Sunday, January 31, 2010

Where I am today.

Sometimes, it's important to settle for a minute and take a look at where I am and what I've done. It's nice.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Coming soon: Eco-walks through the rainforest

Photos courtesy of Tamar Losleben.

We're looking for an ecology and community tourism intern to help Robertsport Community Works set up eco-walks in the coastal rainforest. The job posting on Idealist is here, if you're interested...

Here are some photos of the 'bush walk' we took with Ben and company when our sisters were visiting. It's worth noting that Nate and I have been planning to do this walk for months. It took the insistent presence of both of our sisters to get us out of the water and into the forest--even though the forest is, obviously, pretty awesome. Hence, the need for an intern to help us set up the project. We're realistic in what we expect of ourselves.
You can see, in this clearing, how tall the forest canopy is. Although it was the middle of the day in dry season, characteristically one of the hotter times of the year, we stayed nice and cool in the shade.

Ben is a natural in the forest, just like he is in the water. Here, he and Samuel are collecting kola nuts that fell from the tree. Kola nuts are a natural stimulant and appetite suppressant. You crack them open, take a little bite and chew it while it permeates a bitter dryness throughout your mouth that makes me wince. After, though, a sip of water tastes like sugar dew, so it's kind of worth it.
Here, Sameul--Alfred's little brother--holds kola nuts they way they fall from the tree. Samuel and Emmanuel brought along socks to stuff with kola. I think they planned to sell what they didn't eat to the grownups back in the village.
There were some pretty cool looking trees in the rainforest. this once looked painful. Ben explained that you can chop off the pyramid spikes with a cutlass, remove the thorn and bore a hole in them to make jewelry. Below, a close-up.
Gnarly, right?
Here's Emmanuel, who you may have seem in other campsite pictures because when he's not in school, he brings us fresh coconuts to drink in exchange for notebooks, pens and now a set of watercolors he requested after seeing my sister paint. Emmanuel was a perfect forest guide, stopping to let us catch up with the others, pointing out flowers, mushrooms, trees and all kinds of useful things to know--and eat. Actually, Emmanuel's knowledge of the forest is so thorough that the walk became more of a culinary tour than a nature walk, complete with tastings of 'dog' something-or-other, 'bush ground-pea', just-picked kola, and water that you could drink from the bottom of a freshly-chopped vine. We might not be able, because of sustainability issues, to include all the snacks on the locally-guided walks. When Emmanuel, who just turned 13, gets a little older, he'll be a great guide.

Here are some more shots. I look forward to welcoming our future intern and to announcing the commencement of the walks over the summer. We hope that starting community eco-tourism will increase visitors' appreciation of the rainforest and aid in larger conservation efforts.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Monrovian Victoria's Secret

About three months ago, a man carrying a large black garbage bag hesitantly approached the veranda of my apartment. We lived underneath the Open Society Institute in West Africa and are constantly mistaken for an office--to the point where suited men and high-heeled women have walked into our living room while we, in pajamas, are breakfast. So I shooed him away, thinking he was mistaken. "I sell underwear," he said softly as he turned and left.

It took me 30 seconds to realize the mistake I was making. I ran down the stairs. "Come back!" I called after him. "I changed my mind."

Since then, Stephen has been bringing me Chinese knock-offs of the latest lingerie fashions, all for $1. His underwear is colorful and creative and his bras fit wonderfully. Also, he is shy and discreet--qualities I value in a purveyor of intimate apparel. As a loyal Victoria's Secret shopper who is starting to enjoy buying local, it is wonderful to have a monthly bill of $9 instead of $90. (Not that, you know, it ever got to that.)

So, in the interest of my ladies in Monrovia, he can be summoned to your house by calling 06-20-52-20. But I get dibs. And sorry, no photos with this post. I'll save them for Elizabeth the Tailor.

Robertsport Community Works makes the New York Times!

Photos courtesy of Sean Brody and the New York Times.

