Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Things I've Liked on the Internet Lately

Not gullible enough to buy the Brooklyn Bridge? How about the Eiffel Tower? You wouldn't be the first. (Or the second.)
Nobel-winning economist on horse meat and dwarf-tossing - and they call it the dismal science.
Bored heiress + dollhouses = CSI
For the lawyers and/or Harry Potter fans out there, The Magic of the Law
Two nifty ways to make new technology the natural way - bacterial power cables and spider-silk computer chips
Pictures of kittens improve your concentration. Seriously.
Bored? Try an online jigsaw puzzle. (Sure, it misses some of the key joys of the real thing - like not finding a place for a piece because you've been holding it upside-down the whole time; mashing the little nubbin because you're so convinced that THIS piece MUST fit HERE no matter what the laws of physics and geometry have to say about it; and everyone's favorite, the missing piece - but it's still pretty good.)

Paris vs. New York

Paris vs New York from TonyMiotto on Vimeo.

Friday, October 26, 2012


While enjoying my evening meal (creamy polenta with spicy Italian sausage, onion, and green peppers) it occurred to me that I have never shared with the internet one of my greatest triumphs, the one single action that has done more than anything else to make Conakry a more pleasant place for me to live: last Christmas I brought more than 40 pounds of meat home with me in my suitcase on the way back from my R&R.

After six months of struggling with stringy beef and gristle-filled sausage obtained on the local market, trying desperately to turn it into something remotely palatable, I was running out of hope. I was on the verge of becoming a geographical vegetarian, but this single shipment - carefully, reverently rationed - has kept me in quality meats for almost a year now. I brought a whole beef tenderloin, a whole sirloin, five pounds of Italian sausages, six pounds of breakfast sausage, and assorted smaller amounts of boudin, chorizo, and pre-cooked chicken sausages. And it was good.

I am a simple creature with simple needs. I have come to the conclusion that I can put up with an awful lot as long as I'm well fed. In this regard, a freezer full of USDA-certified Choice steaks and Jimmy Dean maple breakfast sausage (the candy of meats) has done things for my long-term morale that nothing else ever could. There's still quite a lot left too, so I won't be repeating this feat on this year's R&R, though a small top-up on essentials might be in order.

If you too have an unmet need for higher-quality meats than are obtainable in your country of residence, here are some tips you might find helpful, the Four P's:
  1. Plan. See how your local customs officials are likely to feel about this little project. Think about what you want to buy and how much to bring back; remember that meat is heavy, so you're likely to rub up against weight limits long before your suitcase is actually full.
  2. Purchase. Buy the biggest cuts you can - minimizing surface area keeps things frozen longer, and you can cut them down into more manageable pieces once you get home. Accept that your airline might lose your bag for a week, turning this investment into money down the drain. Be sure you are okay with this risk before handing over your credit card.
  3. Prepare. Freeze everything solid - for larger cuts this might take a couple of days. Invest in some quality insulated tote bags and pack them as tightly as you can. Put the tote bags inside your suitcase(s) for additional sturdiness and to allow your clothes to do double duty as extra insulation.
  4. Pray. Ask whatever deity(ies) you see fit to protect your suitcase and its precious cargo from negligent baggage handlers, suitcase thieves, and overcautious and/or greedy customs officials. It might help, and certainly couldn't hurt. 
Good luck!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why I Love to Cook

My job involves a lot of paper pushing. My ultimate goal at work, the thing I strive for all day every day, is essentially an absence of work - a clean desk, an empty inbox, a to-do list with every item checked off. But I never do quite get there, and even if I did it would only be for a brief shining moment before the next avalanche of paper descended. It can feel a lot like the first thirty seconds of this Futurama clip (though I have to admit, stamping things never really gets old):

And then I go home and cook dinner. I take raw ingredients, useless in themselves, and make something out of them. When I'm done I have created a physical, tangible object that did not previously exist. Something I can point to and say, "look what I did!" And then I get to eat it. Not only did I make something, I made something useful, something with a purpose. Something that satisfies my stomach and tingles my taste buds, and lets me know that the last hour or so of chopping and grating and mixing and sauteing was not in vain. It's also something I can share, and when I do people tell me how awesome it is - and by extension, how awesome I am. I had some Peace Corps Volunteers over for dinner last week, and the praise and appreciation they lavished on a humble eggplant parmesan far exceeded anything ever inspired by, say, a correctly-processed passport application. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

After eating my cooking people not infrequently ask me why I don't open a restaurant or a bakery or a food truck or whatever. The answer is that I don't want to lose this. I want to cook what I want, when I want, for whom I want. I want cooking to be a choice, not an obligation. I don't want it to turn into just another item on the to-do list. I have enough of those already.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Vicarious Tourism: Les Cascades de la Soumba

One of the very few practical day trips from Conakry is to a waterfall near Dubreka, 1 1/2 to 2 hours' drive out of town, depending on traffic. This is pretty much exclusively a trip for the end of the rainy season (like now), as I learned to my peril when I took the family there when they visited in March. Can you spot the difference?

As tourist attractions go it's not much. There's a restaurant run by a Lebanese guy where you can get lunch and a beer, if you're patient. There are some nice ledges where you can sit behind the waterfall. You can swim and climb around - if you dare. This is Africa, so there are no rules but also no lifeguards. A little girl almost drowned while we were there, but fortunately a brawny Russian jumped in and rescued her.

We were willing to take our lives in our own hands, so we passed a couple of pleasant hours clambering around, using the current as a water slide, and graciously appearing in pictures with random Guineans who wanted a foté photo as a souvenir. We ended up with a couple of minor cuts and bruises and some great photos, so I'll call it a success.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


When we last saw the Kipe Compound chickens, they had just been abandoned by their father while in the throes of awkward adolescence. I am happy to report that, thanks to the united efforts of the whole compound, they both thrived and made it to adulthood. Male adulthood.

