Thursday, October 29, 2009

Facebook: My worst fear

Here it is: my biggest fear about social network sites has been realized. The horror.

This little "she has no friends" announcement is showing up on the right hand column of my Facebook account, complete with the "friendless" woman's photograph and the snarky suggestion that I hook her lame ass up with peeps. It's the equivalent to running around the lockers in middle school whispering that she's a loser.

And it instills a creeping sense of panic. What if I show up like that, even though I have hundreds (you hear me? hundreds) of friends? Facebook is acting kind of mean.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My weekend (even though it's Wednesday)

Guess where the photo comes from? Thank you, Sean Brody.

Okay, I know it's not the weekend anymore, but I wanted to share how being back in Robertsport after our longest absence to date was. Plus, it was a really fun weekend.

Nate and I drove up on Saturday morning after a nice lie-in, since we decided there was no reason to kick ourselves out of bed really early only to feel tired for the rest of the day. We'd been to a friends' going-away barbeque at the PAE compound the night before, enjoying a South African brai of fillet, lamb and barracuda. The Thai owner of the Golden Beach Restaurant, which has overpriced and disappointing food, made wonderful golden shrimp and spring rolls, which meant I started to harass and plead with him later in the evening in an attempt to convince him to put Thai food on the menu.

A word about the PAE compound. PAE is short for Pacific Architects and Engineers, a division of Lockheed Martin that's training the Armed Forces of Liberia. Enough said. Their bar, which is open to the public, was a covered hut by the pool with an American and an MIA flag hanging behind in. They served beer, liquor and soda, but no juice or water. They also have a kick ass pool and a fleet of tough looking vehicles all backed into their parking spaces ready to go, but no trees.

Anyway, our drive to Robertsport was fun. We had a Response Corp volunteer (the post-conflict version of Peace Corps) staying with us for a few days, so we set up the campsite, which now has a bunch of new benches made by Alfred and Ben. Then we went surfing at Shipwrecks, where I caught nice little shoulder-high waves and managed to stay on them pretty much all the way to the rocks. It was a good session, followed by a paddle-out at Cotton Trees when the waves got very, very big. So big that I didn't want to go in, but I sure as hell was not going to paddle into one. It was even an effort to make it in at Inner Cotton Trees in one piece.

Two cool things happened with Robertsport Community Works projects: 1) We made local surfers Alfred Lomax and Benjamin McCrumuda the Campsite Manager and Groundskeeper of Robertsport Community Campsite, respectively -- a hiring which I'll blog more about later this week -- and 2) the Women's Sewing Cooperative resolved its management schism by officially splitting into two five-women teams, one led by Tina and another by Bendu, with a third team coming shortly as we continue to scale up.

Mostly, I just felt welcome. We've only been in Liberia for a little while, but I guess the community had gotten used to us. Five minutes after our car pulled up and parked under the cotton tree, Tina ran up to give me a big hug and took me over to Nana's, where I was summarily scolded and greeted with exaggerated displays of happiness. For example Augustine, whose invitation to buy him prayer beads and a Muslim hat for Ramadan I had to deny, insisted on kissing my hand, which Tina then rubbed off. It was awesome to be back.

She's up, charging Cottons!

After a great weekend in Robertsport, surfing waves I'd been dreaming of over a 10-day stretch in Monrovia, I thought I'd post the photos our friend and photographer Sean Brody took of me surfing my biggest wave (so far) at Cottons. Here, you see my fearless and quickening pop-up.
Next, I stand up and turn, angling myself towards the face of a wave I consider rather large and steep. I'd call this maybe head-high -- one of my biggest yet! I remember being very pleased with myself for making the drop and thinking, hm, I'm going quite fast!
Then, I really start to get into things. I bend my knees a little, look at what the wave is doing and try to figure things out. Important things, like where should I try to be, how do I pick up speed, am I going to hit that rock, no I am not going to hit the rock, what about the next rock, this is so fun, how do I get off this thing without injuring myself, I feel so cool right now, et cetera.

I keep going a little further, not quite working my way up to the top and back again with little turns yet, but obviously thrilled just to be there.
Here, you can see me do a tiny little claim. Ha! So fun.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Unexpected hazard: African mold

When we first moved here and lived 20 meters from the ocean, you may recall we had a problem with mold. We were assured by our future roommates that living in a third floor apartment with air-conditioning in Mamba Point would eliminate the alarming incidence of mold spores on our clothes, books, bags, wallets and sheets. Only I don't really like air-conditioning, so living in downtown Monrovia has meant only a slightly lower growth rate of alien spores.

