New lands, new scams

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30 juillet 2012

New lands, new scams

Before I begin, I need to get one thing out of my system: holy crap is Dakar nice when compared to Burkina Faso! They have a beach! Palm trees! Good restaurants! Taxi cabs without partially shattered windshields! Pretty buildings! Views! Sidewalks that aren’t just concrete slats balanced precariously over open sewers! It’s amazing here, and a BIG photo post will surely follow tomorrow or the next day. Dakar is amazing, and we’ll get to that, but today is more about comparative Peace Corps experiences.

If you’ve been following this blog lately, you’ll already know that I flew to Dakar yesterday for a series of medical evaluations (that will commence at 4 pm today). It was a more or less uneventful flight, save for the fact that I was seated right beside the damn engine and couldn’t hear a frigging thing for the entire trip. I got in right at sunset, rode over to the PC Senegal bureau with the travel agency facilitateur that they sent over (the PC Senegal bureau is soooo much nicer than the PC Burkina bureau), dropped my stuff off, and more or less immediately went out with a group of Senegal PCVs to get dinner.

Initially, we were just going to walk down the street to this restaurant on the beach (a beach! With sand! And boats!), where these ladies sell freshly grilled fish (fish! That isn’t tilapia!) for 1 mille each. Unfortunately, when we got there the beach was deserted (Ramadan = no fish grilling ladies), so we sort of wandered in circles for awhile, discussing where to go and what to do. Eventually, we decided to catch a cab to another beach, wherein we were assured there would in fact be fish grilling ladies.

…and that’s when the fun began.

After we got in the cab, everything went swimmingly at first. Then, we pulled over to get gas (a common thing in West Africa), and I learned all about one of the more obnoxious local scams. It goes like this:

  1. You negotiate the price with the cab driver in advance (also common in West Africa). You agree on a sane, reasonable, and entirely normal price of, say, 1500 CFA (this would be 300CFA in Ouaga. Dakar is pricey!).
  2. You get in the cab, and head towards your destination.
  3. The cabbie says ‘I need to stop for gas’.
  4. You pull into the gas station, and he turns around and says ‘I’m going to need that 5000 CFA now, so I can get gas’.
  5. You reply something to the effect of ‘you mean the 1500 CFA we agreed on?’
  6. He says, ‘no, the 5000 CFA you said you would pay me. Are you trying to cheat me?’
  7. You reply ‘what are you talking about?’
  8. He gets out, starts yelling really loudly about how you’re cheating him. He makes a big scene, and waves and yells a lot of imprecations at you in Wolof (the local language).
  9. You get out and start yelling back.
  10. He accuses you of being a thief, and gets blustery and says he’s going to kick your ass.
  11. You’re unimpressed, figuring you have him 5 to 1.
  12. Then the gas station employees start drifting up, and you realize…he has intentionally brought you to a station that’s owned by his brother or cousin or whatever.
  13. He makes a strategic mistake, and says ‘you give me 5000 CFA now, or I call the police’
  14. You call his bluff and say, ‘fine…while you’re at it, we’ll call the Peace Corps (yeah, that’s right…we’re not tourists! Surprise, asshole!), and they’ll send a lawyer over. We have all night. Let’s see who wins this little showdown.’
  15. His gas station buddies back off a bit.
  16. You talk, slap 1500 CFA on his dash, tell him to fuck off in English, and flag another cab.
  17. Situation resolved.

That was quite the situation, let me tell you. While I was never really scared (I am yet to meet the African that I would be afraid to take on head to head), getting in a fight with someone who has a grudge and nothing to lose is never fun. If we hadn’t been PCVs, with solid French and a good bit of Wolof, it could have been a really tough bind. I get the sense that this is a thing that works frequently and well on tourists, and I wouldn’t even want to think about how scared you might be if it was your first time in Africa, you had no language skills, and you were more or less at this guy’s mercy for getting where you wanted to go.

Even more terrifying is a variation on this scheme that the local PCVs explained to me in the 2nd cab: instead of taking you to a gas station, they take you to a police station (again, where a brother/cousin/etc works) and accuse you of theft. Then, instead of paying 3 times too much for a cab ride, you get shaken down for a ‘fine’ that just coincidentally happens to be exactly the amount of all the cash you’re carrying on you and stupid enough to mention that you have.

I’m not sure I’d actually have the cojones to pull it off, but I think if that happened, I would just let them arrest me. I’m pretty sure the clout that PC pulls would be more than enough to get me out the next day. It would just be a question of getting through the night without getting thumped by the police and/or getting worked over by the other inmates (who I probably would be afraid to take in a fight). It’s an interesting theory…to hash out over a victory beer.

