Saturday, December 22, 2007

Desert and Dial-Up

We are at an internet cafe in Los Lunas, New Mexico taking advantage of hot drinks and fast bandwidth. I purchased the cowboy boots for my colleagues, bought a pair of running shoes for myself, and Rico downloaded iTunes and a couple of language packs from Microsoft.

Yesterday we went for a drive with my dad to Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge, then around to Quarai at the Salinas Missions. We got hit by a blizzard while in the middle of the red flagstone church and pueblo ruins at Quarai - definitely a memorable experience for two people who have been living in the tropics for quite a while.

Here are some photos from our day trip:






Best wishes to all of you - I hope you are enjoying the holiday season with loved ones just as much as we are.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tour de Santa

More images from our graffiti photo-taking expedition this afternoon...

The first picture shows the outside of the Casa Rosa with the bonde passing below. A few years ago, some photographer in Santa took a similar shot and actually made it into a postcard, of which I promptly bought about 150 in the souvenir shop down the street.

The banana trees in the second photo are in our garden, and are doing quite well with all the rain we've had recently. Bananas seem to be a theme in my life...

In the rest of the photos, you can see some of the typical architecture of the neighborhood, as well as bits of the art that is everywhere up here.

Also included in the sequence is a series of photos taken at the Parque das Ruinas, a neoclassical palace where Laurinda Santos Lobo would hold fabulous parties with music, art and dance some 100 years ago. Isadora Duncan was often a guest at these parties. After the socialite Laurinda's death, the palace fell into ruins and was left as abandoned until the city of Rio promoted its rehabilitation as a cultural center. Two architects mixed modern steel beams and glass panes with the columns and remaining structures from the original construction, and the result is quite unique. The Parque das Ruinas offers some of the most beautiful views of the city in both directions (downtown and Zona Sul), and best of all is only a 10-minute walk from our house.

Ah, and you can finally see what my new short haircut looks like, though I must add a few disclaimers: 1) It was windy today, and my hair in many of the photos is being either plastered against my head or thrown up on end as a result; 2) I took a shower and left the house without doing a thing to my hair. Were I not so desperate to take some photos before the rains return, I'd have taken the time to scrunch in some wax, thus diminishing a bit of the 80's aerobics instructor vibe I fear I've got going on. Regardless, I'm happier with my hair. I don't know if it's because it's grown a bit in the last 2 weeks, or if I'm simply getting used to it. Either way, I'm not complaining.



















Graffiti in Santa Teresa

In Santa Teresa, many times art imitates life. Much of the best graffiti in the neighborhood is based on actual street scenes, with incredibly lifelike replicas of neoclassical palaces appearing as the backdrop to the latest team of Brazilian soccer stars. Of course, many of the murals feature the bonde (trolley), the rickety yellow and blue symbol of Santa Teresa.

The graffiti in Santa, much like the other expressions of creativity in the neighborhood, are living works of art. They are constantly changing, different artists contributing their expressions to a clandestine visual conversation. Certain spots in the neighborhood are always receiving new layers of color and commentary; other places are seemingly abandoned, left to the rain and humidity, the colors fading to gray and leaving ghost-like traces of the original images.

I have a long-running obsession with street art. Today, finally, Rico and I took a long walk through the neighborhood so I could photograph some of the graffiti closer to home. Rio has some of the best urban art in the world, I am convinced, and I'd like to be able to take pictures of the murals and statements in paint that I see out bus windows as I go up and down the city streets. Perhaps, one day, I will go on this mission with my friend Jenna, who also shares this desire. Until then, I share with you here the unique style of Santa...















Mozambique Island Trade Bead Bracelets Available for Pre-Order

Unique bracelets by Alexandra Amaro featuring 300-year-old glass trade beads from Ilha de Moçambique - now available at my Etsy shop.

A historical trading center with ties to Arabia, Persia and India, the island was settled by the Portuguese shortly after Vasco da Gama’s arrival in 1948. In 1558, Mozambique Island was named the capital of Portuguese East Africa.

