Thursday, February 18, 2010

Liberian Dispatch 3

Dispatch 3
February 10, 2010

Folks, I write this morning with great joy in my heart. It’s not for the internet access that I should always have from this point forward, $130 later. No, I celebrate this morning because Bonnaroo announced the lineup for its 2010 festival, which will be from June 10 to June 13 in Manchester, Tennessee. Last year’s event was one of the highlights of the year, four days of awesome music and hanging out with some of the chillest strangers around, living the dream in a tent under the hot Tennessee sun. The marquee acts for this year include Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, Weezer, the Gaslight Anthem, LCD Soundsystem and most awesomely, the Flaming Lips performing the Dark Side of the Moon album. The announcement of the lineup spurred me into having an old fashion music tournament, which after this morning is in the quarter finals. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s when I pit my favorite songs of the month against each other in a single elimination tournament. Don’t worry, most people think it’s weird. That won’t stop me from announcing the results.

Went on a big water shopping run yesterday, and should have enough to last me a while. I was drinking a bottle of water last week in Mamba Point when I noticed some Arabic writing on it. Curious, I read the label, which said the water was “Naturally filtered through the geological layers of the Sannine mountain of Lebanon.” Lebanon? “It’s sad,” my roommate commented. “We live in one of the wettest countries in the world, but we have to import our bottled water from a landlocked country in the desert thousands of miles away.” In general it’s a depressing fact, but partnering with Lebanon is not a coincidence. The Lebanese are big players here, controlling much of the real estate and supermarkets. This is a source of some tension in the community. There must be a healthy number of Liberians who think at first glance that I am Lebanese, but no Lebanese think so. This recalls my summer in India, where foreigners thought I was a local, but locals knew I was a foreigner, leading to periods of isolation.

A word about the roads in this country, which until very recently all dirt. In fact, a word about “this country.” As you read the passages in this dispatch, please keep in mind that Monrovia, the capital city, 30-40% of the population, is by far the most developed party of the country. The rural areas are on tough times in every quantifiable sense. That said, Monrovia’s system of paved roads has dramatically improved in the last few years, and worker downtown are working feverishly to finish a couple new ones before the start of raining season this spring. I’d approximate that over two-thirds of the roads I use on a daily basis are paved, and since most of them were paved relatively recently, they are smooth and pothole free, if not very crowded during rush hour. In contrast, the dirt roads are full of pits and stones that jostle you cartoonishly whether you drive fast or slow. President Johnson Sirleaff is proud of her roads- the main thoroughfares in town are peppered with signs boasting of new, taxpayer supported roads. Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that her road anthem is falling on deaf ears. “Most people simply don’t have cars,” someone explained to me. “They don’t see how roads affect them.” Interestingly, the local paper this morning suggested just the opposite. In an article on the used t-shirt industry, many local business owners praised roads for bringing commercial goods into the countryside, allowing economies to grow. Whether the poor folks who buy goods transported by roads make this connection is unclear. When I was in Panama I learned that the president was riding a wave of populist support over his paving of roads, but Liberia makes most of Panama look affluent by comparison.

‘Be a good citizen pay your taxes’ billboards messages are another ubiquity on these roads, a necessary motivator in a country desperately in need of revenue but low on regulatory ability. To some extent we face this vicious cycle in the United States- when government funding is cut at regulatory agencies due the economy, many financially or socially damaging activity is able to flourish, at a greater net loss than the cost of regulation. The consequences can range from petty street crime to financial charlatans sending the entire economy into a recession. Anyway, these highway posters speak for themselves- I’ll take pictures before I’m through.

John is putting his foot down- we need a new air conditioner. Our little unit cools the room decently to start the morning, but the relentlessness afternoon sun wears it down. By the end of the day the mugginess is so pervasive that it’s hard to tell if the unit is working at all. This is what drives John to sleep, me to spider solitaire, his administrative assistant to another room, and his alleged lawyer sidekick to read the newspaper till he too falls asleep. That character, whose name I still don’t know, is comically averse to work. He comes to work without a laptop or a notebook, and spends the little time that he’s not on the phone or reading the newspaper questioning why an assignment John gives him is necessary. John frequently has to tell him to pay attention during meetings, like some aloof ten-year old. Oh, sweet, here comes a request. It’s about air conditioning…nah, the admin assistant has been sent to do it instead. That guy is a solid dude who sometimes picks me up my breakfast of fish, yams and plantains. He has the same last name as John, Wilson, which is convenient, because it means “Wilson” is usually around.

Alright. All three other people in the office are asleep, and the internet is down “because it is the afternoon.” Back to spider solitaire. Hope I’ve still got the skills that carried me to a 60% winning percentage on “medium” difficulty. Yep, still do. Three in a row, son. It looks like things have broken up here an hour early, the heat is just too much, and tomorrow is a national holiday- Armed Forces Day. Tonight I’ll be heading to the Boulevard Café, one of the premier expats digs in town, with good wireless and pizza. I have plans to actually hang out with someone, so that’ll be a refreshing change.

