Monday, February 8, 2010

Liberian Dispatch 1

These are the thoughts of a young lawyer in Monrovia, Liberia. I'll be here for three months trying to help the country fix its healthcare system... feel free to email me questions and comments.

January 31, 2010 The possibility that at least a few nights a week will end as this one did, in my room alone, with slow to nonexistent internet and one television channel, certainly increases the possibility of healthy writing sessions. Then again, a first night in a dingy hotel room is not the best indicator of things to come. In Las Vegas I rolled into town cashed from a 12 hour drive following a four hour sleep (not unlike today!) and barely had time to glance around dodgy downtown Vegas before calling it a night. Hartford was no better (or cheaper). And of course, don’t even get me started on India, the single most terrifying introduction to a place possible, from the beggar children chasing our cab to my maniacal driver to the complete slum I was dumped off at. I believe my first meal in India was room delivery, so as to afford those cruel streets of ghetto Mumbai. Liberia has yet to offer me its delicacies, and while a dinnerless night was disappointing, credit to my semi-satisfied state of affairs must go to Brussels Air, which provided the heartiest airline food I can remember. Grilled fish with salmon salad? Bid them up! …
Initial impressions on this country are colored by the darkness of night, but it’s easy to tell that there are a lot of scam artists, some of whom, though not abject criminals themselves, will take advantage of the crime to make a quick buck. Internet will never be faster than ‘pretty slow,’ and in the case of my host, the Corina Hotel, insufferably brutally slow. I will have to relinquish complete control of my fantasy basketball teams until I can find a steady source that allows complex pages to load. …
The streets were filled with hitchhikers and loafers, with occasional bodegas and bars dotting the surprisingly well-paved road into Monrovia. Glamour hotels conspicuously rise out of the shacklands every few miles, as do impressive office spaces like the Ministry of Justice and the U.N headquarters. The U.N even has a radio station that plays Lady Gaga and 50 Cent, with bulletins between songs reminding people to stay “United in peace” and to “Celebrate love, not AIDS” by abstaining from sex until marriage. I wonder if this is what radio free Europe was like, broadcasting blunt messages to teenagers bopping to the hits of the day. …
I take great pride in my ability to travel light, but with a duffel bag and two suitcases it’s not a talent I’m showcasing. It is my first time carrying either work clothes or my laptop overseas. The former is nothing but a necessary inconvenience, while the latter is something of a trade off. Right now, for example, I am rocking out to some Pink Floyd as a write this, and frankly, I am not in the mood, given this nation’s computer resources, to transcribe anything from a notebook to a laptop. Over the years some great gems (and some major duds) have collected dust or been lost completely after being passionately jotted down in some travel notebook. At least now I can take the better chunks of what I churn out for group emails. …
Oh, Europe was a nice layover. Michelle persuaded me to come out to Ghent, where she has a cousin working for a mining company that currently has a major contract in Liberia. Small world. It was good raging, and Ghent is quite beautiful, as is the countryside on the train ride from Brussels. The cobblestones, canals and architecture drip with history- indeed, we visited, and were promptly kicked out of the building where the Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1815, ending the war between the U.S and England. Unfortunately, news of the treaty did not reach American shores till several weeks after General Andrew Jackson commandingly defeated British forces at the Battle of New Orleans, becoming an American hero and eventual two-term president. In signing the treaty, the U.S surrendered its goal of conquering and annexing parts of Canada. Canadian schoolchildren are taught about The War of American Aggression. They were the first, but not the last…

While on a beer run for a surprisingly tame Brazilian birthday party, I engaged the man behind the counter, who turned out to be from Afghanistan, hailing from near the Pakistani border. I asked him what he thought about what was going on, and he replied, “American fights the Taliban on the battlefield, America pays for Taliban to work in government. What’s the point?” Somewhat drunk, the best thing I could think to say was, “It’s all about the money.” “Yes,” he agreed. “It’s all about the money.” Then he gave me a free chocolate bar.

By the way, where the hell is Abidjan? It’s a little disconcerting to fly via a destination you’ve never heard of. I eventually determined that it is a city, perhaps the capital, of the Ivory Coast. Passengers from Brussels to Monrovia were told we needed to stop for an hour in Abidjan to refuel. Passengers who boarded in Abidjan bound for Brussels were told they needed to stop in Monrovia for an hour to refuel. Somebody is being lied to (or not, which would be tough times). In Abidjan I saw my first African sunset, that famous orange ball in the sky.

February 1, 2010 Remember how Bob Graham, Florida’s three-term Senator and two-term Governor, kept a running journal for many decades breaking his day down into increments of fifteen minutes? How did he have the time to do that? It’s possible that prior to the internet there were fewer ways of killing dead time. At least, that much I surmise from the lack of ways to kill time right now. In preparing a memo on the Administrative hearing process for health officials I found that the governing law is the Administrative Procedure Act, a statute that no one in our office knows where to find.