Over the years, some 500 ships sank off the island, spilling such trade items as pottery, glass beads, ivory and coins into the shallow waters of the Indian Ocean. Today, at low tide, local boys dig in the exposed sand flats for the remnants of these treasures.

These bracelets feature different combinations of trade beads in bright colors, many with etched designs and faceted details. All bracelets close with a handmade sterling silver clasp.

A limited number of bracelets are available for pre-order and will be shipped on December 17th when I arrive in New Mexico. If you live in the US, these will arrive in time for Christmas since they will ship via Priority Mail.






Visit my Etsy site to pre-order your Mozambique Island trade bead bracelet - a unique gift idea for yourself or a loved one!

Estamos Juntos

At noon my phone beeps with an incoming text message: Come downstairs. It's lunchtime.

I type the final paragraphs of a petition for the rights to a parcel of land near the river, suspend my computer, and head down to the warehouse.

After 2 months of eating cookies, cup-of-soup, cashew nuts and whatever other non-perishables I can store in my desk drawer instead of a proper lunch, I have felt the sorry effects on my body. I have gained weight, and not surprisingly feel sluggish during the day as the result of subsiding on carbohydrates, tea and coffee.

I've found a solution, however, to my lunch woes. My colleagues on the top floor of the office - the financial people, the administrators, the paper-pushers - may be content to go through the day with no lunch break, but the boys in the warehouse take a much more sane approach to eating. They actually set aside an hour each day, at a fixed time, to enjoy a proper hot meal.

Each day, we share a communal lunch. I cook family-sized portions of chicken curry, lasagne, rice and beans, enough to go around.

The first day I cooked for the warehouse boys, Raimundo, the cashier who sits inside a locked metal cage and deals with all the money from the fresh produce transactions, was afraid to eat my food.

"It's different from what I know," he said, one eyebrow cocked, examining the tray of ground beef and potato casserole I'd brought to work. "This is white people food!" he teased, sending a broad smile in my direction, all the while ensuring he was out of arm's reach lest I try to run after him and give him a smack upside the head.

After watching Ahmed and Paulo try my food with no disastrous effects, Raimundo consented, gingerly taking a bite. He chewed slowly, his tongue taking in the taste of the white people beef and potatoes, then suddenly clutched at his throat, fell to his knees, and mimicked the slow, painful death of someone who has been terribly poisoned.

"Fine," I said, turning my back and feigning indifference. "If you don't like my food, I'll just give your portion to the other guys."

"Noooooooo!" Suddenly Raimundo was up on his feet, full of health, grabbing for the serving spoon to pile on his plate a generous helping of casserole.

Now that Raimundo is over his fear of white people food, which I think was an honest concern on his part in the beginning, though masked by humor, we all eat together like the mismatched members of a little family. Paulo and I take turns bringing the main dish. His wife cooks delicious Mozambican and Portuguese-influenced food - matapa, couve, cacana, cozido, rice and potatoes. I supply the so-called white people food, though usually with a heavy dose of New Mexican, Indian or Italian influence. Raimundo contributes, too, bringing local delicacies for me to try such as raw manioc, badjias, and chamussas and rissois filled with meat and shrimp.

We divide the food into 2 tupperware containers, then heat everything up in the crazy microwave from 1988 that has found its final resting spot in our office kitchen. I am the only one who can make the microwave work, the labels and numbers long having worn off the front panel from years of being pressed by oily fingers. I have a special combination of buttons that I press to get the microwave to work, a sequence I invented by trial and error, though guided in large part by the memory of the giant microwave my mom's ex-husband would use to make nachos back when I was in middle school.

Once the food is hot, we crowd around the desk at the warehouse entrance and enjoy our communal meal. Ahmed buys 2 large bottles of coke or sprite, which we drink out of teacups due to the lack of proper plates and dishes in the office kitchen.

We share tupperwares - one for me and Ahmed, the other for Paulo and Raimundo - sometimes eating with forks, and sometimes eating with our hands depending on the food. Both Ahmed and Paulo are Muslim, and they remind me and Raimundo how it is pleasing to Allah for us to eat from the same plate, to use our hands, to connect through food.