I have military spending on the mind this afternoon. We all recognize that Ronald Reagan’s “God, guns and lower taxes” mantra was political gold in the 1980s, and he made it easy for all subsequent politicians to hold the military as a sacred cow outside the normal debate over taxing and spending. This is folly, of course, what Brett Martin would call a classic example of politicians being incentivized to do the right thing for their reelection prospects rather than the right thing for their country. In 2010, the United States will spend $657,000,000,000 in military expenditures, easily than more than the rest of the discretionary budget combined.
We all know these are hard economic times, and that our government needs to watch its spending, but President Obama ludicrously suggested that his gimmicky three-year spending freeze not apply to the Pentagon. He must not have noticed the exorbitant and wasteful military contracting taking place in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He probably is well aware of the wasteful weapons programs around the country- when he tried to slice a couple of particularly useless ones a few months ago he was accused of ‘ravaging the military’ by Republicans, even though his Pentagon budget was still the most expensive ever. Military spending has been hammered in as a third rail in American politics, but that has to stop. Surely some more sunlight and scrutiny would yield tremendous savings without altering military strategy in the slightest. Think of the prevalence of no-bid contracts during the Bush years, many of which are still in place. There is nothing fiscally responsible about a no-bid contract. Another issue is the hundreds of military bases the U.S have around the world. As ludicrous as it seems to have major bases in Japan and Germany, I understand that the military wants to have regional bases to facilitate transporting troops in and out of combat zones. But when you have 737 overseas bases, NOT including Iraq and Afghanistan, surely they are not all necessary. As a final thought on military spending, it’s worth noting that the military is also the largest government sponsored jobs program we have. When President Bush, yes, that President Bush, tried to close down a useless navy shipyard in Massachusetts and an equally useless plane manufacturing base in South Dakota, Ted Kennedy (D) and John Thune (R) mounted a successful bipartisan offensive to stop the closings. No one wants his state to lose jobs, even at the cost of billions to United States taxpayers. I would love to hear back from people on this issue. As Obama would say, from my friends on the left, I would love to hear where they would begin in slicing and dicing this monstrous budget, and what sources they rely on for Pentagon monitoring. From my friends on the right, I’d love to hear first a single argument for why military spending should not be subject to the same “freeze” and general scrutiny as the rest of the non-discretionary budget, and second, how your fiscal principles apply to the bloated military budget.

February 11, 2010
Last night was great- hung out with a great, eclectic crew, my first weeknight session since arriving in Monrovia. We were at the Boulevard Café, a well known western haunt that has good pizza, decent internet, Premiere League soccer, and plenty to drink. I was working the local Club Beer, the only one at the table doing so. At $2 a bottle it seemed hard to pass up, but I didn’t have to wait till this morning for the sluggish headache I was warned about. I’ll see those folks again on Saturday night, and pending the outcome of that, we have plans to hit up the golf course outside the Firestone Rubber factory on Sunday. It’ll be my first time on the course in many years, which is a shame, because golf is one of those rare sports that are fun both to suck and excel at.

Today is National Armed Forces Day, and that means the day off. Ah yes, the first national holiday. My predecessor said she experienced five during her two months here, and though I’m not certain how many I have, I know there are two in mid-March that I’m trying to convert into a roadtrip with some peeps to Free Town, Sierre Leone. Free Town is apparently as dangerous as Monrovia, as Sierre Leone was pretty much roped into this civil war at various points, but its supposed to have some of the most immaculate beaches in Africa, and we know people there. I mean, clearly “I” don’t know anyone there, but I’ve got people who have people.

I felt like garbage when I woke up this morning, not just hungover (I didn’t have many drinks), but like some kind of fever was coming on- you know, the kind you can put down if you treat your body responsibly the first day you feel it, or totally exacerbate by ‘pushing through it.’ Must be the Club Beer

New York is legendary for its ability to convince people that going to work and half assing a day is more important than resting in bed, even for a few extra hours in the morning. I set out my solitary goal for the day- to be a lighter so I could cook some pasta. It was an innocuous enough assignment. I’ve never been one for big military parades, and I didn’t know how I’d get to that part of town anyway. Plus, I’ve been meaning to check out the Congo Town market for a few days now. As it turns out, not one street vendor or local store within walking distance of me sells lighters. I have to admit, that was a little surprising. It turned out not to matter- I acquired matches, and then attempted to light my stove, which did not work. The rest of the shopping adventure was quasi-eventful. The market was crowded and photogenic for the enterprising among us, but everyone was selling the same thing, and it didn’t look that appetizing. Outside the market I reaffirmed my belief that the biggest threat I face to my safety in Liberia is reckless driving. Ok, so all this pasta, and no stove. I do have a water boiler, it comes with the room and is surprisingly effective. I dumped some dry pasta into the water boiler, and that cooked it decently enough for sauce and oregano to obscure the difference.

By late afternoon I was feeling a little bit better, and got to working on this big progressive treatise I’ve been dabbling with since the flight over here. I won’t say much about it now, but if these entries are any indication, on some topics I have a lot to say, and this treatise will be something of a cathartic culmination, a decade of successes and, more often, failures in the progressive movement. In doing background research I came across Teddy Roosevelt’s “Standing At Armageddon” speech, which I consider one of the best political speeches ever given. I’ll write at greater length about it some other time, but his candidacy was unique to American history: he was running as a third-party outsider taking on the system, but this only a few years removed from being one of the most popular presidents in American history. His criticisms of the system come not “from closet study, or as a mere matter of theory; I have been forced to it by a long experience with the actual conditions of our political life.” I’ve also reread Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is a stark reminder about how controversial and daring a man he was, and how hard the civil rights struggle was before it cozied up in American history books as a pleasant march down the street.

Here are the results of the music tournament for the songs that placed 20-9: 20. Strange Overtones (David Byrne) 19. Walk of Life (Dire Straits) 18. Heart’s a Lonely Hunter (Thievery Corporation) 17. Growing Up (Bruce Springsteen) 16. ’59 Sound (Gaslight Anthem) 15. Come Sail Away (Styx) 14. New Slang (Shins) 13. Gone Daddy Gone (Violent Femmes) 12. Werewolves of London (Warren Zevon) 11. What a Wonderful World (Ramones) 10. Radio Nowhere (Bruce Springsteen) 9: You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Meatload)