Dakar is a hard place. I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.

But maybe not by cab.


I have no idea what I want

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29 juillet 2012

I have no idea what I want

It’s a common theme of this blog (and more or less every other PCV blog) that Peace Corps service is a constant roller coaster of positive and negative emotions. One week, you love your job, you love your site, and you love your life; the next week, your job is idiotic, your site is a miserable hellhole, and your life is a pit of despair and loneliness.

Nor do the hills and valleys really flatten out with time. My first week in country, I loved and hated everything about this place, and this week I feel the same way.

But unlike my first week in country, this week I’m leaving, and I don’t know if I’ll be returning. Yes, I could be in Dakar for just 3 or 4 days before I’m diagnosed, fixed, and sent right back, but it’s equally possible that they could run two weeks’ worth of scans, find nothing, and decide that it’s in my best interest to medically separate me. There’s just no way to reason in advance of some badly-need data, and so I’m left trying to plan and mentally prepare for all eventualities.

The problem is, I have no idea what I really want to happen. Some days, I think ‘gee…if I got offered interrupted service right now, I would take it and never look back’, but other days, I’m solidly in the ‘there is NO WAY that I’m voluntarily leaving this place before my two years is up!’ camp. It changes rapidly and without any clear reason, and my mindset is sufficiently mercurial that even *I* don’t know what’s up with me.

Part of that is obviously because it’s my brain – ie, the part that does the evaluating and decision making – that’s broken right now. You can’t really make good decisions under stress anyway, but youdamn sure can’t make good decisions when you’re under stress *and* your brain is being physically damaged (or at least adversely affected).

You can see my dilemma: when I’m feeling down, how much of that is me, how much of that is the ‘normal’ stress of PC service, and how much of that is whatever the heck it is that is happening to my brain? Similarly, when I’m feeling very up, am I really feeling positive about what I’m doing, or am I just riding a temporary serotonin high, courtesy of the latest whatever-the-hell-is-wrong up there in the ol’ grey matter? You can go crazy trying to sort these sorts of things out, so I’m letting them rest right now, in anticipation of further information in Senegal.

I do have one consolation though: I’m not the only one who feels this way. Yesterday, I was talking to a friend while we lounged by the pool, and she was recounting her memories of her first 6 months at site. Apparently, she was miserable, and she remembered specifically writing in her journal that she wouldn’t be upset at all if something were to happen to her program just after her one year mark. And then it did (she originally served in Mali, and came here after that program was evacuated and closed follow a coup d’etat in March). But did she take the previously anticipated (and even coveted) interrupted service[1] and go home? No, of course not. She came to Burkina instead.

Which just goes to show: you never quite know what you want, until the time comes to make a decision. Then, you make what seems like the best choice at the time, and you go with it.

I’m curious to see how I’ll choose.

[1] There are five ways for a PCVs service to end: administrative separation (you get fired), medical separation (you’re sent home for medical reasons), early termination (ET)(you resign), close of service (COS)(you finish your term and go home), and interrupted service (your service is ended due to factors beyond your control, for example a revolution in your country of service requires all US personnel to be evacuated). Normally, you only get full benefits if you have A) served at least a year, and B) get medically separated, COS, or get interrupted service. However, with interrupted service, it’s possible to get full benefits anyway, so this can be an especially appealing option to some PCVs.

Throw away your mirror

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27 juillet 2012

Throw away your mirror

Yesterday, after putting it for weeks, I finally broke down and did one of the most uncomfortable things that you can ever do in an alien land: I got a haircut.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but getting a haircut is a big deal! Sure, most haircuts are more or less non-events, but we’ve all had the experience of getting an absolutely awful haircut, and it truly is traumatic. A bad haircut can affect your self-image, your happiness, and even your productivity at work – it’s one of those subtle little things that helps to make up our weltanschauung, and we would be wise to never underestimate the relative importance of such small details in our lives. This is especially true here in Burkina Faso, where getting a haircut entails conveying your wants and needs in a different language, your hair is physically very different from what the hairdressers are used to working with, and the training and experience of your hairdresser may or may not be zero[1].

Point in fact: yesterday, I went to a hairdresser whom I know to be good and to be experienced with PCV hair, and I said in perfectly acceptable French, ‘clip my whole head (he only has clippers), and take off maybe a centimeter from the top, and make it a little shorter on the sides’. Then I asked, ‘do you understand?’, and he replied ‘yeah! You want me to just trim it a little, more on the sides and back, but almost as long on top as it is now’. This seemed perfectly clear, so I sat down and waited…

…and the very first swipe of the clippers left a buzzed strip on the back of my head barely more than 1/8 of an inch long.