For all of my hangups concerning shared drinks and food contaminated by the saliva of others, I am surprisingly happy eating this way with my colleagues. In fact, I haven't been grossed out a single time by the idea of communal plates, utensils or cups.

On the days when nobody brings food from home, Ahmed will order take-away meals for us, usually grilled or fried chicken with chips. I once asked Ahmed how many chickens he eats per week; without hesitation, he said at least 6!

After lunch, I sit and socialize with the boys for the remaining part of the hour. We have established a special friendship in the past 2 months, something I think came as a bit of a surprise to all of us. We joke with each other, we laugh, we tease. We talk about serious subjects as well - relationships, race, money and, of course, work. Ahmed, Paulo, Raimundo and I have managed to create that over-used workplace concept of team spirit. We have each other's backs. We make each other smile. No matter how shitty the day, it is always more bearable because we are all in it together. As they say in Mozambique, estamos juntos.

These are the friends I've been hoping to find in the last 2.5 years. We are friends because we are colleagues, because we enjoy each other's company, because we have things in common no matter how different our occupations, backgrounds or individual paths. Our friendship is based on these commonalities, not on the fact that I am a foreigner looking for an "authentic" experience with Mozambicans, nor on the perception that I represent money, a job opportunity, a leg up, a status symbol. We are friends because we are friends, full stop.

In addition to our daily lunches, we have established a wonderful weekly tradition. Every Friday, at the end of a long work week full of trucks, potatoes, onions, bananas, erratic bosses, electrical outages and everything else that operating a business in Mozambique has to throw at us, we get in Ahmed's tricked out Honda Civic and go for beers and food. Each week we choose a different place to sit and shoot the shit. Sometimes I treat the boys, sometimes they insist on being gentlemen and treating me, sometimes we split the bill. It doesn't matter what each person's money situation is for that week - we work it out among ourselves so that nobody is left out of the Friday beer because of financial concerns. It will all balance out in the long run, we figure.

Last week, Ahmed, Paulo and I went for beers at the Clube dos Professores, a tucked away little restaurant near the University. Raimundo wasn't with us - he stayed back in Matola because of the torrential rains that had been falling for several days. He didn't want to deal with the hassle of taking an inter-city chapa at night through the flooded streets, so we dropped him off on our way into Maputo.

Ahmed, Paulo and I sat at a table on the covered patio and ordered pizza and several rounds of 2Ms. There is a summer promotion going on right now, so with each beer we got a sort of lottery ticket. Over the course of the evening, Ahmed won 2 free drinks, and Paulo scored a 2M printed bandana. I was unlucky, perhaps the result of my ominous birthdate, as Ahmed kindly reminded me with each frustrated ticket I scratched.

As we drank on the patio, the rains intensified. Water had been falling on Maputo for the previous 2 days, and the city was already flooded due to the poor (ou seja: non-existant) drainage system in the streets. But the rain that fell that night at the Clube dos Professores was of biblical proportions. The drops thudded on the tin roof with such force that we had to shout in order to hear each other. The water accumulated on the street outside the restaurant and reached such a level that it began to creep over the front steps, innundating the patio floor and the inside dining areas. The water poured down from the sky and we realized: we were stuck, at least for the time being. It simply wasn't worth trying to brave the flooded streets of Maputo in Ahmed's low little car. We looked at each other, and smiled. "Another round, please!" We drank and laughed and marveled at the rain.

I confess: part of me wished the water would never stop coming down.

Monday, December 10, 2007

What Lies Ahead

For some time now I have sensed that it is coming. It is just far enough away that I can't make out the details, yet close enough that my intuition is buzzing and the signs are becoming more frequent, less possible to ignore.

Change is waiting around the corner for me. Big change. New-life-chapter type of change.

On the surface, this may seem apparent. I have wedding plans for July 2008. Rico and I will soon be living together again in Maputo after multiple months of geographic separation. I am about to sign a 2-year contract to formalize my job at the banana empire.

Yet I sense in my bones that none of these already-anticipated life events are the big change I am intuiting. There is something else out there, something so powerful that the small signs I am already picking up on leave me dizzy and feeling as if I'm in a fog. Quite literally. Usually my path forward is quite clear. Right now, I can't even tell up from down.

