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.

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