A few weeks ago, my roommate entered our common room wondering if she needed to throw away a favorite necklace because...you guessed it: it was growing mold. I assured her she could just wash it off, until she pointed out that it would just grow mold again. I myself have been regularly rinsing a local necklace I particularly like. When I opened up my jewelry Zip-lock (better for hiding then a conspicuous box), even my silver had a patina of light green.

When I packed for our extended stay in Robertsport a few weeks ago, my Guatemalan travel bag had colorful embroidery on one side -- and mold on the other. When I picked it up to examine in more closely, small mushroom clouds of mold puffs into the air and settles in an invisible film on my skin. I try not to panic.

Instead, I google "hazards mold." It was a little scary. Of course, you could google "hazards popcorn" and I'm sure you'd find something, but here's where we stand. The EPA site tells me, "The way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture." Did you know that I live in the second-rainiest capital city in the world? I am screwed.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Monrovia's restaurants

As one of my friends pointed out the other day, I don't like to complain -- until I do. Here you are: the restaurants in Monrovia are repetitive, overpriced and disappointing.

They don't take advantage of diverse fruit, vegetables and seafood around -- rows of sweet pineapple, piles of different mangoes, huge papayas, different types of cucumbers, sweet and savory bananas, water-filled heirloom and round Roma tomatoes, litchis that Liberians call "monkey balls," white cabbage, carrots, onions, garlic, ginger, huge pumpkins and squash, colorful spreads of hot red peppers, and even -- occasionally -- guavas. Instead, they serve the same things, mainly Lebanese appetizers, sometime canned, rather smallish and spare salads, and overcooked meat, sometimes in an oily stew.

The two exceptions are the Great Wall Chinese restaurant and Tajj, the Indian restaurant -- both within a few blocks of each other in Sinkor, one of the areas outside downtown Monrovia. Tajj is a wonderful mix of North and South Indian food, with giant $6 masala dosas and idlis on the weekend, a marvelous coconut milk shrimp masala. The restaurant is outside, surrounded by high whitewashed walls and covered by a thatch roof. There's a giant screen for projecting football matches up front, and I imagine they could do a great movie night. That Tajj is right next to one of the country's two Totals, the only trustworthy gas stations in town, makes a good excuse for a visit.

This whole post has perhaps been an excuse to talk about the Great Wall: indubitably the best Chinese food I've ever had -- and I lived in Chinatown in Manhattan for four years. There are homemade pork dumplings, kung pao chicken with tons of Sichuan peppercorns, and an assortment of strange vegetable salads served lukewarm that I am consistently impressed by.

The Great Wall restaurant is across the street from the Great Wall Hotel -- one of the taller buildings in Monrovia that isn't bombed out from the war. There's a bar, largely stocked with Chinese spirits I look forward to trying, and six tables -- some with the set-up for a hot pot -- with two private rooms in the back. The waiters and waitresses all wear red tailored high-neck Mao tops and I've heard it becomes quite a party on some weekends, with some singing together past the point of drunkenness until they are carried to their cars (and, hopefully, drivers) outside. It's an awesome little place to hang out and explore -- and I'm headed there tonight.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Courage at Shipwrecks

Photo, as usual, courtesy of Sean Brody.

I'm not sure what happened to this wave -- whether I wiped out or made it. But look! It's a decent shoulder to maybe head-high wave, steep enough of the face of it. I am proud.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sometimes, the project manages you

It's worth noting that after a two-week extended stay in Robertsport, during which the Women's Sewing Cooperative met regularly under the giant cotton tree and checked in with me almost daily, showing me their progress, assuring me that they were measuring the straps and sides appropriately, and just saying hello, I haven't had a meeting with them in about two weeks. That means for Coop members used to making $20 a week sewing bags (beautiful ones, which you can buy here), there has been a sudden but temporary lull in their new income.