Needless to say, these music tournaments involve a lot of rules, but for your purposes, the two governing rules about participation are that the songs must have been on my playlist with some frequency in the last month, and no former tournament winners can participate, which explains the absence of songs from bands like Arcade Fire, the Talking Heads and the Clash. Today I held the quarter finals, and following songs, all excellent contenders, were taken out: 8. Time to Pretend (MGMT) 7. Electric Avenue (Eddy Grant) 6. Modern Love (David Bowie) 5. Bad Days (Flaming Lips) The four songs left in the semifinals are Running on Empty (Jackson Browne), Fight Test (Flaming Lips), Paper Planes (M.I.A) and Miles Davis and the Cool (Gaslight Anthem). There’s a back-story to each of these songs- “Running” is a rock classic that somehow escaped my playlists all these years, and it’s a real get you going in the morning tune. I’ve been on something of a Flaming Lips kick lately, and with them starring at Bonnaroo, it would be fitting for one of their one to take home the win. “Paper Planes” would be the first song by a female vocalist to win one of my tournaments since 2005, when the Sugarcubes “Birthday” (Bjork’s band) dominated the field. Ever since my friend Jodie pointed out that my Itunes collection contained very few female artists I’ve been working on it, but outside the pop scene, which doesn’t interest me, I could stand to get a few recommendations from people. The Gaslight Anthem is one of the best young bands in America, and I started listening to them on the strength of their two great singles, but like most bands you start digging, it’s this more developed sleeper song I’ve really gotten into.

The power in here just went out, plunging every direction into total darkness. It’s for this reason that I packed a flashlight. Now that the power’s back on I’m also charging up this computer- it may be called on down the road to provide an additional source of light. Tonight I ordered from Mona Lisa, the best pizza place in town. The same person I ordered from on the phone personally delivered the pizza on his motorcycle, so I don’t know how big an operation it is. The pizza was good- cheese in this country is so expensive that I can’t drench every meal of the day with it like I do back home. In fact, other than the three pizza-based meals I’ve had since arriving, I don’t know if I’ve had any cheese. Mona Lisa was pretty damn expensive, but pizza is a privilege I will pay for. People say the easiest way to save money is to cook, but you need to have an established kitchen for that. I look forward to getting a new apartment back in New York that I can call home for at least 2-3 years, because this practice of needing to buy cooking materials, cleaning materials, spices, etc., etc., really reduces the financial efficacy of cooking.

February 12, 2010
I write this the next morning, having crashed hard at 10pm and slept for 12 hours, catching up on hours of rest for the first time. Talking about work has become more difficult in this setting, as I engage in two projects full of intrigue that confidentiality requires I not discuss. Attorney-client confidentiality is one of the perks and annoying temptations of being a lawyer. In one of the cases, the relevant paperwork simply cannot be found. Though I am well aware why, John constantly feels the need to remind me that during the war, all paperwork was lost, destroyed or stolen. “After the war sometimes you could find it lying around on the ground outside of government buildings, or just go to the market and buy it by the bundle. The government needs to offer rewards for people to bring it in from their homes. That’s what private lawyers have been doing for a long time to complete their records,

This Ministry, it was empty when we showed up after the war. It was like the whole building, the whole country was turned upside down. Feces everywhere. Wires pulled out of the walls. Pipes destroyed. It was nothing but an empty, dirty set of walls.” … Now that I am in Liberia, I can discuss Norman Siegel’s client, State Senator Hiram Monserate, aka the Face Slasher. Norman is defending him on the grounds that the New York State Senate doesn’t have the right to expel someone from their midst just because he is a terrible person for a variety of reasons. On the other side of the argument is State Senator Eric Scheiderman, a progressive who I have tremendous respect for, and will support in his effort to replace Andrew Cuomo as Attorney General. Though the two argue about the constitutional right for the State Senate to expel its own members, it seems like Norman has the stronger legal argument. This will be, in the words of the District Judge assigned to it, “a fascinating case.” I don’t have time to lay out the full details here, but google it- it’s a juicy situation.

After work a co-worker and I went to the Golden Beach, a trendy, pricey restaurant-bar on the Sinkor beach. After almost two weeks in the country, it was the first time my toes had touched the soothing beach sands. It reminded me of an ill-fated 2006 expedition. My brothers and I were in Germany for the World Cup, and were taking side-trips to neighboring countries on our Eurorail pass, including Italy. After fun times in Rome and Florence, we decided to part ways for a day. They would stay in Florence, and I would head down to San Viscerno. We had stayed with the same hostel company in both Italian cities, and on a poster I saw a third location on the Mediterranean. The poster show a guy and a girl talking through the window of a little hut on the beach. Having never set foot on a Mediterranean beach, running low on funds, and itching to get out of the hot city, I jumped on the next train to San Viscerno, with plans to rendezvous in Venice 36 hours later.

Other than excursions into the Hungarian countryside, where I speak the language, this was about as off the beaten track as I’d been in Europe. No one at the sparsely populated station spoke English or had heard of this hostel. I wrote out the address to shove in peoples’ faces, and finally someone in broken English explained that I would need a taxi, and that it was about 12 kilometers away. I was incredulous. “No bus?” “No bus on Saturday.” Upset that paying for a taxi would partially defeat my thrifty goals, but without much choice, I hopped in a cab, and pulled into the outdoor hostel. The scene was grim. This place seemed to be a vacation spot for middle-aged, overweight, working class Italians, hardly a single young person in sight. A sad receptionist gave me the key to my hut. The hut was dark and windowless, problematic, as the light was busted- the only way to see anything was to prop the door open, letting in bugs and preventing privacy. No worries, I would just check out the beach. It turned out the beach was not on the hostel property at all, but a 15 minute walk across and down the road. Seething, but what could I do? I set off, determined to reach the water before sunset. After a while the woods cleared, and the splendor of the Mediterranean lay before me. It wasn’t the prettiest beach I’d ever been on, and the sandy was rocky and uncomfortable beneath my bare feet, the water too cold for swimming, but no matter. This was the famous ocean where Romans did once tread. Overwhelmed with history, I dove into the ocean, and as I dried myself off, I watched the fishermen down the beach reel in their lines for the day.