The real shame of Bob Graham’s journal is that a part of him probably kept the damn thing going because he thought posterity would care for it after he served as the nation’s 42nd, 43rd or 44th president, not an unreasonable assumption based on his distinguished resume, which included never losing a political race till The Big One. Maybe I’ll try to get my hands on it. It could be candid window into the life of a major league political figure. In fact, a retrospective article called him the first Twitterer, though that’s hardly a compliment.

This morning I was fiending for a way to get out of the Corina Hotel. Blessed with undoubtedly fleeting wireless access, I found a journalist named Glenna to sublet me her room for a week while she was abroad. After being driven to the comparatively swinging Mamba Point neighborhood by a delightful taxi driver named Alpha, I settled into my new temporary home, a chill Western hangout full of NGO workers who love surfing and are opening a bar next month. Can’t wait for the opening. It’ll be like showing up to Bocas de Toro in 2005.
… My stay at the Corina Hotel wasn’t all bad. I slept pretty peacefully despite a terrifying screaming incident in my hallway in the middle of the night. I had two great bucket showers. I legitimately love bucket showers, and may switch to them when I get back to the U.S. It’s the added water pressure that feels so good, like the difference between a bong hit and a joint that slowly burns even while you aren’t hitting it.

From 11pm last night to 8am this morning I saw CNN International run the story of the failed Haitian missionaries no fewer than four times. Apparently some American Baptists thought God wanted them to rescue orphans from Haiti, but instead they took a bunch of kids without any paperwork across the border, where the officials who intercepted them found out that many of the kids were not actually orphans. To confuse matters further, one girl crying that she wanted to go back to her mother, with mother’s cell phone number in hand, turned out to have been relinquished willingly by her mother, who wanted her to have a better life in America, or the Dominican Republic, or wherever. At the end of the day, the Baptists were charged with kidnapping and trafficking. Tough times.

I also got to see the highlights of the Lakers-Celtics game, which was a treat. Kobe is still amazing, and while the old and battered Celtics may live to fight for one more title, their window is rapidly closing, while Kobe’s looks wide open. Kobe’s nickname, incidentally, is “Black Mamba,” a reference to the world’s most dangerous snake. That also happens to be what Mambo Point, Monrovia’s most tony neighborhood, is named after. With or without the Bynum for Bosh deal, the Lakers should compete for the title at least for the next three seasons. What they really need is a point guard.

Speaking of sports, at the Brussels airport I caught some of the Federer-Murray match. It felt like mid-decade, when Grand Slam Finals were merely a formality for Federer to toast some hapless also-ran. Andy Murray clearly has skills, but he seemed, like Andy Roddick, to play without confidence of eventual victory. Federer hadn’t even really broken a sweat by the beginning of the third set. With Woods in turmoil, R-Fed is officially the world’s premier athlete. He’s reached 19 out of the last 20 Grand Slam finals, an almost incomprehensible streak, especially when you consider that his only semifinal loss in a Grand Slam since 2005 was during a bout with mono. Last season, by winning the French Open, Federer put to rest any notion that Pete Sampras was the greatest tennis champion of all-time, but there was still that annoying asterisk- Rod Laver. Laver utterly dominated tennis in 1962 and 1969, but got no ‘credit’ as far as tennis statistics go, because he spent 1963-1968 on the professional circuit, making cash, and rendering himself ineligible tournaments like the U.S Open and Wimbledon. There has always been a lingering sense that as Sampras and Federer chased records, they were chasing a false target, as Laver finished with “only” 11 Grand Slam titles for his career despite being the best tennis player for a decade. Federer has now been the best or second-best player in the world for eight years, in an obviously far more competitive era. This durability at the top sets him apart from other top modern tennis players, and puts him in the pantheon with Ali and Jordan, though what really set those two apart is that they were not only the best, but they changed their sport culturally forever, which Federer has decidedly not done. This is completely speculative, but I’d wager that Federer is the favorite of the lowest percentage of fans in his sport of any top-ranked athlete in recent memory, except obviously Barry Bonds.

Just got back from lunch. Whew! That was some spicy fish stew. The meal cost 150 Liberian Dollars, or $3 USD. Someone will have to explain currencies to me some time. Is inflation the reason that a small bottle of Coca-Cola costs fifty dollars? Was there a time when the Liberian currency rates were normal, or is it culturally insensitive to ascribe some sort of normative logic to having inconsequential items costs small increments of money? At least we aren’t in Zimbabwe, where inflation is so out of control that day laborers hand cash to their wives during lunch breaks so the wives can use the money before it becomes worthless.

