dried powdered flesh of the fruit. But anyway, I clearly have some more studying to do before I'm ready to go on the show. I expect it to be a delicious education.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


One of the fruits of our end-of-year spending: new patio furniture, color-coordinated to match the cat.

His Highness approves.

Friday, March 2, 2012


I have posted before about the effort that goes into hosting a VIP visit at post. Well, now I'm gearing up to be control officer for some P's who are even more VI than an Assistant Secretary: my family.

I feel really lucky that my family is coming. Guinea is not exactly a hot tourist destination: it takes a long time to get here, the tickets cost an absurd amount of money, and there's not a lot of obvious touristy stuff to do once you arrive. Seeing Conakry is not on anyone's bucket list. For all of these reasons most of my embassy colleagues' friends and families have said they'd love to visit them - at their next post. But I am fortunate enough to have parents with the time, money, and adventurous spirit to come out and give Guinea a try.

However, the fact that there aren't many obvious touristy things makes the visit really hard to plan. There are some historical sites in town, but there are no curated exhibits and audio-guided walking tours, often not even a commemorative plaque. Some of them aren't open to the public. There's a lot of natural beauty but it's not very accessible either. There's a notable shortage of the sort of wilderness space you get in the U.S. - reserved national parks with lodges and campsites and restaurants and gift shops and marked trails and maps and park rangers.

While I was lamenting the lack of obvious tourist activities several people said something along the lines of, "isn't it better that way, so they can get a more authentic experience?" The answer to that question is definitely no. The "authentic experience" of any place consists primarily of exactly the kinds of things you go on vacation to get away from: working, going to school, commuting, making dinner, doing chores. You aren't doing any of those things when you're visiting, and the people who live here are too busy having their own authentic Conakry experiences to educate and entertain gawking outsiders all day. Also, there's a fine line between experiencing the glory of nature in its untouched splendor and being lost in the woods with snakes.

I'm having to get a little creative, but with a lot of help from my friends I think I'll have enough activities to keep my folks occupied while they're here. And if not we can all float around in the pool or watch TV together, because those are key parts of my authentic Conakry experience.