That night I watched World Cup soccer with the hostel’s partisan clientele. This was before the ugly and awesome battle between Italy and the U.S, and obviously before people suspected that Italia would win the whole thing. In the morning I checked out about as fast as possible, and asked when the next bus was coming. “No bus?” “No bus. It is Sunday.” Livid, I refuses to call another cab, which would have upped the cost of my excursion to Florence-level prices. Having finished my bottle of water in the morning and skipped breakfast, I slung my duffel bag on my shoulders and marched in the direction of San Viscerno, twelve kilometers away, on the wet, rocky sand of the beach. If Roman soldiers could so march, so could I. By the time I go to town, dehydrated and drenched in sweat, it took my last reserve of energy to fish for the change necessary to buy and down the biggest carton of juice they had at the gas station on the border of town. One of the adventures you try to only have once.

As you can tell, my arrival at Monrovia’s beach was not so fraught with drama, but rather, amusement. When it came time to order food, I was feeling like my first Liberian burger, so I asked the waiter what the “Golden Beach Burger” was. He replied, “Well, it’s the beef…and an egg on top. Pretty much everything…bacon…tomato…cucumber…” I interrupted, “Does it have cheese?” “Oh yeah, cheese, whatever you want, it has everything.” Suspicious, I greenlighted the order, and my coworker went with fish samosas. A few minutes later, a second waiter popped over. “Hi, this is my section. The waiter told me you ordered.” “Yes, did he tell you what we ordered?” “No, he just said that you did, and that I should check with you.” Somewhat amused, we repeated our orders. “Wait,” I quipped as he began walking away. “What is on the Golden Beach Burger?” “It’s ground beef, with ham and cheese.” “That’s it? Just ham and cheese?” “Yes, ham and cheese. That is why it’s called a Golden Beach Burger.” I decided to downgrade to a simple cheeseburger, which they cooked about right.

For some reason Michael Jackson came up in conversation. “It was crazy in New York,” I explained. It might have been the biggest news story of the year- we were all glued to the TV.” “It was huge here too,” my coworker replied. “People were mourning, blasting his music in the street for a whole week.” That’s pretty crazy when you think about it. I’ve been pondering fame ever since I heard Lady Gaga on the radio within an hour of landing in Liberia. Whether we’re talking about musicians, athletes or political figures, it’s pretty wild how a certain amount of talent and skill will fall short of a recording contract or a chance to play in the big leagues, but a few notches up you have fans literally all over the world. Sometimes the adulation is more warranted than other times. President Obama is not only of African descent, but he is the leader of the free world, so bumper stickers on local taxis bearing his name are at least partially warranted. And Michael Jackson did spearhead the concerts for Africa, so I can see why he’d be a hero over here. But Lady Gaga and Sarah Palin- what strange pretenses brought them to these shores?

Amos had been waiting for us to finish dinner. We dropped off my co-worker first. She lives by the bridge that takes you out of downtown Monrovia into the ramshackle suburbs, and there is usually a huge crowd of people waiting for the bus to take them across the bridge. I saw the bus coming, and noted that they clearly wouldn’t all fit. “They’ll catch the next one,” Amos replied. “It will come in about an hour.” Damn. An hour between buses meant the madness of India was coming. People would hang out of doors and windows. I told Amos about my experiences on the Mumbai trains, including the first time a dude casually sat in my lap when he couldn’t find space. He laughed, “Yeah why not sit on someone’s lap, it’s better than standing.”

Soon after getting home I got a text inviting me out clubbing. Clubbing is really not my thing, but maybe it would be different in a foreign country. But I rarely enjoy dancing at clubs with friends, and I certainly didn’t have the energy or interest to dance with strangers. I almost got a second wind when I saw on Facebook that my friends, Midnight Spin, had played a show with Guns and Roses. Maybe I can have a crazy night too! Nah, I’ll wait till tomorrow. To bed I went. February 13, 2010 The trial of Charles Taylor is coming to an end. The war criminal is being tried for acts committed in Sierre Leone, rather than crimes in his own country, where he is still popular enough that his wife is being considered as a VP choice on the opposition party’s ticket. There have been several articles about the Liberian community, both here and in the U.S, showing a lack of interest in the trial, partly out of frustration that only crimes committed in Sierre Leone were charged, partly because people want to move on, and partly because The Hague is a somewhat ridiculous institution. I am all for providing fair trials to all accused, including war criminals and terrorists, but when Slobodan Milosevic’s trial went on for so long that he died before a decision could be rendered, you have problems. How long does it take these whiz-kid prosecutors to prove genocide? This is the 21st century- there is no lack of evidence.

A friend commented about the Taylor trial while we were driving: “The Taylor trial fits really oddly with Liberian history. The revolution started against President Tolbert, who is on the currency. He was overthrown by Samuel Doe, who has the country’s main stadium named after him. Doe was opposed by Prince Johnson, who is now a Senator, and Charles Taylor, who is being prosecuted for war crimes. Is he really the only bad guy?”

Multiple people have suggested that Charles Taylor would be a legitimate contender for the presidency if he ran, even though he overthrew one government, engaged in two bloody civil wars and is on trial for war crimes. The opposition party to President Sirleaff has not put forward an agenda of its own, but instead is banking on dissatisfaction with the incumbent and the empty charisma of their candidate (sound familiar?). In their case, that is embodies by former soccer star George Weah. Amos shook his head as we listened to the radio. “This country has so many problems, what we don’t need right now is a soccer player in charge of the country.” Especially a soccer player who has openly discussed putting Charles Taylor’s wife on the ticket as his VP. She’ll make Sarah Palin look peace prize worthy.