Last Sunday, the Robertsport Community Campsite made the Travel Section of the New York Times. The article, written by 'The House of Sugar Beach' author and NYT correspondent Helene Cooper, focuses on the nascent tourism industry in Robertsport and the growth of local surfing by following the life of Benjamin McCrumuda, who has also recently been profiled in Surfers' Journal. Ben, who usually stands in Alfred's shadow, is going to be chuffed to get copies of these this weekend, that's for sure.
I'll let you check out the article, with a few caveats. The waves are not actually 20 feet, you can't surf from Shipwrecks to the campsite cotton tree, and Benjamin remains a fisherman and a surfer. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reaching Robertsport's girls

At the December meeting of the Women's Sewing Co-op, where we officially grew to 15 members from the 3 we started with in July, I was introduced to someone I thought looked a little young to be sewing bags for a co-op. "How old are you?" I asked, smiling innocently to disguise my concern. Bendu had already mentioned that Matilda's daughters have been enlisted to sewi her co-op bags, but I hadn't verified that this was true. "Thirteen," the girl responded quietly.

I waited a moment, smiled at everyone, and then noticed the women were looking at me expectantly. "I think," I said to Bendu, Tina and Matilda--who is now a team leader, "we need to be very careful about who is making the bags. We want to give women work, but we also want young women to stay in school and have time for play."

This is my UNICEF coming out--I'm second-generation, so it's especially easy to communicate key development messages with clarity. In this case, we can't have girls who should be in school making money sewing bags. That's child labor, not lifting a community out of poverty. It occurred to me that I should introduce the idea of child labor--and it's illegality--to the women.

"Also," I said, clearly my throat because now I was less sure of myself, "we sell these bags to America. People in America want to buy bags that are sewn by women and support them. They do not want young girls sewing these bags when they should be in school. If they knew that this was happening," and here I paused for dramatic effect, "they would not buy the bags." There was nodding, to show that I had been understood, and the 13 year old looked a bit sheepish.

Two issues.

First, if young women are sewing the bags for older Co-op members, not letting them into the Co-op isn't going to change that. However, stressing that each woman should be sewing her own bags--and that there are consequences for not doing so--could enforce a community norm (or encourage tattletales) to make sure that happens.

Interestingly, now that we have Co-op meetings and buy bags once a month, the women have said that they feel less pressure to produce such a high number of them. "That's funny," Nate responded after hearing how they would stress a bit, sewing late into the night and sacrificing quality in the process, "we keep worrying about not bringing you enough lapa to keep up with what you can sew." I think we've reached a more sustainable equilibrium now, and hopefully it will keep the work where we intend it--with the women co-op members.

Second, sending that girl away just means she can't participate in an income-generating project because we consider her (and legally she is) child labor. It doesn't mean she has anything she considers equally lucrative, fulfilling or valuable to fill her time with. I've been thinking about this one. Ideas and thoughts welcome.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Kids yoga supplies arrive in Liberia! Best ever!

Thanks to wonderful Shari at Karma Kids Yoga for sending me this awesome care package, full of yoga mats, pom poms, puppets, clown noses and everything else essential for teaching yoga to kids affected by conflict. As you can see, opening it was incredibly fun.

These props are in the secret goody bag (secret because you're not allowed to look inside it and you never know what the teacher will take out) of every good kids' yoga teacher. Is the class uppity and a bit highly strung? How about a game of Toe-Ga, where you pick up pom poms with your toes and put them in your own bucket? Are your kids not totally engaged with your jungle yoga adventure? How about lion, zebra and giraffe puppets to accompany the poses? Not to mention what happens when you do pranayama with pinwheels...Let's just say I've thought about bringing the same props to my adult classes. I'll let you know how that works out.
The best part? This February I start teaching yoga at Second Chance--my friend's holistic center for young men and women diagnosed with trauma. We'd been stressing about finding mats (enter providence, a la Karma Kids) and now I have the props to make sure yoga is not all serious and silent (including face paint, pipe cleaner flowers, maracas, the list goes on...). This is really, really good.

A big shout-out and thank-you to Karma Kids--if you live in New York and have--or can borrow--kids, you need to take them to their 14th Street studio for some serious yogalicious fun. Shari, Jess and Amanda--I miss you!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Larium no longer

It won't surprise anyone that I don't want to get malaria again. My previous brush with the parasite, during which I also had typhoid, left me weakened to the point of not wanting to surf, drink beer, or go outside. It was pretty startling. Usually, when I get sick, I loose weight--tick fever, malaria, food poisoning all brought me down a dress size. This time, my body felt so threatened that despite eating sparsely, I went into metabolic lockdown and clung to every spare calorie I could find. I didn't loose a pound. Co-infection is to blame for the seriousness of all of this, but I never want to get this sick again.