Have had a pretty productive run considering the sweltering heat and not having any idea what I’m doing. Also, spider solitaire is a pretty sweet game. I work with the Ministry of Health’s General Counsel, John Wilson. He is a smooth operator who does not like the heat either, yet manages to wear a suit to work every day.
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Tonight I had dinner alone, alone, that is, until I was joined by DJ Billy D. Brother to the restaurant owner (I ate fish again, this time one of those whole cooked one, with the charred mouth still visible and tail inedible), Billy D started off on a positive note, explaining his grant proposal to the U.N for funding to DJ and perform hip hop in Liberia’s rural counties on behalf of peace and unity. He was a lowtalker, though, and over time it became clear that I would have to ask him questions to have any idea what we were talking about. So far I’ve found that I understand between 40% and 70% of what Liberians are saying when they speak English, excepting of course those who were educated abroad. My happy go lucky taxi driver Alpha, who I found out later tonight is from a neighboring country, was the easiest to understand, except when he became excitable. It boggles my mind so far that when two Liberians are speaking to eachother I’ll be convinced that they are not speaking English until a full English sentence will come out of nowhere. This is actually called Liberian English. Billy D did not respond well to my question about President Johnson Sirleaff, rambling about American imperialism, how weak and corrupt the government is, how the President is weak, probably because she is a woman, which is completely unjust, that is, a woman president in Liberia, how money controls everything, how government employees hog all the money, and how he could electrify Monrovia in 3 hours. He left when the fish arrived. I relearned the lesson not to eat bony fish in the dark. When I got home I popped the Jack and listened to my roommates explain Liberia. It’s a messed up place, but they are happy here. Three months will seem short. Hopefully.

February 2, 2010 Woke up to the rooster crow and the power out. The power is on for ten hours a day, and that does not include the wee hours of the night, where your body is expected to coast on the air conditioning accumulated in the previous hours. That didn’t quite work for me, and I was wide awake well before 6:30am, when the power kicked back on. Making lemonade and such, I went to Limewire and downloaded a dozen or so songs to start the day.

Fish and rice for the third meal in a row- I suppose there are worse things in life, though lest anyone get envious, the fish have been more bony than mouth-watering. Still have not had a fishless meal in Liberia, unless you count the pastry I had for breakfast at the Ministry of Health senior director planning meeting. I mostly went to see the good Doctor Gwenigale in action. He is the stuff of legend, having operated hospitals during much of the Liberian civil war. At the helm of a meeting he is a commanding but soothing presence, demonstrating a sharp command of all topics, mixing in specific details with broader commands: “don’t come to this meeting with complaints, come to this meeting with solutions,” “this is why I have department heads, so I don’t have to decide everything. Tell me what your recommendation is- don’t just bring me information and ask me to make a decision.” … A couple nuggets of interest from the meeting: The Liberian government just had a business fair for high school seniors and college students. The concern is that students are overwhelmingly choosing to pursue business degrees, at the expense of the hard sciences, engineering, and other skills needed in the mining and drilling industries the country wants to develop. Corruption is endemic among the lower ranks of the Ministry of Health. The Ministry has hospitals all over the country, including rural areas that cannot be accessed by car. This makes it easy for rural government officials to fabricate payrolls and milk money out of the government. Periodic attempts to cleanse the payroll have only worked in the short term. It’s a problem that is hard to fix logistically and culturally. It would take an exhausting and perhaps unrealistic internal audit to actually figure out who was a real employee and who wasn’t.

Man, in a way I can’t wait for the next two hours and forty five minutes to go by, and I am so tired, but on the other hand, the AC at home won’t be on till six, rendering that 30-40 minute gap utter misery. Oh yes, a Gwenigale anecdote. So some legislator has been harassing him to build a clinic in a town in his district. Gwenigale won’t do it, both because the allocated funding is insufficient ($50,000) and because building the clinic in that location would violate the protocol determining clinic locations. Gwenigale has rejected the legislator through a variety of channels, but now has found a compromise: “I told him, I will go with you to your district. I will tell the people, ‘you have a good, persistent representative in the legislator. I, on the other hand, am obstructive, and will not grant his request to build a clinic.’ Then I will tell them why, while at the same time do this fellow’s campaigning for him.” Though it is, of course, inferior to actually getting something done, but it’s a nice quid pro quo, the equivalent of the old school days when the Senate Majority Leader and Senate Minority Leader would campaign for each other come election time, with one saying what a worthy foe his adversary was.

Does anyone understand the purpose of ties- or at least, can someone make the argument that the marginal aesthetic enhancement that a good looking power tie can bring to an outfit outweighs its noose-like qualities. Perhaps the tie’s worst quality is its implication of the top button. This is a torturous button, the subject of the allegorical White Stripes song, “The Hardest Button to Button.” Jack White telling a girl she’s like the hardest button to button is one of the great rock and roll exasperations, along with Jimi Hendrix telling a girl, “You’re just like cross-town traffic, it’s so hard to get through to you.”