That’s some heavy stuff for a pleasant Saturday afternoon. How about hearing the results of the Music Tournament? Fight Test (Flaming Lips) and Running On Empty (Jackson Browne) both went down in the semifinals. In the finals, Miles Davis and the Cool (Gaslight Anthem) triumphed pretty easily over Paper Planes (MIA). On an unrelated note, I was listening to the Clash song “Straight to Hell” this afternoon, and found its intro very similar to “Paper Planes”. If you have both songs, check it out. These music tournaments were for many years a monthly occurrence. How often I do them these days is dictated by the influx of new music I listen to, which will probably be limited in a country where downloading is nearly impossible. Though they are usually solo affairs, I have partnered with multiple people over the years, most notably with Guillermo in the Great Indiana Road Trip Tournament of 2006.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

View from our balcony in Mamba Point

Liberian Dispatch 2

Thank you for your responses to Dispatch 1. I'll address a couple of them in a separate post. Below is the next set of reports- as always, questions and comments welcome.

February 6, 2010

For assistance, contact the person who manages your network. Who the hell would that be? They don’t exactly provide you their contact numbers. What a dumb error message. … Drinking sangria on the porch with some expats last night, I saw a bird fly by and commented that I had seen virtually no animals of any kind since arriving on Sunday. The reply: “There are a lot of hungry people in Monrovia.” This spawned multiple stories of expats as passengers in cars deliberately aiming for animals on the road so locals would have something extra to take home to dinner. “I stopped my driver from hitting a chimpanzee once,” one said. “And everyone gave me dirty looks for the rest of the ride.”

Last night my roommate and I went to Mamba Point Hotel, one of the three luxury hotels in town. We ate sushi in a restaurant that felt like a retro diner. The bill came out to $26 a person, including a glass of wine, not bad for the fanciest restaurant in town. The scene in the restaurant was odd, but not as odd as the casino, which was a tacky little scene (aren’t casinos always adorably so?) filled with Chinese businessmen who have come to take over Liberia. As someone explained to me, “There’s only 3.5 million of us, and most of us are poor. It will not take very much effort for China to control everything.” “Taking over” Liberia is clearly within the United States’ capability too- for a sneak preview there’ the Firestone Rubber Plantation. For those who don’t know, we get much of the rubber for our tires from rural Liberia. After decades of human rights abuses, Firestone has consented to provide education, running water and a hospital to the workers there. For the more affluent they have also opened a golf course and a nice restaurant. Generally, however, we don’t have China’s zeal for exploiting third world mining opportunities, that was so last century.

We live in a secure compound, but random Liberians have been waltzing in and out of here all day. Six so far. I presume the most recent wave are here to fix the washing machine, which for the last three weeks has apparently made everyone’s clothes wet, but not clean. I had envisioned Saturday as a serene day of respite, but the sound of loud drilling and a heat that overpowered my AC drove me to the living room, which is the latest frontier in the ants’ war to take over this apartment. The last thing I need is for these critters to fuck up my laptop all crawling up inside it. My roommate gave me a book on Liberian English, which I’ll study tomorrow morning before I move into my new digs. It’s still astonishing that I can understand such a low percentage of a typical conversation between two Liberians.
February 7, 2010
Last night was an epic rage, and a slightly risky one in that I don’t really know anyone in this country. As I write this, a movie is playing on the TGH lounge TV in Hindi, with Arabic subtitles. I don’t think any of the employees here know either language, and I’m the only customer, but when you only have four channels your options are limited. This Bollywood channel exists to serve the middle-class Lebanese. The other three channels are CNN International, which is heaps superior to CNN in terms of delivering quality news programming, a sports channel that plays mostly soccer, and a music video channel that plays predominantly Christian reggae music. It is highly disappointing that the internet is down here. I’ve already come to terms with it not working in my room, which is a bummer, but it worked so well in the lounge when I visited the compound. Sending out the Dispatch will have to wait until tomorrow, which is just as well, because it allows time to generate the content for Dispatch 2. Interesting, the Bollywood movie, otherwise entirely in Hindi, uses English only in the courtroom scene for motion procedures (“Objection sustained!”). I have just ordered the $10 pasta, which will be a quite common dinner for me unless I learn to cook. Depending on the quality, it could be a pretty strong motivator.
The occasion last night was a going-away party for an ex-pat, held at the beautiful abode of the CEO of Lonestar, the primary cell phone service network in the country. It was as pimp a place as I’ve seen yet in these parts. His compound has a house, a garage, a pool, a partly enclosed patio with a full bar and a great outdoor speaker system, attended to by a retinue of servants. We were among the first guests, and got to take in the bar in its full glory, which was an awesome spectacle. There were about ten bottles of gin, twenty bottles of whiskey, forty bottles of wine and three coolers of beer. It was more stocked than our humble Brooklyn parties, to be sure, even though it ultimately ending up having the same number of attendees, if not fewer. … I made small talk with a couple peeps, including a South African working in hospitality willing to discuss World Cup strategy. He scoffed at the sensationalized Western media, reporting on only the bad in South Africa, reporting that European tickets for the Cup were still not sold out. “South Africa is a modern country, go around and it’s like any European country,” he confidently asserted, before conceding that he had never been to Europe, or any other country besides Liberia