Zoom Zoom and his new owner
While the chicken-farming project was originally undertaken in the hopes of getting eggs, we now found ourselves with two completely unproductive roosters on our hands. And not only were they utterly useless as egg-layers, they were LOUD. They seemed to have a special fondness to park themselves outside my or Seamus's bedroom windows and trumpet the coming of the new day, often at four o'clock in the morning. Particularly on weekends and holidays. Once the crowing started it did not take us long to conclude that these chickens had to die. Soon.

We started looking at various methods of killing chickens - the throat slit, the head chop, the neck wring - and to make plans for how we should cook them after they shuffled off this mortal coil - breaded and fried, roasted with potatoes, or boiled in soup. There was only one problem: they're still pretty skinny. They look fabulous all puffed up walking around the compound, but it's all feathers. It seemed like a waste to kill them when they wouldn't make good eating, but with every early morning wake-up call it became more and more clear that the chickens had to go.

Fortunately, our conundrum was solved by the timely intervention of some Future Farmers of America. Our Marine detachment commander's kids took a liking to our feathered friends and their indulgent parents graciously agreed to adopt them. This evening the newly rechristened Zoom Zoom and Zoltar left their childhood home to join the Marines. Those they left behind may shed a tear or two, but it's for the best. And we'll certainly sleep better knowing they're happy in their new home, safely out of earshot on Saturday mornings.

Friday, October 12, 2012

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Sometimes I wonder if consular work is making me a worse human being.

I refused a lot of visas this week, as I do every week. I denied people opportunities to go to school, to go on vacation, to visit their families, to get medical treatment. Some I refused dispassionately. Some I refused happily. Some I refused regretfully, then mentally seized and rooted out that regret as soon as I noticed its clinging tendrils creeping up around the edges of my consciousness. I am getting better at this.

It's a defense mechanism - consular work is about implementing U.S. law, not about doing nice things for my fellow man. Sometimes the two are the same thing, but not that often around here. In the visa window you have to learn to take a step back, to not get personally involved, to not care, for your own protection. Empathy can be a liability in this job sometimes, but in normal life people who lack empathy are called psychopaths and generally considered menaces to society. That's not really the kind of person I want to be. On the other hand, feeling guilty when I know my decision was right only serves to make me miserable, and I have more than two years of visa processing still to go. That's time for a lot of misery, if I let it be that way.

Perhaps the optimal solution would be to turn my heart to ice every morning when I come to work and thaw it out again every evening when I leave. My office gets pretty chilly, I'll grant you, but probably not cold enough to pull that off. Until I can get my hands on a freeze ray I'll have to toughen up as best I can, and suffer through the occasional pang of regret in the knowledge that I haven't gone fully over to the Dark Side yet.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Vicarious Tourism: Bel Air

A pleasant change of scenery
Now this is the story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down...

Okay, no, it's not. It's a story about how I had a nice long weekend at a beach resort about 4 hours' drive from Conakry. The Hotel Bel Air was built under the Lansana Conte regime on what must be the only stretch of Guinea's coastline that has actual sand instead of rocks and mangrove swamps. You should take the use of the word "resort" with a grain of salt - this is still Guinea after all. Power and water availability were erratic and there may or may not have been rats living in the attic of the villa we stayed in, but it was clean and relatively comfortable. They even provided towels and toilet paper! The food is fine, though somewhat lacking in variety; bringing your own supplies in a cooler is a good idea. The swimming pool resembled an experimental aquaculture tank, but the beach and the ocean were clean enough, much better than anything in Conakry besides the islands. There's no internet and minimal phone coverage, but that's more of a feature than a bug.

I went up with some friends from the embassy and spent a couple of lazy days lying on the beach, picnicking, floating in the ocean, playing with rocks and sand, taking languorous walks, and toasting marshmallows over a blazing beach bonfire beneath a sky full of stars. Delightful. I hadn't left Conakry since July's trip to Dakar and was starting to get stir-crazy, but I now feel considerably more refreshed, albeit a little more sunburned and mosquito-bitten. Worth it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

On the Road

Having finished the second season of Game of Thrones, my current TV show of choice is An Idiot Abroad, a travel show hosted by Karl Pilkington, an insular Englishman who had never been anywhere but Wales and was perfectly content with that until his "friends" and producers of The Office enlist him to visit the Seven Wonders of the World. It's amazing.

There are no pressed linen suits and Panama hats. No luxury accommodations, no "hidden gem" restaurants. No inside tips on the hottest clubs or chic boutiques. There are lots of squatty potties, fleabag hotels, and cramped overnight buses. Karl eats lots of weird stuff, but not out of an extreme sense of adventure à la Andrew Zimmern - he does his earnest best to choke down toad and lamb's eyes because that's all there is and he wants to be polite, while hating it the whole time. His so-called friends engineer all kinds of uncomfortable surprises for him - making him spend all day on a camel in Jordan, take wrestling lessons in Mexico, and get waxed in Brazil - and while he does a fair bit of complaining he mostly goes along with it. Here's a sample:

I love this show for its total honesty. Travel can absolutely be rough, especially outside of Europe. The facilities and infrastructure can leave much to be desired. And travel is disorienting. The rest of the world is so different, in ways you don't expect because it's never occurred to you that there is any other way to do X than the way you do it at home. It's not that Karl is never touched or fascinated by his new experiences, but he feels like a fish out of water the majority of the time and he's completely upfront about it. I do believe that travel is enriching - I wouldn't be in this job if I didn't - but no one said it was always easy. No matter how open you are to new cultures and new experiences, sometimes you just want to go home where things are comfortable and make sense.