For a tie to fit snugly and look proper, one must suck in his neck and clasp a button that no one would ever wear tieless on a casual day. There is no other aspect of the male wardrobe for which this is true- blazers, dress shoes and even suspenders make the rounds more casually than the hardest button to button. Yet, there it is, keeping the tie looking sharp, tight like a noose. What’s remarkable about ties is that if they are not expensive looking power ties, they are just as likely to make you look stupid as better. If a cheap tie looks no better than no tie at all, it befuddles the mind why someone would wear one. People wear the tie solely to look formal, and that’s quite a lame reason to do anything, especially when it seems like all of male society is playing one big joke on itself by enforcing this rule, a rule we foisted on ourselves during an era when we were clearly calling the fashion shots. … The three hour nap was bliss, and according to the expats I spent some time chilling with tonight, it could be the first of many. Apparently, the strand of malaria here is extremely powerful, such that everyone gets it eventually, and no medicine can properly prevent it. No one looks forward to getting sick in a foreign country, but I do hope that if and when it happens I am in an air-conditioned apartment with working internet. I went on a long walk after my nap to find dinner, but ended up at the same damn restaurant as last night, this time sans DJ Billy D. Once again I got stuck with fish, the only thing left on the menu. I have officially had nothing but fish since landing Sunday night, though I got the scoop on some expensive restaurants down pass the embassy that I’ll hit up if I keep feel the current quasi queasiness. As for this restaurant, the friendly waitress who speaks little English has on both nights significantly overcharged me on the bill, but then given me even more change back than if the bill had been correct. I have a hunch that her conception of the exchange rate is inaccurate, and on both nights I’ve gone from slightly aggrieved to mildly amused, which is the better post-dinner feeling.

There’s apparently a daily pick-up basketball game around the corner from my place- a rim bent at about a thirty degree angle on an inclined hill, with the court a thru street that requires stoppage for traffic (that’s how they solved the lack of pavement problem) but still a basketball hoop all the same. If I sleep well tonight I’ll check it out tomorrow. Perhaps the most awesome thing about living here is that two of my roommates are opening a dive bar on the beach in a few weeks, and I have little doubt that it will become my primary hang out spot. Wow, it got late in a hurry. I have a long list of things to do on the internet, but the damn thing is down again. I should learn to capitalize while I can.

February 3, 2010 John hosts a steady stream of visitors seeking his counsel, and every now and then he’ll engage me on the issue after one leaves. Apparently Europe has been getting barraged with snow, and as a result, a private mail delivery service was delayed in delivering a bid on a contract, which arrived two days late. Liberian procurement policy requires rejecting all bids that arrive past the deadline. Both the U.S and Liberia use the “mailbox rule” in legal proceedings, such that you have subpoenaed someone, for example, from the document’s postmarked date. Liberia makes no mention of postmarking in its procurement law, but John is wondering if a judge would impute the mailbox rule should the failed bidder take the issue to court. My rebuttal was that the person who loses this bid to the late bidder would similarly take the issue to court, seeing as he was the one who followed the rules. The plain language of the procurement policy should control. I don’t think John bought into that. Oh well. I will say that being a general counsel seems pretty interesting, as the work is eclectic and more fundamental than the hairsplitting of most corporate litigation. Then again, I don’t know most American generals counsel have people walking into the office complaining about adverse possession- first year property law comes to life!

I finally ate chicken and rice for lunch, ending my exclusively pescatarian diet. Have been working decently hard today, which is good- with as few distractions as I have to operate with, it’s important to feel productive, though I clearly recognize the irony of taking time out of my day to ramble on about how productive I’ve been. Got a lead from a dude named Abdallah on a place in Mamba Point. It’s a two-bedroom, which probably means it is pricey, but at this point, anything $1400 or below for a hooked up two bedroom in Mamba Point is worth it, because despite having spent nary a minute there, I am hardening against living in Sinkor. My sketchy feeling walk in the hood last night really did nothing to bolster Mamba Point, being as all the so called bars were just empty shells blasting loud music, and the restaurant selection offered nothing but fish, but some combination of Nate and Ellie’s bar, the American Embassy, the opportunity for pickup basketball, the proximity to Randall Street and the general safeness of the neighborhood point to finding a place there, and Abdallah, renowned in the town, has got a place. It’s amusing to consider, however, that while I once thought my roommates’ reinforcing of Carrie Stanley’s observations spoke to their validity, it now seems they are based on the fact that they hung out together, like when many blogs that cite to the same, hopefully accurate news article.

In any case, $1400 may sound like a lot to spend on my own bedroom, considering that is the price range I’ll be gunning for when I get home, but the flexibility to room with someone short term or long term and halve that cost is a good one. No idea what I’d do with all that space, though having a sweet pad, full bar set up in a foreign country could be amusing. Do we ever grow up?