So when you typically hear about an afternoon pool party, you imagine it dying down by the evening, an assumption that caused me to calculate the pace of intake quite erroneously. But when you are in a pool under the hot African sun, sipping scotch from a floating table, you are living the dream and kicking your cares away. It wasn’t until quite late in the evening that I realized I was one toke over the line, throwing ice at people, creating all kinds of splashes, twirling the floating table like a French waiter. Really though, with the possible exception of a thrown beer can, which I’m not sure I actually did, most of my antics were pretty harmless, but I got a stern talking to from one of the hosts, who stressed that he was “going to ask me once nicely to tone it down.” I guess you are a true rager if you’re raging too hard for a South African party stocked with twenty bottles of whiskey. What did they think was going to happen? I left the pool in search of food, but it had all been eaten, at which point it occurred to me that I had had nothing but a bowl of cereal all day. I soon fell asleep in a poolside chair. When I woke up and made the rounds, multiple people chuckled that “people had taken pictures that would wind up on the expat listserv.” To this I retorted, “If the best picture people can get of me after eight hours of drinking whiskey is me asleep in a chair, I’ll count that as a win.” Ten of us piled into an NGO vehicle for a bumpy ride home, and I curled into bed for a peaceful final night of sleep in Mamba Point.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: soccer will never truly catch on as a spectator sport in America because unlike all other popular American sports, it lacks signature moments of drama that you can hone in on. Spectacular moments can happen in any moment of any sports match, but in football when a team is in the red zone, in a basketball game’s final two minutes, when there are runners on base in baseball, during a tie break in tennis, that’s when you stop everything you’re doing and tune in. In soccer, goals can be scored at seemingly any time, but they almost never are. The closest thing they have to a ‘stop what you are doing’ moment is the corner kick, but these are very frequently unsuccessful. And while football TV timeouts, basketball end of game fouls and baseball pitching changes can annoyingly drag thing out, you need to have some breaks in a game to do things like answer the phone, go to the bathroom, get another beer, etc. In soccer, doing any one of those things could cause you to miss a goal, and that goal, in turn, maybe the only goal of the entire game. Incredibly, at the soccer game I went to in Argentina the jumbotron did not show replays, even of goal scored by the home team. Note that I am not knocking soccer. I loved playing it for many years, and should I deem myself in good enough shape, I’ll try playing some pickup here. Bill Simmons believes that two things will make soccer more popular in the next five years: American access to Premiere League games and high definition television, and on the latter point I tend to agree. Watching a soccer game, even with the improvements of the last few years, is like playing one of those old Nintendo games- all the players are miniature and the ball seems to ping off them. Though the ball frankly just travels too far and fast for great camera angles some of the time, I’m sure watchability will only increase. Why is drinkability a real word but watchability not?
Breaking GREAT news. The Superbowl will be shown in my compound. The owner of the compound seems to have a part American part Liberian accent, so he’s probably repatriated. He’s hooked the TV up to ESPN. I’m pretty sure that in the states you can only get the Superbowl on CBS or whatever major network owns the rights these days, but it’s on slight delay, so maybe that’s how its broadcasted internationally. By the way, the pasta was ok, but was it worth $11? I’ll give cooking a try…

Lest anyone chalk up these constant refrains about internet connectivity to whininess, as there are clearly bigger problems in third world countries, even for Westerners, let me explain. If you had told me that I would be stuck on a random island with no internet access, a ala my friend Anna in the Marshall Islands (she was limited to one hour a day for two years), that would probably be ok. I’d get into a rhythm about how to constructively use my time. Heck, brutal as access could be in India, wandering the dusty roads in search of a reliable internet café, when you finally sat down it usually worked good, and you could count on it as long as you could stand the sweltering basements filled with sixteen year old boys playing video games and downloading porn next to you.

The problem is that the internet is constantly supposed to be working, when it isn’t. You stare at a page trying to load for five minutes before it fails completely. Whether at work or at home, much time is wasted trying to connect or reconnect, and approaches to the day are predicated on false assumptions. Unlike in the U.S, where the computer or home connection might have something screwed up, here the service itself can go awry, which leads to this icon in the corner taunting me that I am connected at a high speed, when nothing of the sort is true. It’s the same phenomenon that makes spending 14 hours in a New Orleans jail cell incredibly miserable. If someone tells you, ‘Hey, get ready to spend 14 hours in jail,’ you can brace yourself for an unpleasant day, but knowing only that you are in jail, with no idea when you will get out, or who knows you are there, that is what sucks.
February 8, 2010
Worn out from a long, hot weekend, I slept through the first half of the Super Bowl. For me the Super Bowl is about 50% about the social ritual, the same crew getting together at my friend Adam’s place like a mini New Years party. Another 25% is the commercials and the half-time show, and the final 25% is the football game, with exceptions, like Giants-Patriots. ESPN was broadcasting the game internationally, and while I could have had some company in the lounge, I was so wiped by the time the game started (close to midnight) that I was content to watch it from bed. The ESPN broadcast did not have sweet commercials or a halftime show; they instead had endless ESPN promos for other programming. Among these were advertisements for Wednesday and Friday night basketball, which I’ll definitely rearrange my sleeping schedule to watch at 2am Liberian time. Don’t know if Mr. Outland has committed to ESPN for the rest of the month tho…

The game itself was a pretty good one- Drew Brees and Payton Manning were both impressive, Brees considerably more so in the second half. The game was remarkably devoid of flags, which can really break the flow of a game, and bad turnovers, until the final three minutes. Like a majority of the country, I was rooting for the Saints. A political poll I saw the game had Democrats supporting the Saints by a wide margin, Independents by a small margin, and Republicans by a single percentage point. … In 2005-2006, when I was working in Biloxi, I listened to 870AM New Orleans Radio when I was driving around, which was quite often. The New Orleans Saints lifted the spirits of a totally beaten city on their shoulders when they went 10-6 and battled into the second round of the playoffs that winter. They and LSU, which had an incredible football season that year (attending their homecoming was one of the wildest days I ever had in the south), gave people hope and something to rally around. When the cameras flashed to celebrators rejoicing the Saints victory on Bourbon Street I had to look away- the emotion still run very deep for me in those parts.