My first instinct was to yell in outrage, but since the one thing he can’t do is put it back on, there was nothing for it: I was committed. So, I closed my eyes, and waited, and when he was done I had a very nice, neat, high and tight that any Marine Corps recruiter would approve of heartily. It is, in fact, almost the exact opposite of what I asked him to do.

But you know what? I don’t really care.

See, one of the reasons we really hate a bad haircut in the US is that we are surrounded by mirrors. We have mirrors in the bathroom, in the bedroom, in the car, at work, in restaurants, everywhere. I’m willing to bet that if you’re reading this from work, you’ve checked yourself in the mirror at least 5 times this morning. Maybe I’m wrong, but I bet if I am, I’m only off by one or two times.

And since you’ve checked yourself in the mirror so much, you’re probably very concerned to one degree or another about your appearance. Maybe you’re having a bad hair day. Or maybe that zit that no one else can see is driving you nuts. Or you’re wondering if those are wrinkles beginning to form at the corners of your eyes. Or one of ten thousand other little peculiarities. You’re not a bad person for worrying about these things, you’re just a human with a mirror – we’re social creatures, and when you can see yourself as others do, you automatically begin to judge yourself as you judge them. And it sucks.

That’s why I love Burkina Faso: there are more or less no mirrors here. Sure, I know my hair is short, but you know what? I don’t care. Because I can’t see it, I’m much more focused on how much fun it is to run my hand back and forth over the stubble, as well as being more than a little bemused by the fact that all of my surgical scars are currently visible in their entirety. In place of the visual anxiety imparted by the mirror, I’m instead delighted by the tactile pleasure of it all. And I think that’s a good thing.

It’s also an important lesson to take home with me: throw away your mirror. It may be a wrench at first, but in not too terribly long at all, you’ll be much, much happier.

Trust me.


[1] There’s no such thing as a license for that sort of thing here. If you own a pair of scissors and some clippers, you put a sign outside of your home and viola! – a salon!

Dakar bound

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26 juillet 2012

Dakar bound

This morning, I heard back from Washington. As expected, my condition is going to require medical evacuation, so that I can get an MRI and have a consultation with a neurologist. Unexpectedly, this medical evacuation isn’t going to be to the US, but rather to Dakar in Senegal. Apparently, the doctors in the US are concerned about the effects of a long, unsupervised flight on my brain (reasonable enough), and they opted for a shorter flight to Dakar instead (I suspect this also makes it easier to bring me back in the event of a successful diagnosis/cure).

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Yes, I’m glad to finally have news, and yes, I’ll be intrigued to see Dakar, but I’m not at all sure of how to interpret this intermediate measure. Does this mean they think I can be quickly diagnosed and fixed (If so, awesome!)? Or does this mean they’re concerned that if I get sent to DC, the odds are low that I will be sent back (If so, boo!)? On the surface, it’s a medically sensible decision; however, what happens if my MRI comes back normal? What happens if the neurologist looks at me and says ‘I have no idea what this is’[1]?

The problem with medical evacuation is it’s a big ball of uncertainty. I asked how long I should pack for, and I was told ‘it depends’; I asked if I would be coming back to Burkina, and I was told ‘it depends’; I asked if I would be being sent on to the States, and I was told ‘it depends’. I know they’re looking out for my best interests, and they’re putting my health needs first, but I’ll be damned if they’re not driving me crazy in the process!

At any rate, at least I know something now. Sure, it’s another few days of waiting, but I can deal with that – it’s the waiting and not knowing that was upsetting me. Now I can just settle back, enjoy my time in Ouaga, and try to be as relaxed as possible for the upcoming flight and analysis.

And try not to go crazy with more waiting and uncertainty…

[1] I don’t mean to sound negative, but experience with neurologists suggests that this happens often. Neurologists are some amazingly bright people, and they have some truly incredible tools at their disposal, but the human brain is even more complex and incredibly, and all too often it seems their best efforts are defeated. But maybe (hopefully?) I’m just being pessimistic…?

What’s actually wrong with me?

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25 juillet 2012

What’s actually wrong with me?


Over the course of the past two months, I have become increasingly ill, to the point that my service has been at least temporarily suspended. At the moment, I’m on medical hold in Ouagadouogu, awaiting further tests and information.

To date, I’ve feeling somewhat tentative about talking about this, mostly due to PC’s determined approach to preserving medical confidentiality. However, upon reflection, I’ve decided that it’s my health, my life, and my decision, so I want to talk about it in more detail.