Before the Women's Sewing Cooperative gave them scissors, sewing needles, and new skills, most of them were what the World Bank calls "underemployed," meaning they might earn small sums for trading or selling fish, but that their income potential was being underutilized -- in simple English, they could be earning more. It's not as if African women are actually underemployed -- sourcing and preparing food, organizing water supplies and child care, cleaning, washing and all the other constant tasks of managing a family can hardly be called "underemployment." It's just that they weren't seeing any cash or formal compensation for their labors. Until now.

Putting the Women's Sewing Cooperative on a fortnight of temporary hold wasn't my intention when Nate and I took our Monrovia stay-cation, but it is benefiting Coop management. Before our break, we had one leader on suspension for accusatory outbursts and unnecessary drama during meetings. The younger members complained that the older women were hoarding fabric and not giving them the supplies to make more than a small number of bags per week. Meetings were filled with interruptions and although we'd agree on one thing, once the women were left on their own, they often decided not to follow instructions and sewed renegade, misshapen bags. Project management demanded patience.

Yesterday, my phone rang with an unknown number. Nate answered, spoke to a man for a moment and passed the phone to me. It was Bendu, our project leader, telling me she missed me and wondering if we're coming up to Robertsport this weekend. We are. I spoke to her for a moment, chatted about work and things, and then she passed the phone to Miriama, another Coop member, who said that she missed me and demanded my return to Robertsport this weekend. Then Miriama passed the phone to Matilda, who also missed me and was looking forward out our Saturday meeting. Then Jebbeh, then Botoe, and then the rest of them, only by then everyone was giggling at their repetitions and I was too, laughing at the idea of a bunch of Coop women organized and clustered around a pay phone kiosk, greeting me one by one and telling me to get back to them so they could keep making money. It was wonderful. I can't wait for Saturday.

Something I've been thinking about: three of the Coop women were training with me in the kitchen at Nana's a few weeks back. Although it's none of my business, I asked, and they weren't getting paid any extra for being there all day. Towards the end of our 10 days of cooking lessons, Botoe pointed out that the three of them wouldn't have any bags for me that week -- they'd been working all day in the kitchen. I realized what a sacrifice it had been for them -- well, sacrifice or strategic investment in the future, which is often the same thing -- to be there, learning from me and consciously taking a cut in their income to do so. I'm impressed with them. And I like it when they call.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Monrovia stay-cation

For the last two weekends, Nate and I have been on stay-cation. The first weekend, we stayed at a friend's house out of town. We came with groceries, including ingredients for chicken basil fettuccine, a garlic roasted leg of lamb, pineapple, grapefruits, and a case of South African cider the supermarkets have started to import. We watched back-to-back new US releases on ripped DVDs. We read books. We wrote. We took naps. We went to the beach and played around shore-blown waves. We even stayed an extra night and helped my friend cook Canadian Thanksgiving, and although it was more like Whatever-We-Have-in-the-Fridge-and-Freezer, it worked out alright.

Last weekend, we found ourselves still in need of a break from our usually routine of weekly consulting and weekend community work. We tried. We planned to wake up, pack the car...we'd even shopped for camping meals. But it didn't happen. We've been doing this every weekend for five months -- except the weekend we both had malaria -- so fair enough.

So, last Saturday, on the second round of our Monrovia stay-cation, we spent a sunny, dry-season day drinking white wine with fresh grapefruit in it on the balcony, swinging our hammocks with our feet on the railing. It was marvelous. I made spinach and two-cheese quiche, which paired nicely with the pineapple upside-down cake I'd baked the day before. Maybe we would leave for Robertsport on Sunday?

Nope.

On Sunday, we took our surfboards and made for Kendeja, the new five-star hotel on the other side of town that boasts a "brunch" which is, in fact, a lunch buffet. We discovered this when we arrived at 10:00 AM only to be informed by the staff that "brunch" started at 12:00, but we could order (and pay) for breakfast if we wanted. More confusing was that "brunch" in fact had nothing breakfasty about it, and was instead a bland lineup of nearly-boiled meats and overcooked vegetables.

Not to be daunted, we went for a dry-season surf at the Kendeja beach break with almost no wind and head-high sets coming in pretty regularly. I got caught in a set during my first paddle out and turned around to bodyboard back in, marveling at how point breaks have spoiled my commitment to making it outside. Then Nate rode an amazingly long right and came in to paddle out with me. That helped -- I made it, dodged the big waves and got my courage up to ride a little one in. I'm getting braver!