There are minor problems in my new apartment: lack of hot water, a terrace door that doesn’t completely close (worry is mosquitoes), a closet that is locked with no key, and of course, the usual lack of internet access. John laughed when I recited this list. “This is Africa…this is Liberia!” “I know,” I replied. That’s why I said they were minor problems.” I hope to resolve these problems when I get home and still have time to hit up the Congo Town market while there is still daylight. It is a bustling hub near my compound, and I get the sense that if I spent an afternoon there I could find a lot of useful groceries and appliances on the cheap. However, the area is very poor, and I would feel uncomfortable traipsing around, flaunting my relative wealth after sunset.

Woop! There goes the power. The power here shuts down at exactly 5pm. This is to tell government employees it’s time to go home. The power eventually comes back on for the busybodies who want to press on through. I’m still waiting for Amos to come get me. Today’s legal work involved some heavy lifting. I’ve been preparing a training workshop in administrative law for rural health administrators, but found out today that the 1976 Health Law, the main statute we use in our work, may have been superseded in this particular area by the 1983 Civil Service Act. Usually it is clear when laws supersede each other, but the latter law was passed under dictator Samuel Doe, with no regard to existing health law, and it is quite poorly written (in contrast to the 1976 law, which looks to have been penned with serious Western training or Western assistance). Meanwhile, another project that I thought involved routine contract drafting is actually a foray into a major political hornet’s nest. John explained the hornet’s nest to me, and it seems that for now I can be rest assured that I work for the hornets.

Amos was kind enough to show me to the closest grocery to my place in Congo Town. Don’t let the Banking Center written outside it deceive you- this Indian run establishment is the place where I’ll be getting my goods from now on, though I lack many of the cooking utensils needed to make anything besides insta-stuff. The Congo Town market embodied the wheelbarrow scene Carrie Stanley had told me about- available for purchase on the barrows were t-shirts, soap, bananas, sunglasses, pretty much anything you need. Amos is legit, and we made plans to check out some restaurants in the future, at least that’s what I gathered. Tonight I’m going to try a Bangladeshi restaurant in Sinkor; am pretty hungry after I showed up to lunch late only to find that they were out of fish in the cafeteria. Deep down it was something of a relief- skipping lunch is irrational, but my stomach would probably come out net even on this situation. I try to eat lunch as late as possible as a matter of course, as it makes the afternoon ‘half’ of the work day shorter. This logic will not work at law firms, where any given evening can morph into an all-nighter, but it does just fine at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.

First time hearing that song “In the Moonlight,” since I left India. The soundtrack, décor and ceiling fans all take me back. The food was so-so, but I ate a lot of it, and will be content to pass out and enjoy the AC back home, clearly the highlight of TGH, which by the way, is commonly known as The Guest House. I had been misled by the signage, which is apparently just an acronym. I deduced this with Alpha, who got slightly lost finding the place, as there are two American schools (the landmark of choice) in my immediate neighborhood. I wonder what about the schools make them American. You’d think it would be the presence of diplomat and U.N kids, but all the little Liberians I saw leaving the school compound this afternoon were walking back to their homes in the neighborhood. … There are actually many similarities between Monrovia and a number of Indian cities. The informal economy dominates, with little shops and street peddlers the place to go for most food and goods. Both have their share of corrugated shacks lining nearly every street and every dusty alleyway. By the way, I don’t think I really know what corrugated means. I know that a corrugated roof or a corrugated shack when I see one, but take away roofs and shacks and I don’t think I could use the word corrugated in a sentence. Can you? Send me your best corrugated sentence.

Indian cities are very slum-heavy and poor, and in both the Indian and Liberian socio-economic hierarchy, the government-bureaucrat class not only has much of the wealth, but flaunts it quite lavishly in the form of chauffeured cars and fancy housing in prominent places. This couldn’t be more different in the United States, where talented people often have to be persuaded out of private practice to work in government, while lifelong government workers hardly rock out like high rollers. India has a pretty impressive public transportation system, but in cities like Mumbai and Delhi there are simply too many people for the busses and (in Mumbai’s case) trains to handle, which leads to a heavy reliance on auto-rickshaws, where are cheap and easy. In Monrovia, there are virtually no busses, and the vast taxi fleet transports everyone, not just Westerners. While I ride solo when someone like Alpha picks me up, the locals generally ride four or five strangers to a cab, which goes in a straight line up and down Tubman Boulevard for a fixed fee.

Storytelling has been a bit of an issue here. At the pool party I went with a classic and a quickie but goodie- the Indian murder story and the lesson about how South Americans speak in rhyme. The response to both was quite muted. Having participated in a small handful of kicking back spinning the yarn sessions, it’s not that my stories aren’t good enough for the expat community here. Yes, most of the expats here have worked in an average of three other African countries, and have their own crazy shit to throw back at me, but it’s more in the delivery. The school of storytelling I come from, the Chi Gam stage, is an unforgiving place, where action is around every corner, questions seek answers, crescendos build, the actors bow and the curtain swoops in. The expat school of storytelling is deliberately nonchalant, touching down with a spoken or implicit, ‘yeah, pretty crazy, but you know, whatever, that’s New Years in Rwanda for ya,’ celebrating disengagement like the old school indie rock scene. I haven’t really tried out any of the great Rage stories, but I usually hold back on those stories unless I’m talking to friends or complete strangers. The expat scene here is finite, and I don’t want to come off like a jackass, especially to people who may have been hit with the far flung ice cubes launched from my shallow end of the pool bunker.