Note: I hate typing the same thing twice. I already had to do a written report of my symptoms for the consulting neurologist in DC, so I’m going to save time and just copy and paste it below. You will be reading exactly what my doctor read. Sorry for the rather pompous tone.

My current problems began with a seemingly innocuous incident in March of this year. During IST, a chair I was sitting in collapsed, dropping me backwards so that I hit my head on the ground. Although the blow was quite gentle – the skin wasn’t even red afterwards – it nonetheless left me unconscious for about 2 minutes, and feeling somewhat woozy and hung over afterwards.

At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. I had experienced mild spells of unconsciousness after my surgery, but my surgeon was aware of them and was of the opinion that they would dissipate with time. This event felt very similar in character, especially since my prior spells had all been triggered by rapid positional changes of the head and this had almost entirely consisted of a rapid positional change of my head (ie, tumbling head over heels). Consequently, I was inclined to dismiss it as an unfortunate accident and nothing more.

However, since then I have begun to experience a gradually accelerating series of unfortunate events. These episodes are hard to describe in detail, but they are certainly neurological in nature. They seem to take the form of a mild fainting spell or seizure: for 10 or 15 minutes beforehand, I feel very strange. Faint, and weak, like one might with low blood sugar, but with an accompanying tightness in the area of my surgical scar and at the temples. After awhile, I feel almost entirely overcome by the desire to lie  down, and then I have no clear memories of what happens.

I’m told I appear to fall deeply asleep for perhaps five minutes, followed by a period of semi-consciousness that gradually expands into full returned capacity. Afterwards, I’m light-sensitive, weak, and generally feel hung over. Eating sugar or drinking sugared drinks helps. After a couple of hours, I’m back to normal, save that I have no real memories of the episode itself or the first 5 -10 minutes after waking up.

At first, these episodes didn’t unduly concern me. They’re not especially burdensome or serious in effect – for example, I can feel them coming well in advance, so I’m not afraid to ride a bike or drive a car – and they’re similar enough in feeling to dehydration or overexertion that for awhile I thought they were just an effect of insufficient hydration or of the heat of the Burkina Faso hot season (120+ for days on end). However, hot season has now ended, and they’re coming more frequently, rather than less: I had 1 or 2 in April, 2 – 4 in May, 4 – 6 in June, and 9 so far in July. Also, they don’t seem to have any immediate environmental cause: I’ve had them immediately after taking Doxy & 14 hours after, in the morning and at night, in heat and cold, before exercise and without. There doesn’t seem to be any common thread between them, save that they happen, and they’re happening more frequently.

Nor do they incapacitate me in any way for work. I can still ride a bike, meet with local officials, write grants, carry water, shovel dirt, chop wood, and do all of the many other things a PCV does in the field. I just sometimes have to stop and lie down for a bit. Insofar as my daily life is concerned, these events are an annoyance rather than a real problem; it’s what they might presage in terms of a graver underlying condition that concerns me. Why are they happening? Are they just isolated, or do they indicate something more? I’m in no way concerned because of the events themselves, but I am deeply concerned as to what they might mean.

There are also accompanying side effects that may or may not be directly related to these episodes. I feel as though I’m far more emotional a few days before one happens. I’m also more prone to anger,
I generally feel more stressed, and my mood is far more down that it normally is in the US. Furthermore, I frequently experience an odd feeling of tightness at the base of my skull. It’s hard to describe, but it’s definitely internal rather than muscular in sensation; to a certain extent, it almost feels as though I can feel one of these episodes coming, and that I can fight it off in a way, if I try.

It’s very hard to describe the feeling and effect of these events. From the outside, it looks like a sort of limp seizure. From the inside, I go from fine to feeling a bit weird to wanting to lie down to waking up and being foggily uncertain of what happened. Before and after, I’m fine; my blood pressure doesn’t spike at either time (I borrowed a cuff to check), I don’t feel like my blood sugar is off (but I did not check), I don’t see lights or visual effects, and I don’t get especially strong headaches. Nor can I predict when an episode will happen. I just have them, and then I wait.

Here endeth the report.

So what does this all mean?

To put it bluntly, I have no idea. And right now, my doctors don’t either. They haven’t seen one, my scans are all normal, and with little more than a description to go on it’s hard to say what’s up. Happily, I can say it doesn’t seem like I’m experiencing another tumor, but that’s about it. I suppose it will be up to the very bright boys and girls in the US to figure out anything more than that.

Let’s hope they can.


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15 juillet 2012


Back in December, my petite amie acquired a local puppy (named Chloé) and raised her with great patience and affection. Unfortunately, the cost of taking a dog home to Canada was excessive, so when L. left in April, Chloé remained here and became the ward of my site mate.