John gave me a little Liberian history lesson today. He is from the county of Maryland, which was founded, as you might expect, by freed slaves from Maryland. He says there are towns named Baltimore, Philadelphia and Bunker Hill, for settlers’ towns of origin. It was apparently a center of great learning, with multiple colleges and even a legal training center until the 1960s. The major post-war president of Liberia, President Tubman, was a Marylander himself, the first president not to hail from Monrovia, considered a bush-man. John compared that to someone from the South moving to New York, but a more apt comparison might be an idiot named Bush moving to Washington. Tubman felt isolated in Monrovia, looked down upon by the elites, but Maryland was too far from Monrovia for him to use it at as a presidential retreat. Instead, he brought Maryland to him, uprooting its major college and placing it Bong County, just outside of Monrovia. This led to the slow deterioration of Maryland, as the other college and legal center soon skipped also. When he was a young man, John says, the high school graduation rate was 97%, but the students simply had nowhere to go, so they passively slowed their poverty at home, or alternatively, brain-drained it to Monrovia, where they lived as second-class citizens. The same way, John pointed out, he would live in the ghetto if he moved to America. When you think about all the remarkable people who left behind comfortable gigs back home to scrape by in New York, you realize that while America may or may not have talent, New York has it in spades. Yep, in spades.

The countdown begins- we are 40 minutes from a joyous ride home. Honestly, if I could surf the internet or have a single person to humorously banter with, I wouldn’t be itching so badly. This is why I don’t forsee Hogan being quite the graveyard corporate law firms are supposed to be. Panarchy it is not, but as long as I have people down the hall who can bitch about work, tell jokes, discuss politics and/or sports, etc., it kills the long hours. During the corporate recruiting process people stressed that once you are in the interviewer’s door, particularly in the second round, they have made peace with your academic qualifications, and are assessing your personality, including the legal world’s variation of the 3am phone call- when you are working on a stressful brief at 3am, who do you want to see across the table? Some annoying d-bag or someone who can smile in the face of such tough times? That’s probably 40% of the reason I got so many offers. I’d guesstimate that another 40% was based on my dynamic resume, 10% on being a racial minority, and 10% on random factors like needing a weirdo in the office. For example, at our acceptance dinner, I asked Oleg about Ed Koch’s role at Bryan Cave, since he is a “partner” who does nothing but publish articles and movie reviews. Oleg explained that when an important client or opposing counsel is on their way out the door, a Bryan Cave partner will ask, ‘By the way, do you feel like meeting Ed Koch?’ Oleg continued, ‘Why do you think we hired you?’ It was a mildly flattering rib, and I don’t mind the Ed Koch comparisons, even if he did vote for George Bush. I’d chalk up almost no points to my in person interviewing skills, which are still pretty shabby. I’m not a professional bullshitter yet when it comes to expressing passion for jobs I have no long-term interest in, and my lexicon is so overrun with clich├ęs for such occasions that when I actually am interviewing for a job I’m passionate about, I can’t find the right words to sound legitimately sincere.

February 4, 2010 I have 21 minutes to pound out half asleep type until the juice runs out and I’ll be left to lie in bed listening to someone else’s BBC News, just loud enough to hear the British accents, but too far away to hear the news, and the roosters crowing. I thought roosters were supposed to crow when the sun rose, but the sun is nowhere in sight at the moment. It’s 5:19 in the A.M and it’s too hot to sleep. The power won’t be turned on for more than an hour. In theory I could go for a jog at 6, coming back just in time to shower, but that proposition strikes me as a little crazy- it’s still pretty damn muggy, and being out alone late at night is the one safety rule I’ve been strongly encouraged to observe. Running at 7am, when the sun is out, lacks the allure, as I could be enjoying precious internet minutes by then. … I received a peculiar offer on the housing front yesterday afternoon involving 19 Nigerian doctors. Hm. Now I have 25 minutes left. It goes to show you never can tell. Apparently only six of the doctors have shown up so far, and while there are rumors of more coming, no one seems to really know. You may remember this theme from my first day, when we realized the importance of the Administrative Procedure Act, which we still cannot find. If the nation’s only law school does not have it on the books, it may be time to sign its epitaph and rewrite the damn thing. In any case, the Ministry of Health has already prepaid the apartments these Nigerian doctors were going to live in, including a studio apartment that John Wilson suggested I could live in for free.