So it was that six weeks ago we found ourselves in Ghana, searching local pharmacies for a generic version of Larium. No one is paying $5 a day for us to take malarone--not that there are any studies about what happens to you when you take it longer than three months anyway. Doxycycline ($1 a week) gave us such bad sunburns when we tried it during the rainy season, we blistered and peeled and feared early skin cancer. So we were left with Larium--the $2 a week psychotropic drug that only the U.S. continues to prescribe to its government and military personnel, and which seemed like an okay option when we started taking it.

Two weeks and two dosages later, we were both having crazy dreams. Mine were mostly of the action-movie variety--car chases in which I drove with amazing skill and speed, jungles to run through, zip lines over cliffs and ocean I got to relay myself across. Except for having to lucid dream my way out of a few nightmares involving evil children, I thought the dreams were kind of fun.

The depression, not so much. I am not, to put it mildly, a depressed person. Friends regularly ask how I can be so bloody positive and--especially when hungover--so energetic. So when Larium took away all my serotonin and left me feeling like I had nothing to be excited about, ever, even though my little sister and Nate's little sister were visiting and I was surfing almost every day, I knew I needed to get off that stuff. I can actually feel the Larium lifting a little each day and my normal state of happy equilibrium seeping back.

Doxy may make us sunburned, but I've got Zinka and one hell of a base tan.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Poaching Mawuli

While on holiday, Nate and I rented a car and drove to Ada Foah near the Togolese border for a few days, camping on the beach, bodysurfing the shorebreak and enjoying the comparative emptiness of Ghana's eastern coast. The first night, driving around looking for a fun local spot, we landed at the Manet Paradise Beach Resort, a nice hotel with good gardens and an inviting pool, between the ocean and the estuary. On impulse, we ordered cocktails.

As we waited a little while for them to arrive, Nate decided that either they were being made by a master or the people in the back had no idea what we were doing. I was prepared for the later. I was wrong.

My margarita arrived in a proper glass rimmed with sea salt and impressive. Nate's sidecar--a 1930's drink I've only ever seen on the menu at Milk & Honey or Death & Co. in Manhattan--was even more so. Intrigued and quite beside ourselves with happiness, we sent our compliments to the bartender and I went inside to find the bartender and order another round, this time a pina colada and a between-the-sheets. No sign of the bartender, but both were marvelous. Before we had time to be too puzzled, an unassuming man in his mid-thirties came out and introduced himself as the talent behind these concoctions.

"We have to poach him for the bar," I fake-whispered to Nate as we introduced ourselves and learned more. Mawuli is from Togo. He taught himself to make cocktails by looking up recipes on the Internet, limiting himself to what the hotel wanted to stock in Ada (e.g., as Mawuli mourned, no grenadine).

The next day, we arrived at 10:00 am, camped out by the pool for the day, and continued our research. It went well, especially when we noticed that the surprise drink Mawuli had sent us the night before, after I'd requested a Manhattan but was refused because the hotel didn't have bourbon, was in fact made almost entirely out of Cointreau. As anyone who grew up in Cairo drinking 10 L.E. Cointreau shots at Atlantis knows, orange liqueur is disgusting. Who was this man who could do such magic?

That evening, sitting by the Volta estuary under the stars, we propositioned Mawuli with the idea of running the bar we're about to start in Mamba Point. His first question? "What kind of ingredients will I have?" My answer? "Anything you want." We're sealing the deal now, wiring him transport and document money and hope to have him here, creating his own drinks menu of original, fresh ingredients, in a few weeks time.

I can't wait. And, if you live in Monrovia, you can't either.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"The snakes here are not sassy."

Yesterday at the campsite, I was peering into the pit latrine, admiring how the four buckets of ash we'd just purchased from enterprising young people had done wonders for the smell and wondering whether or not the ash would kill the maggots (it hasn't).