Shortly thereafter, Chloé went into heat for the first time. As it’s not possible to fix female dogs here, she of course got promptly gang-raped by more or less every male dog in town every night for three straight weeks. Quelle surprise, she got pregnant, and we were finally gifted last week with the product of her brutal unions: seven squirming brown and white sausages, 4 female, 3 male, all looking nothing like their mother and presumably therefore exactly like the unknown father.

Right now, they don’t do much but squirm around the room, nurse, and squeal pathetically when their rather inexperienced mother rolls over on them. They’re kind of cute, but every mammal is cute when their eyes haven’t even opened. I’m holding one wrapped up in a keffiyeh on my lap right now, and he is contentedly twitching his way through a dream of whatever it is that newborn puppies twitch and dream about.

As I sit here, I find myself thinking about a number of things. First, life is almost always better with a puppy than without. Second, having a dog would introduce a bit of light and movement into my bachelor’s existence, and could very possibly make a huge difference in my service. Third, the cost of taking a dog home to the US is just as prohibitive as it is to take a dog to Canada. Finally, they regularly eat dogs here.

The summation of these comes down to this: as badly as I want a dog (and I DO want one), there’s no way I could take it home with me, and it just seems cruel to raise an animal to be greatly loved, only to turn it loose a year later into a land that sees unattached dogs as food.

On the other hand, these puppies are alive whether I take one or not, and is turning them loose on the streets any kinder or crueler than doing what I can while I can? It seems terrible to say ‘well, I’ll take a dog for awhile, because even a few months of happiness beats a lifetime of struggle on the streets’, but maybe that would actually be for the best?

I don’t know what to do. I’m genuinely torn. I had originally resolved to not take on a pet of any kind while serving in Burkina, but now that I’m sitting here with this puppy on my lap, I don’t know what to do. Do I take a dog while I can, then turn him (I will only take a boy, because they can be fixed) loose into Burkina Faso when I leave? Or do I resist the (admittedly very strong) temptation, and just not get involved?

What do you think? Comments and feedback would be appreciated.

Of politics and metaphysics

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14 juillet 2012

Of politics and metaphysics

During a (admittedly drunken) conversation the other day, I had an interesting realization: I actually care far less about the outcome of the pending presidential election in real life than I do about the downstream effects on my social media.

I know that sounds shallow at first, but I think it’s actually a more insightful point than it might seem. Bear with me, and I’ll explain.

In the real world, whether the current president stays incumbent or the new guy replaces him, it’s unlikely to have too much of a direct impact on my life. Yeah, the legislation may change a bit, but I’m still going to get up in the morning, I’m still going to go to some job or another, I’m still going to try to take some sort of annual vacation, and I’m still going to spend as much time as I can with friends and family. Life will go on, regardless of which candidate comes out ahead in an ultimately transitory and cosmically meaningless vote.

But that’s in real life. On social media (for me this means Facebook, but if I used Twitter, Reddit, etc, I’m sure the effects would only be amplified), it’s an utterly different story. Unless I unsubscribe to the feeds of a significant percentage of my friends list, if the ‘wrong’ guy wins, I’m going to have to scroll through gads and gads of politically-oriented photographs, news articles, charts, debates, etc ad nauseum. It may sound a little whiny, but it’s a real inconvenience. Yeah, I could just not use it, but doing so would have a real cost, considering my current location – if I were to stop using Facebook, I would immediately lose daily or near-daily contact with a large number of friends and family.

And that’s where I get to my real point: the downstream effects of social media are actually starting to affect my political choices and decisions. And I’m an educated guy. No, I’m not going to vote for one guy or the other because I’m worried about what Facebook will say, but what about someone who doesn’t have my intellectual and social advantages? How many die-hard republicans, democrats, tea party members, etc are having their opinions definitively shaped by social media right now? I think it’s an interesting – and frankly scary – question.

I’m no sociologist or political scientist (in fact, I’m a historian, which is damn near the polar opposite), but I will predict you a prediction: at some point in the next 1-3 presidential election cycles, the effect of social media will get BIG attention. As in, somebody will win definitively at least in part because they managed to harness this thing that we all now partake in. Yeah, it’s gotten some noise already, but nothing major: politics is primarily the venue of the old, and social media is still mostly dominated by the under-30 set. Give it another 12 years, and if you don’t have a major Facebook/Twitter/whatever comes along campaign, you don’t get elected. It will be like Kennedy/Nixon all over again, but on the nets instead of on TV.

Wait and see.

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