Sweet deal, right? There are two catches. One is that I would be bounced as soon as the doctors showed up, which could be, remember, at any time. This isn’t a huge concern, because free is free as long as it lasts. That reminded me of “Me and Bobby McGee,” which really has great lyrics. Janis’s voice is so good that you don’t really think about them, but in the Greatful Dead cover they pronounce them slower and more clearly. Ok, running Itunes just cost me precious minutes, I don’t know what I was thinking. We’ll look at the lyrics later. Nine minutes to go. … The point is that I don’t think I’d be kicked out right away, and saving even a month would be good pocket cash. The more important issue is that the apartment is in Congo Town, which from my very crude map of Monrovia appears to be 10-15 minutes past Sinkor in the out of town direction- as in it would be a mammoth taxi ride to Mamba Point. Who knows how much I’d go out during the week anyway, so far it’s been zero times, and taxi rides are universally $5, but there’s no doubt it would kill the social life. Not hurt, kill. When searching for the calculus, it might be the same question as living at home after college. In exchange for saving a ton of money, what do you really get? The opportunity to have loud sex, smoke whenever you want, stock booze, invite friends over without being embarrassed, maybe hold a party now and then. For that I and others pay exorbitantly, and we lose homecooked meals in the process. Well, I guess that goes to the heart of the question about why we earn money and what we live to spend it on. Saving for tomorrow at the expense of today doesn’t sound much like living the dream. Maybe I’ll follow up with Abdallah about the pricey but sweet Mamba Point apartment he showed me today. Unless Congo Point has internet and 24 hour power.

Oh man, so yeah, the computer died and I was still wide awake. So wide awake, in fact, that I decided to do some yoga. My lack of flexibility stunned me, and I resolved to do yoga every morning that I woke up with such time on my hands. It felt good, and by the time I finished and bucket showered the power was almost back on. The AC was particularly welcome, because opening the windows had not only brought in the sounds of screeching roosters, but the suffocating polluted Monrovia air. The most disappointing aspect of living on Orchard Street last September was realizing that opening my window for fresh air was a fiction, that it inevitably smelled stuffier and more like garbage when the window was open then when it was closed, and the same holds true in Monrovia.

More wired than I remember being at 6:30am in possibly years, I had just enough internet juice to check my email, read the news, and mess with my fantasy basketball team. Leaving the fantasy teams vulnerable to flaky internet was a huge concern, as I have been coasting in first place in one league and in playoff contention in the other. Sippy has graciously agreed to look after my roster in case I’m not able to adjust it. My calculations project me as a lock to make the playoffs in one league, where I am commissioner, and about 50/50 in the other league, where I am a guest among largely strangers. I have absolutely loved doing fantasy basketball this year, and will host an even larger league next year.

Amos and I were listening to “Coffee Talk” on UN radio on the way to work, and we heard a segment on the Haiti Relief benefit a few Liberian performers have put together. You know you are on tough times when Liberia is holding a fundraiser in your behalf. A coworker, Genevieve, scoffed that no Liberian should donate a nickel while Liberia is in such dire economic straits, but she missed the U.N radio program’s look back at the historical relationship between Liberia and Haiti. Haiti was a French colony of liberated slaves, pulling off an impressive revolution against Napoleon that Pat Robertson can only attribute to a pact the people of Haiti made with the devil. Liberia was founded a few decades later by freed American slaves, and so the two countries became early beacons in the black liberation movement. Liberia was for many decades the only African country completely independent of European colonial rule or influence. In the 1930s and 40s, Haitians celebrating this independence spawned a movement to relocate there. The descendants of Haitian-Liberian mixes went on to become some of the leading figures in Liberian government. Thus, the Liberian benefit for the people of Haiti.

Did you know that polio and the measles are major problems in Liberia? I went to a planning meeting today at the Ministry of Health, and there is a major outbreak of both, leading to a day of national immunizations in March. … Just got back from taking a piss. No Microsoft Word, I did not just get back from taking a pass. We have a regular enough looking toilet here at the General Counsel’s office, but it does not flush. Instead, you get rid of your waste by dumping a bucket of water into the toilet until it looks watery again. There were two variations of this in India- one was the hole in the ground toilet, which employed a water bucket mainly for self-cleansing purposes, and then one apartment I lived in had a regular toilet that used this bucket method. The advantage in India was that the bucket was underneath a faucet, whereas here you dip the bucket into a larger vat of water to fill it, which feels dirtier, even though it probably isn’t. … Have been invited to pizza, drinking and games night by a fellow Hungarian in town. I wrote back enthusiastically that I am a fan of all three, and it may even be an occasion to bust out “Catch-phrase,” perhaps the most fun party game ever- think better than Twister in the late 90s. During lunch today I munched on an excellent falafel and chatted with a fellow ex-pat, but was completely distracted by a thin dude pumping water in the 90-degree heat the entire time we were lunching. By the end of lunch, all he had to show for it was a medium-sized filled bucket. Can we get this guy a working well? What the fuck? The expat missed her boyfriend, and mentioned that she spent nine bucks calling him the other day. “Wait,” I interrupted, “on that LoneStar phone?” Mine won’t even call certain numbers in Monrovia, but apparently it’s as easy as 001-area code-number. Just tried. Not as easy as it sounds.

John Wilson just asked me if I’d had a plantain before, as a woman into our office bearing them. I chuckled and said, “Plantains? I had my first plantain many years ago in the Dominican Republic. I love plantains.” The Dominic Republic is on the island of Hispaniola, and in an arrangement unique within the Caribbean, it shares the island with Haiti, the subject of tonight’s Liberian benefit. Or when is the benefit? I don’t suppose I can find out on the internet… There’s a flickering light- access seems palpably close. I’m having one of the few people in the city with heady IT skills take a look at the situation tomorrow.