The rest of the day was spent on deck chairs under a large umbrella, jumping in the pool and people watching as the local Monrovia crowd came to see and be seen. I have no idea how I got so sunburned on the front of my body. But it was fun.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Small wildlife

Here's a spider our friend Sean Brody took a photo of. It's the size of a fingernail but was building a massive web between two little trees.

On a similar but related note, Nate and I were looking at a similar spider -- it had stripes like a zebra instead of crazy horns -- on the fence at Nana's Lodge the other day, marveling at how cool and small it was. And then it ninja-jumped off the fence onto my shirt. My naturalist cool and safari girl calm instantly displaced, I started shaking off my shirt and shrieking. I don't think I've made noise about a spider in a long time...

Friday, October 16, 2009

"Flapping around on the street"

The first draft of a letter I needed in support of a project grant, the highlight of which is, "We will find a date to meet with you and discuss about the spot for the buildings." (Wait. What buildings?)

The second draft, the obvious highlight of which is, "Your project have brought change to our community and have help our young ladies to earn their own finance instead of flapping around on the street."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A tour of the Roberstport hospital

Last week, Ansu -- a security guard at Nana's Lodge next door -- stepped on a massive nail covered in rust while brushing the area around the road. Incidentally, the request to brush was issued directly by the President herself when she visited last weekend, as apparently the encroaching bush was a bit unsightly. This, of course, has nothing to do with why Ansu stepped on the nail.

A resident missionary nurse, acting nanny for the On Surfari peeps' small children, immediately prescribed a tetanus shot and asked if I'd like to accompany her on a short visit to tour St. Timothy's, the hospital up the hill. She and her husband, over a period of years, have filled and shipped a container of medical supplies to distribute to at-need locations around Liberia -- quite a feat, when you think about it -- and she was interested in seeing if St. Timothy's qualified as being in-need.

When we arrived at the hospital on the hill, up an appalling dirt road that made me grateful I wasn't in an ambulance, we were greeted by the hospital administrators and shown around.

Now, it goes without saying that the St. Timothy's Hospital in Robertsport is not a place I ever, under even the best of circumstances, want to visit as a patient. But there was little crowding, clean conditions, clearly posted information and -- although it was a Sunday -- medical staff were visibly in attendance. Things could have been much, much worse.

What struck me most about the visit was the maternity ward. As I've mentioned elsewhere, Liberia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. If you're a Liberian woman, getting pregnant is one of the most dangerous things you can do. At St. Timothy's, when the missionary nurse asked what the OB/GYN needed, she immediately starting listing things like bedding -- simple sheets and blankets -- and delivery kits, as the hospital only has one. "When it gets busy here," she said shaking her head, "we only have one to sterilize and share between four or five women."

I'll go back and visit the hospital when I have some time on my hands and talk more to the OB/GYN about what we can do to improve their capacity. In the meantime, if anyone wants to send donations for me to buy things here, let me know. I'll do it and post back here on its impact.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A thousand words

Photo courtesy of Sean Brody.

Less than six months after the move from NYC to Monrovia/Robertsport, Liberia, here we are. Fit, tanned, happy, riddled with chronic GI infections (see? it's not all glamorous!) and constantly debating whether or not we should take cipro. I digress.

The community are a constant presence at the campsite where we stay for half the week, coming to sit on our 'African bench,' as it is proudly called. Why buy plastic chairs when Ben can make a bench that seats five out of local wood and rattan? They also take over the hammocks we recently put up, and we laugh together when the recycled fishing nets we use to tie the hammocks to the almond trees splits and breaks, leaving the hammock occupant looking surprised, with one half of their body angled towards the ground.

By the way, this is the best surfing bikini I've ever owned and is made by a small Australian company called Hive Swimwear. They deserve a shout-out -- I've never had an issue with them coming off in the water, no matter how spectacular the wipe-out.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A not-so-private practice

As the photo below shows, I have taken to practicing on the beach. Mostly, this happens in Robertsport before a surf session, once Nate and the other boys are already in the water. I find myself some shade underneath an almond tree and cycle through variations of sun salutations, starting with low lunges, working up to crescent moons with twists, and then transitioning to Surya Namaskar Bs -- the warrior series.