Part of me is afraid to acknowledge what my intuition is screaming out. I am scared that this change will be painful, that it will rock my increasingly comfortable life and make me feel as if the floor has been pulled out from under my feet. Yet I am afraid that if I ignore the signs of this looming change, pretend that I don't feel something is ahead in my path, that the choice to remain stagnant will be even more painful.

Right now I feel like those animals that are able to sense an earthquake before it arrives. I know something significant and inevitable is in my future, but I don't know if the shaking ground will turn up a wealth of treasures or a pit of snakes.

Hell, I don't even know if the change is the metaphorical equivalent of an earthquake. For all I know I could be on the brink of winning the lottery.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Satisfying the Inner Nerd

Remember this request for help in identifying a couple of snakes I've come across while driving through Mozambique?

Well, this morning one of the ladies at my work brought in a snake book and I finally managed to identify one of the beasts. There is no doubt in my mind that the snake in the first photo on the linked post is a FOREST COBRA (Naja melanoleuca).

The forest cobra is found throughout Africa and presents many color variations depending on the region, which is why, in my endless Google searching, I failed to identify it as a potential candidate. The forest cobras that are usually featured in internet photos are those from central and west Africa, which usually have spectacular banding, or are all black.

The variation of the cobra found in Mozambique, however, tends to be a light olivey-brown, with dark speckles increasing along the length of the body so that the tail is solid black. The snake has a light-colored underbelly, glossy scales, and is the second-largest cobra in the world!

I wish I had a scanner at work, because I'd show you the photo of the Boskobra (name in Afrikaans) that is in this book. It is virtually identical to the snake I photographed in the road, with the difference that the one in the book is hanging out in a tree (how supremely creepy - a cobra in a tree!).

When we stopped the car on the road to Boane to look at the snake, I was overcome by instictual fear. As long as the windows were up, I was cool. Kind of freaked out, but relatively speaking calm. Like being at the reptile house in the zoo. But the minute my friend rolled down my window to have a better chance at unobstructed photography, my entire body prickled in goosebumps, I screamed, and squished myself against the other people in the backseat as far as I could to get away from the window. There was something about that snake that provoked pure fear in my body.

Now, at least, I feel justified in knowing that I was looking at one of the continent's most venomous creatures.

Oh, and by the way, when I first posted this request for snake identification, my Dad guessed that it was a cobra. Nice work, Dad!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Trying to Keep My Head Above Water!

I'm overwhelmed and wish I had more time to do all the things I must accomplish before my trip to Brazil on Saturday. I also wish I had a car. And real living room furniture. And a Valentino dress, and a house with a garden, and a pony...

I'm tired and up too late. Also battling a sinus infection. Again. Ugh.

More later, most likely tomorrow during one of the inevitable periods of boredom I get during the day.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Must Remember: It Will Grow, Eventually

I don't tend to freak out about my hair - I've endured many an unexpected result in the hairdresser's chair over the years with good spirits and a sense of adventure - but this afternoon I got a haircut that I think I hate.

It's short, but I'm okay with that. I figure, as long as I'm pretty near to the pixie cut, I may as well take advantage and go as short as my heart desires before I grow out my hair again. The shortness is cool, funky. But the cut is just...wrong. And unlike with long hair, once you've chopped and razored and snipped past a certain length, there's not much fixing to be done. One must wait for weeks for good old time to do its trick and grow out the funny bits.

My hair has been "off" for about 2 months now, ever since I tried out a new hairdresser (not that I'm loyal to anyone in Maputo or anything) with less than wonderful results. This woman gave me a cut that was too blunt, too blah. And when it grew out, it looked as if I had a bowl on the top of my head and a nascent mullet around the neck.

Unable to make it in to see my semi-regular hairdresser (I got stood up on 2 separate occasions - unfortunately not a rare occurence here) and without much free time during commercial hours in general, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I've cut my own hair a couple of times over the last 2.5 years, and I felt pretty confident. The only change was that I shaped up my bowl-mullet hair using a green plastic twin-blade Gillette razor for women. The one I use to shave my legs. I just grabbed it and started slicing away, trying to achieve a modern look that would at least tide me over to the next professional haircut.