I’ve studied my very crude map of Monrovia and determined that if it is at all to scale, then parts of Congo Town are really not that much further from Mambo Point or the Ministry than the parts of Sinkor where I was considering living. Thus, if these apartments are even moderately sweet, I’m greenlighting this operation. Wow, just as I was writing this, who popped in but the good Doctor himself. Dr. Gwenigale personally offered me a Nigerian apartment, obviously frustrated that he was not only short a bunch of doctors, but had unnecessarily paid for their unused digs. Another Ministry worker who overheard our conversation said with some confidence that even if they were to show up during my three months here, it is highly unlikely that I would be bounced; they would just find another arrangement, and that it was similarly unlikely that all nineteen would show up during the three months I was here. Later I stopped by Deputy Minister Cherue’s office to get directions, and found out the apartment complex is across the street from the American School. Sometimes you have to go a long way to come a short distance!

What an absolute slam dunk. The room is clean, comfortable, has a balcony overlooking Congo Town, is not that far from where I want to be (think Bushwick) and the compound has a bar- dude, the compound has a bar. The Guinness I’m drinking now is downright terrible, and an inspection of the label reveals it was brewed in Liberia, but hell, we’ll take it.

February 5, 2010 Even though I was completely cashed when I got home (those bumpy roads take a lot out of you), I felt compelled to rally and not disappoint the Hungarian who had invited me to pizza, drinking and games night. I called Alpha, who was more unintelligible than usual and had immense difficulty finding the compound we were looking for. The scene was three European couples, shooting a mixture of English, French and Spanish across the table at each other. They were friendly, but the drinking was light and tame. We played a sweet German card game. Expats are very coupled up here, and for good reason. As expected, the expat scene here is full of globetrotters, salaried by high profile NGOs like MERLIN to roll up on third world countries and stick their fingers in bursting dams. … One of the girls playing cards was about to deploy to Haiti, where the group surmised the internet connection would be better than it is here. As the night wound down I bantered in Hungarian with the host, my first extended conversation in Hungarian with someone besides my mother since 2008. It felt good, though our own bump occurred when I did not know the word for law firm. Alpha was quite late picking me up. The road was littered with hitchhikers male and female. I joked about whether he wouldn’t be more likely to pick up a cute woman and he launched into not one, but at least three rambling stories about taxi drivers who had been either extorted by women faking rape assaults or hookers calling their pimps. “That is why I pick up no women, but maybe sometimes a man. If he looks like a good dude.”

This morning I miraculously power slept through the heat, waking up just in time to appreciate the cool AC, like a waterfall on my bed. My sleeping woes are in their last days. At the TGH compound I’ll have air conditioning all night, and at the Old Radio Star building it’s supposed to run all weekend. I had been trudging a long at work, getting shit done, and rewarding myself with occasional spurts of Level 2 Spider Solitaire, which I’ve mastered only in the last day, when John engaged me on Barack Obama and the healthcare bill. After I explained to him that no, Scott Brown’s election had not cost Obama his Senate majority (I wonder how many Americans think this), John asked about ‘the opposition position’ that the government should enforce mandates. This question makes me seethe, because any idiot could have seen that mandates without a robust public option is not only political suicide, but terrible policy. I will not forgive Obama’s team for not pushing the public option, even though it was so watered down by the time it came out of the House that I probably wouldn’t have been eligible for it anyway. John said that Americans, like Liberians, are too impatient. ‘Change doesn’t happen overnight.’ But he sighed, ‘At the same time. People want jobs. They need money to bring home to their families.’ On this point I sympathize with our embattled sell-out president. Though the number one issue in America, according to every poll, is “Jobs,” there is precious little the president and Congress can do in one fell swoop to remedy the lack of good ones out there.

The unemployment issue in America right now is triple wedged. First, manufacturing jobs are totally screwed, and they aren’t coming back, except in the form of very local green technologies that the government has, to some extent, gotten behind. Too bad they fired Van Jones just because Glenn Beck told them to. That’s when we realized Obama might be a weak president. Second, small businesses can’t get credit and expand, because the banks, for all the trillions we gave them, don’t feel like it. The government should do something here, though this topic is obviously beyond my expertise. Third, we will continue to hemorrhage, either slowly or quickly, ‘middle-class jobs’ to India in fields like software. Globalism is a bitch. Nothing Obama can do about that.

In the long run, of course, there are many things the government can do. At the core of long-term job creation is a strong national educational program that produces a workforce than can read, write, do math and think analytically. We need strong high schools so that kids from low income communities can have a shot at getting into good colleges. We need to completely overhaul college, though that is a different discussion, and one that will involve the private university sector. Fuck it, I’ll start it now.