By this point, even if I remain technically alone, I have usually generated at-a-distance attention. "You do training!" one of the security guards at the lodge next door to the campsite tells me. I nod and smile. "Yoga!" yells Peter or Alfred as they run past me back into the water after beaching themselves with a long wave. Sometimes, they'll do a warrior pose or two with me. Those are everyone's favorites.

When I teach my Sunday class to the Robertsport kids -- a class always followed with shared biscuits or now, thanks to the generosity of a resident American, Blow Pops -- this is the part everyone sparks with recognition at. Warrior One: arms up, hips forward, front knee bent, we hold a cutlass over our heads and cut grass. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh. Warrior Two: arms out, hips to the side, keep your front knee bent, now take an arrow from the case on your back, load your bow, aim at the sky and shoot towards a cloud. Load, aim, poing. And so on. Warrior Three: hoover your arms, balance on your front foot, don't fall, fly through the sky. I've cued this to make us airplanes before, but I haven't seen any fly overhead and I'm not sure they really know what they are. Way better to pretend it's us who are flying.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Saturday, October 10, 2009

My First Wave at Cotton Trees, or Outrunning the Barrel

Photos courtesy of Sean Brody.

Finally, I paddled out and caught a wave at Cotton Trees -- the most well-known break in Robertsport and a place that, when it's really working and you ride just right, you can catch 300-meter lefts. I'd sat outside on the break for a week-long stretch two Septembers ago, before we moved here, but the shoreline of jagged rocks and the steepness of the wave's face -- it regularly barrels -- had always kept me from paddling in before.

But, having mastered my fear of rocks by surfing for months at Shipwrecks and feeling pretty competent on a borrowed (but hopefully soon to be mine) little 6'0 double-bump, I went out. It helped having friend and surf photographer Sean Brody in the water to cheer me on. It also helped that I'd borrowed a move from local surfer Benjamin McCroumuda -- a bodyboarded slide down the face for a delayed pop-up when things seem a bit intimidating. As you can see below, it worked -- and I outrun a nice little barrel that eventually clips me in the head.

Here's the wave in all its glory. As you can see above, I'm pretty pleased with myself on the paddle back out.

The Cotton Tree

Photos courtesy of Sean Brody.

This is the cotton tree that towers over the Robertsport Community Campsite, a piece of land that Robertsport Community Works is invested in conserving through the creation of a conservation easement. Conservation easements are legal agreements that restrict the usage of property. Ours would ensure that no permanent structures are built on the land, that no trees of a certain age be cut down, that indigenous species be encouraged and that the community of Robertsport retain access and usage rights. We're working on the details, so stayed tuned.

Back to the tree. When I first saw a photo of this cotton tree -- the tree that the American Colonization Society tied its ship to when it landed in Liberia in the late 19th century, the supposed spot where Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of Liberia for whom Robertsport was named, stepped off -- something clicked in my decision-making process about moving to Liberia. My worries about living in a post-conflict country were replaced by this magnetism: I needed to hang out next to that tree. That I've heard a few other people speak about it in the same way makes me feel less illogical.
This massive cotton tree is estimated to be over 500 years old. It would have to be, in order for it to be big enough for the first Americo-Liberians to anchor their ship off of it. Trees like this often end up as raw materials for fishing boats. At Robertsport Community Works, we're starting to make a series of Cotton Tree t-shirts -- each batch the outline of a different ancient cotton tree -- to promote awareness and work towards their conservation. Email me if you want one or check out The African T-Shirt Company in a week or two for details.

Monday, October 5, 2009

I lied.

When I said I wasn't sure I wanted to live in Robertsport, I lied. It's perfect here. I wake up at dawn, eat cornflakes and drink sweet milky tea, do a little yoga to wake my body up and surf for a few hours in the morning. Around noon, I come back to the lodge, supervise lunch and about an hour later, come up to the tent to start working.

I'm gradually assuming communications and project plans that relate to Code LLC, Nate's consulting company, so I work for a few hours online, writing documents, tracking emails and also keeping on top of projects and progress with Robertsport Community Works -- which is now being features on Fuel TV and National Geographic.

Before sunset, I go back down to the kitchen, get Tina and her crew chopping, prepping and mixing, and organize dinner being set out. When it starts to get dark and they kick the generator on, we dance hesitantly to West African music -- we're just getting to know each other.

In the evening, Nate and I eat outside and share a beer, walking up the hill to our platform tent and closing the canvas against the stars. Of course I want to live here.