I must say, my razor job didn't look half bad! However, as hair tends to do, it grew out and the bowl-mullet was reborn, only this time in a much less symmetrical way.

Today, after a boring, slow morning at work, I decided to head out early and get a freaking haircut at the salon in the shopping center where I frequently go. The end result is making me freak out. I don't know if this is something I can fix in the morning with a little wax and lots of scrunching. I have a cowlick in the back of my head, and the woman cut super short in all the wrong places, and now several chunks of my hair are standing straight up in the air and can't be coaxed to lie remotely flat in any of the possible directions I can usually count on to tame my cowlick. In addition, the cut is just weird. She tried to make it modern and funky, but I think I look like I've had an electric shock. Maybe it's just the way she styled it, using the round brush to make everything go against the grain, but before my hair was full of product and funk, it looked just like my Dad's: flat, mousy and conservative (no offense, Dad - on you it works!!).

How is this possible?? I am not a happy camper. And for as good as I am at sticking up for myself in situations where I am not satisfied, trying to get a hairdresser in Mozambique to provide customer service above and beyond the call of duty is not a battle I'm inclined to take on.

My way of coping? I ate an entire Cadbury's dairy milk with caramel, a handful of cashew nuts, and a bag of banana chips. Temporary relief, but not the answer in the long-term for multiple reasons, not the least of which being that I think I could deal with this haircut a lot better if I were 10 pounds lighter.

In the Midst of Boredom, I've Found My Strengths

Hugh Marlboro hasn't been at work for the past 2 days. Also, about half our office is out for some reason, either out of town in South Africa or running around trying to get things in order for the payment of salaries.

Not surprisingly, I am bored. And since it's been a slow day, as are my remaining colleagues in the office with me.

I arrived at work to find that someone had cut a fire lily, a purple-hued cluster flower that looks like chives, and a bit of fern from the garden in front of the warehouse and placed them in a nicely arranged minimalist bouquet in a water glass on my desk. It is a nice feeling to know that someone went out of their way just to make my day a bit more colorful and pleasant.

This morning was spent checking e-mail, organizing my desk and looking at photos of cowboy boots on the internet with Ahmed, Nacho and Versace. All of the boys have requested that I bring them "texanas" from the US. I find this endlessly amusing, especially after seeing that they are most interested in the pointy-toed, embellished, fashion-forward boots. We spent about 40 minutes looking at boots, each photo greeted with a group critique of the nice and undesireable characteristics of each pair.

So, after looking at boots, I decided to take an internet quiz that I found through my friend Vanessa. According to the 240 question quiz, here are my Signature Strengths:

1. Capacity to love and be loved
You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.

2. Curiosity and interest in the world
You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery.

3. Appreciation of beauty and excellence
You notice and appreciate beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.

4. Creativity, ingenuity, and originality
Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are. You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.

5. Forgiveness and mercy
You forgive those who have done you wrong. You always give people a second chance. Your guiding principle is mercy and not revenge.

And, just in case you were wondering, my bottom strengths were "Modesty and humility" and "Self-control and self-regulation". Yes, I can be arrogant and out-of-control with my impulses. I totally admit this. :)

For those of you who know me, what do you think? Is this a reasonable assessment of my character strengths?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Meme: Lists of 8

One of my very, very favorite bloggers tagged me for this 8-based meme. I am glad to have something marginally mindless to write about tonight, as my brain is somewhat fried after too many hours spiraling wire and selecting matching pairs of trade beads (not an easy feat, given that these things wash up on the beach wily-nily).

Anyhoooo, here goes:

8 passions in my life:

Cats

Putting together a really good outfit, complete with accessories

Identifying things - trees, seashells, birds, snakes, gemstones, languages, etc.