Almost everywhere you go around here you can hear the hum of generators. They power nearly all the power in this country, if not all of it. The cost of buying and providing fuel for generators is one of the main reasons for the expensive state of the housing economy; most Liberians live without power of any kind. Most of the neighborhoods in Monrovia are truly painful to look at, because not only are the shacks hot, dusty and crowded, but there is garbage strewn about everywhere. Little canal boast not water, but a gross green sludge full of trash. The exhaust of cars and smoke from fires fill the air, rendering it almost unbreathable in certain places. Men, women and children lug around heavy loads on their heads. I’m always on the move, so I can’t answer this yet, but I’m curious how many goods any of these families sell in the market. Everyone seems broke, and the ratio of customers to vendors is not ideal. I’m sipping Club Beer, the official local brew of Monrovia, as I write this. It is not bad. Not bad.
February 9, 2010 I am reading over the 2007 National Health Plan, which provides some background on the Liberian economy. Per capita GDP fell from $1,269 in 1980, right before the start of the civil war, to $163 in 2005. That is staggering, or, to use a word commonly employed in this report a precipitous drop. From 1991-2006 there was “virtually no public source of electricity or piped water.” People fleeing the war in the countryside flocked to Monrovia, which has grown from a prewar population of 500,000 people to roughly 1.3 million today. The literacy rate is less than 40%, and by 2004 only a third of children starting first grade made it to fifth (a number that I’m sure has improved considerably in the last few years). I could go on and on with depressing statistics, but I think that’s enough for now. On a positive, healthcare related note, this report, published in early 2007, had a goal of raising healthcare spending from $12 per capita to $18 per capita, but in a briefing last week we were told that spending is up to $29 per capita. You are reading those numbers correctly, by the way. Here is a sentence that applies to my particular line of work: “Drug regulation is deficient, and private dealers freely import, distribute and sell medicines. The circulation of counterfeit, substandard and expired medicine considerable.”

The president is sinking in the approval polls. Can’t create jobs for the unemployed masses. The radio hammers at the president all day. An opposition party’s unlikely recent senate election victory has bolstered their belief that that they can take out the president in the next presidential election. One supporter pleads to me, “Under anyone else, it would be a million times worse. This is just a very, very difficult situation.” As you probably guessed by now, I am talking about President Ellen Johnson Sirleaff, Liberia’s embattled incumbent. She is bright, charismatic and hardworking, no question about it. Every day you can see new roads being paved, electric poles erected, hospitals and other building under construction. Unlike some presidents, she has a solid PR effort, with billboards constantly reminding voters of these achievements. Unfortunately, by all accounts, little of what she has done has trickled down to the poor Monrovians and the country people, who formed the base of opposition against her in 2005, and will again in 2011. Yesterday I had a meeting with an old Ministry official with a reputation for hostility, which was on display until I noticed the painting behind me- a mural of Ellen and Barack side by side. Under Ellen it read, “Liberia’s First Female President,” with her date of election, and under Barack it read, “America’s First African-American President.” I told her about my work on the Obama campaign and that seemed to soften her. “He’s having it so hard right now,” she sighed.

“What did Sarah Palin have written on her hand?” Startled, I look at John, who smirks. “Here in Liberia we pay more attention to American politics more than you think we do.” I suppose any amount of attention paid to American politics is surprising, as Liberia is a complete non-issue in American politics. It’s not like Cubans, Israelis or Brits paying attention. I shiver to think that Palinism, even as a concept, has permeated foreigners impressions of us, though I suppose every country has its national political embarrassments; see Le Pen, France. A sometimes amusing cartoon strip at Dartmouth had Le Pen as one of its recurring characters, and of course he was a living, breathing, right-wing pen. That was a different cartoon strip then the one that mockingly depicted me as “President Che.” Sadly, I never met the kid who wrote that cartoon, but if the general tenor of his strip was any indication, he was a bitter person, who may or may not have clung to his guns and religion.

An American girl and I were looking to order lunch, which is always a trial for her in Monrovia, since she is a vegetarian. We found a place that’s supposed to have good food, so we ordered to grilled cheeses with Bong fries. I was stoked to see what Bong fries looked like. A seemingly simple order, but she texted me “Somehow that was the most complicated order I’ve ever placed.” About ten minutes after that she called to let me know that the order had been canceled. The restaurant was out of bread.

Cell phone etiquette in this country is worse than in the United States. There people still don’t know how to turn their cell phones off before theater performances, meetings and lunches. And by “off” I mean “on vibrate,” of course. Here, however, there is no meeting too important to be interrupted by an obnoxious ring. Between the poor reception and loud noise everywhere, the whole room can hear a cannonball of static from the other line, and the recipient has to shout back to make himself heard. The polite folks will yell “in meeting! In meeting!” before hanging up. I suppose part of the problem is that no one (literally no one) has voice mail, but you’d think peeps could put their phones on silent and returned their missed calls after.

In studying up on the issue of corporate regulation I came across this fantastic quote from President Lincoln: The money powers prey upon the nation in times of peace and conspire against it in times of adversity. It is more despotic than a monarchy, more insolent than autocracy, and more selfish than bureaucracy. It denounces as public enemies, all who question its methods or throw light upon its crimes. I have two great enemies, the Southern Army in front of me and the Bankers in the rear. Of the two, the one at my rear is my greatest foe.. corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money powers of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in the hands of a few, and the Republic is destroyed."

I watched a soccer game tonight on ESPN. It looks like Mr. Outland is keeping the channel, which is essential. As legit as Cristiana Ananpour’s show is, CNN International is not much for entertainment. I did learn on her show that the Nigerian president had apparently gone missing for weeks in Saudi Arabia, leading to power struggles and limiting the country’s ability to deal with rebel fighters. Tough times. The other functioning TV stations are a Lebanese controlled station that shows Bollywood movies and soap operas, and a music video channel that plays uplifting Liberian Christian music. As for the soccer game, Barcelona won its Spanish League match easily despite picking up two red cards. Days after making my disparaging remarks about soccer on television I will have it thrust upon me, but after tonight I stand by my original assertions. One of Barcelona’s two goals was scored during a two minute break I took from the game to check on my insta-ready Indian food. I am not a sweet cook yet. …

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.
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 clichés 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...