Out of the corner of my eye, a long black tendril wound its way horizontally out of the palm tree above me and dropped two meters down to the next bunch of palm fronds and slowly disappeared. I checked it's color--black--and it's size--about the thickness of my forearms--and calmly strolled back to the campsite. Actually, I ran--of course I did.

Ten or fifteen minutes later, my sister came back from the latrine and said she'd seen it too, and that it had been peering down at her. She'd gotten a better look at it--black body, yellow head. Ben, who I consider knows about these things, took two friends and ran to the tree the snake was supposed to be up. We ran after them, at a respectable distance because as soon as we spotted it and id-ed it as a spitting cobra, the men starting throwing sticks and coconut husks at it to try to dislodge it from the tree. That's when I ran--just a few meters back--again.

The snake, quite predictably, didn't fall and instead disappeared into the bush, probably rather upset with us, but fair enough--snake should not be so curious. Ben says we should "brush" (or rather, slash) the whole area to make sure the cobra isn't hanging around, but as long as it doesn't spy on people in the latrine, it's fine with me. I asked Ben if we should be worried, and he told us, "Since I've been back in Robertsport, the snakes have not been sassy." I think we're probably okay.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

We're starting a bar.

After my September stint as kitchen witch at Nana's Lodge cooking for the Fuel TV show peeps from On Surfari, Nate and I were approached, cajoled, enticed and then convinced to help start a bar in Mamba Point. I mean, on Mamba Point--the wave that, when it's breaking, is the fattest, longest ride I've ever had, a wave so long it makes your legs hurt.

I'm thrilled about this project. Back when I lived in Zanzibar, I helped to start The Dhow Restaurant, a floating restaurant that was featured by The Times UK and French Vogue. I loved putting the place together, starting it up and running things--a different experience every night. Right now, bars in Monrovia are either cheap and local, or over-priced and not worth the effort. So far, Nate and I haven't found a chill, attractive, relaxing place with good, cheap drinks--or any place even close that we'd like to hang out in regularly. So, we're going to make one.

A work about the bar-restaurant--because it will, of course, have delicious, nourishing, fresh and affordable food. I've been testing a menu of small seasonal plates--mostly seafood and fresh vegetables--for the last few months. I've slowly created a tapas menu that brings out the best in Liberian produce--lots grilled seafood, roast vegetables and fresh salads. That, and luscious, amazing drinks. More about this in a future post...

We're working with a local businessman and his wife who've rented an entire building on the waterfront and are renovating it into a modern entertainment complex. She's got a beauty shop and spa on the 2nd floor beside ocean-facing apartments (we'll be moving into one), a clothing boutique the ground floor, and the bar will be on the rooftop. The space used to be the old Griot Cafe--now next to the building site for the new US Embassy. Here are some photos of the place before the current round of renovations.

Here's the view of Mamba Point from the deck, which is where we'll have yoga class surrounded by potted plants and bamboo shades. I cannot wait to start teaching yoga on this deck.
Here is the other half of the deck, from which you can see West Point, one of Monrovia's poorer fishing communities. We're working with their local football team to help keep the beach clean, and will be probably doing projects with them in the future--we'll see.

This is the bar. It's modeled on the Nana's bar in Robertsport and is huge. You can see me, very tiny, on the right hand side looking into my bag. Where you see boards, there are now mirrors that reflect the ocean.
Here's the view from behind the bar, looking into where the kitchen will be. There's lots of space for us to work behind here, which I like.
This is the covered, inside area of the rooftop. We'll be setting up wicker lounge chairs, low tables and plenty of bamboo screens and potted plants to give it a jungle retreat feeling. In the evenings, hanging hurricane lanterns everywhere will add a nice African touch.

We're calling the place Tides and it will open in early 2010. Stay tuned for updates (and email me if you know anyone awesome who needs a job)!

Monday, January 11, 2010


All this time we have been going about our business in Monrovia, efficiently multitasking between online consulting, running a community NGO and helping to start a waterfront bar, we have been keeping something from you--Solomon. Here you see him, watering our herb garden on the balcony with his backpack on, smiling broadly. Solomon, quite simply, makes our colorful, varied, rich and busy life in Liberia possible.