The primary problem with the liberal arts educational system is that it is predicated on an anachronistic model that can never apply to society as a whole. Back in the heyday of the liberals arts ideal, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Princeton, for example, the few colleges that did exist in this country were for the wealthy elite, whose children could spend four years reading the classics and pondering, knowing with certainty that graduate school or a job in the family business was waiting around the corner. Back then you didn’t have to do well in college to get in to Harvard Law School, you just had to have the right father.

Today, the notion of college as some philosophical laboratory must be dismissed. College is now exclusively a place to get a job, and it better be a good one, with the massive amounts of cash parents (and some students) are pouring into it. Employers care about grades and internships, and have to put aside that students at top colleges develop few skills beyond basic analytic writing. Grades can easily be manipulated (taking only easy classes) and many of the most prestigious internship don’t pay, putting less affluent students at a disadvantage. Shouldn’t $35,000 a year for college at least include a summer housing voucher? That’s not to say people can’t have a lot of fun and grow in college, but we have to have deliverables on the investment, you know? …
Next, let’s talk about this pathetic excuse for a faculty system we have in American higher education. Research is valued over teaching, plain and simple- no university president would dispute that. The reason is that good researchers publish articles, mostly in journals that no one except other academics read (with the exception of the very select group of academics that have national prominence) and thus bring prestige to the school. I would just once like to see a college already ranked in the top 20 or so announce that the main criteria it would employ for selecting faculty was teaching ability, and see how that helped or hurt their prestige within five years. Wouldn’t that be a school every top high schooler would want to go to? By the way, how is an “all-star researcher” any different than an all-star football player? Both contribute to the school’s prestige without improving its education. …
You know…there is a lot to unravel here, and I can’t be rambling about the broken university system all day, nor do I know if I want to. It’s Friday afternoon, when blood pressures should be going down, and I have a big conference call in fifteen minutes. Also, I feel like I have carpal-tunnel syndrome (sp?). Has anyone had it before? If so, please email with remedies (though with the weekend coming up, I’ll assume “stop typing so much” is one of them). … We got way off track here- we were discussing Obama’s hands being tied with respect to jobs. The stimulus bill, as anyone who works in local government can attest, saved a huge number of local government programs, but it probably didn’t create a lot of new jobs. While the pain still burns for the unemployed, a job saved is the same as a job created as far as the big economic picture goes.

Just returned from picking up a coke. Struck me as weird while walking up the ramp that I was drinking something so unhealthy at the Ministry of Health. Don’t coke trucks have “stay back 100 feet, explosives on board” sign or something? Probably an urban legend. Have urban legends generally lost their luster since Google allowed everything to be fact-checked so easily? The internet is clearly loaded with misinformation, but in the case of urban legends, what searchers are really looking for is a single credible person to step up and say, ‘no, no, that is ridiculous, here’s why.’ Speaking of urban legends, I was once told by someone in artistic design that Coke had patented the color Coca-cola red. Is that true? Coke is not a healthy product, but over the years I’ve come to love it. If you held a gun to my head and forced me to endorse one corporate product, it would be always the real thing, always coca-cola (great song!). Nevertheless, should we really be selling this stuff in the Ministry of Health?

This is like the Bloomberg administration having soft drinking vending machines, and Bloomberg pouring salt onto his plate while trying to regulate intake for everyone else. If you ever check out the comments section at a right-wing rag like the New York Post (I assume everyone does this in their spare time), they love pouncing on examples of political hypocrisy, like John Edwards’ $400 haircut, Al Gore’s giant house, Bloomberg’s private jet, Spitzer’s prostitute, sometimes even going after their own like Christian philanderers Gingrich, Ensign, Vitter, Sanford, etc. And while many of these posters are crazy and have depressingly poor spelling skills, I agree that hypocrisy has no place in the public arena, as cozy at is hanging out there. Once again a tangent has taken me way off topic, but it is very humid in hear, and did I mention it was Friday afternoon? Christ, I can’t even spell ‘here’ correctly. The day is unraveling. The loopiness is kickin’ in.

The Ministry of Health should not sell soft drinks! There, I said it. They should sell coffee made from the coffee beans of local farmers, which I assume they have here, even if the coffee is terrible. This is the federal government, and it should be buying local, supporting the workers, growing the economy. I wonder how much shit in the White House and on Capitol Hill was made in China...

1 comment:

Mermaids Are Dead said...

Carpul Tunnel (sp)- Pull your fingers back toward your elbow (the opposite of making a fist) and do this A LOT. This stretches the tendons that are swollen and compressing the nerves, or something.

Coke is a health product in some aspect, as it can be used to treat dehydration. If you're ever in dire straights, open a coke, let it go flat, add 1 tbsp of table salt and drink it. Yip. 3rd world medicine for 3rd world travelers. There's nothing developing here.