We met Solomon when we moved into our current apartment, a shared flat in the Old Star Radio Building on Mamba Point. He introduced himself to us with cheerfulness, asked us if this was our first time in Africa and if we'd like for him to show us around. I was a little wary, but his constant gifts of seasonal fruit and local snacks from the market won me over. Our flatmates had already trained him to run a few errands around Monrovia and had paid for his computer classes and school fees. So, we hired him to bring us a selection of local newspapers every afternoon, and things went from there.

Now, Solomon--a 17-year-old high school junior who's parents have died and who looks after his younger sisters--makes $15 a week running errands for us after school. He prints and scans email attachments, buys most of our groceries, scouts for the cheapest malaria prophylaxis and generally runs our daily errands for us. He'll show up around 3pm with his backpack (and sometimes, if he doesn't forget, his notebook), we'll go through a list of things for the day (Would you find me a straw hat? AAA batteries? Shrimp for dinner?), send him with USD and he'll walk of with a bounce I can see from the balcony, navigating the hot, crowded streets of Monrovia with aplomb.

Solomon is so pleasant and presentable that we send him on delivery missions with African T-Shirt Company merchandise and Women's Sewing Coop bags. We've even sent him to Robertsport to deliver supplies and paychecks to the Coop. Solomon loves Robertsport--he stays with Alfred Lomax, walks on the beach and visits community members we work closely with.

You'll be hearing lots more about Solomon in the future, but I wanted to introduce him now, in the New Year.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ghana snacks

As we drove from Accra to Ho and Hohoe in the Volta Region, we crossed a pretty cool bridge--a modernist, metal structure that spanned the Volta River and disappeared into jungle on both sides. This being Africa, I did not photograph it. I did, however, stop to buy some tasty snacks from eager vendors on both sides.

The vendors had fried oysters (overcooked and rubbery--I tried them at a rest stop later), fried shrimp and fried 'one man thousand'--tiny little fish that would almost be invisible were it not for the crusty skin of coconut oil coating them. In fact, everything but the shrimp was fried in so much coconut oil that I couldn't really enjoy it, but the shrimp--black-eyed and crunchy--were quite delicious, and I snacked on them as we wound our way up to Mountain Paradise lodge.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Fun stuff from Ghana

I'll be posting a bit about our trip to Ghana over the next week or so.

Here's my favorite backpacker PSA--an A4 that was laminated and taped prominently all over the public areas of Paradise Mountain, a pretty little lodge between Ho and Hohoe in the Volta Region.
Next to it, you might be able to see an example of the stated 'red spot' -- a painless but bright crimson splotch that could quite easily bring alarm in the tropics. But please, "relax and enjoy the paradise."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Years in Robertsport

Nate and I got back from Ghana on New Year's Eve--in time to jump in the car and head to Robertport for a small beach party to bring in the New Year. There was lots of South African brandy, impromtu jumps in the impossibly clear ocean, and enjoying the blue moon.

Although there are quite a few checkpoints (three major ones, two little ones) on the way, we've never yet given anyone the "weekend" or the "something" they request, but we did decide to be generous on New Years. Well, generous and opportunistic--since we threw a Ritco (aka Liberian "hootch") party last summer, we've had about 30 bottles of the stuff (Night Train Express, Waist & Power, African Bitter Wine) sitting around and we thought it would be fun to hand it out. So we did.

"What is this?" a police officer asked us at the first checkpoint as we handed him a bottle for each of the men on duty that night. "Wine?" Waist & Power is often seen as a male tonic of sorts, so we worried for a second that the policemen would take offense, but who takes offense at being given alcohol on New Years? Exactly.

Now that it's dry season, the water is so clear you can see every little rock and crevice. This freaked us out on New Years morning when we went for a surf at Loco's--one of the rockier points--and saw what we were surfing over. Huge, giant mossy boulders, bigger than my bed. When you put your head under water, you can hear the lobsters and fish munching around them. I've started falling like a flying squirrel now, arms and legs wide to stop myself from hitting the bottom. And we're bringing diving goggles for the lobsters next weekend--we plan to eat them.

Happy New Year everyone, and thanks for reading.