Cooking, especially when it involves not following a recipe

Travel

Dancing

Creating art

Writing

8 things to do before I die:

Have a child/children

Write a book

Visit the places on my ultimate travel list: Lençois Maranhenses in Brazil, Guyana, Dubai, Iceland, New Zealand, Chile

Return to some of the places that are dear to my heart: Cuba, a river in Venezuela whose bed is entirely made of red jasper and has a waterfall that looks like blood, Croatia, Greece

Learn Arabic

Live in the Casa Rosa

Do an adventure race

Start playing the piano again

8 things I often say:

Unbelievable (as an adjective to describe things, not so much as an exclamation)

Amazing

Perfect

Motherfucking hell (usually only said when alone, often in response to something the boys have done)

Caraca!

Alôôôôôô!

Hey girl

Cool

8 books I read recently:

Infidel

Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight

A World of Strangers

Guns, Germs and Steel

The Poisonwood Bible

The Pickup

The Devil Wears Prada

Wedding Planning for Dummies

8 songs that mean something to me:

This Must Be the Place - Talking Heads

Open - Bruce Cockburn

Despiértate - Gonzalo Silva

Neon - John Mayer

Meu Amor, Meu Bem Me Ame - Zeca Baleiro

A Paz Que Não Quero - O Rappa

Maldeyeni - Mabulu

Little Wing - Jimi Hendrix

8 qualities I look for in a friend:

intelligent

fun

non-judgmental

supportive

likes to dance

good sense of humor

reliable

unafraid to connect

8 people I'm passing this along to: (feel free to disregard)

Safiya

Alina

Kristine

Jane Poe

Stacie

Marcia

Toni

Jo Ann

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It Sounded Like Such a Sweet Song

These days I feel I can barely keep my head above water. Back when I was doing freelance consulting, working from home, and waking up whenever I pleased to start the day, time seemed to be an endless commodity. Now that I am working full time at a company, however, it is a completely different story. Not only am I occupied during commercial hours, our office is in Matola (a good 25 minutes outside Maputo) and I have no car, putting me completely at the mercy of pleading rides to go to and from work each day. Either that or pay $15 one-way for a taxi, which gets old after a while. And, just a final little note, because I work with a bunch of crazy people I have no lunch break (not like I could go anywhere on my own even if I did given my transport situation), so the possibility of getting errands done in the middle of the day is out as well.

The result of all of this? I have a to-do list about a mile long that I just can't seem to tackle. I'm stressed enough that I finally had to put up a limit today. I've gotten permission to go to work 2 hours late tomorrow so that I can get a taxi and ride around the city like a mad woman trying to get all my shit done.

And, to add to the craziness, jewelry production is on in full force. Every day when I come home from work I sit at my improvised crafts table and lose myself in silver wire, trade beads and gemstones. Time flies, which is something I have mixed feelings about at the moment. But I am getting a lot done, and I am totally in love with some of my new designs. The big national crafts fair starts a week from today, plus I am making a few custom pieces for a blog-friend in the UK who will be coming to Mozambique next month. Pictures soon, I promise.

Predictably, the honeymoon period is starting to wear off at my job. I still love my work, and am very glad I took the opportunity, but my eyes are now able to see the other side of the coin. I could sum it up by saying that, for all of his amazing qualities, keen business skills and vast knowledge of world history, Hugh Marlboro is also capable of being incredibly difficult. I'm not sure what part of it is due to cultural or generational differences, and what part is due to his own unique personality, but there are definitely aspects of my boss that I find hard to swallow. For now, I am picking and choosing my battles (especially until my 3-month probation period is over), but there are certain things that simply won't fly in the long run that we'll have to work out. So it goes with every relationship, I suppose...

I am starting to pick up some Changana (Shangaan) at work, thanks to the boys in the warehouse. So far I can remember cacata (cheapskate) and mamparra (equivalent to the Brazilian mané - who has a good definition for this in English?). Not sure on the spellings, but at least I am retaining a few words. For as good as I tend to be with languages, Changana has certainly gone in one ear and out the other without leaving much behind over the last 2 years.

The other day I was in my office and heard the boys that help around the warehouse singing work songs as they unloaded sacks of potatoes and onions from one of the reefer trucks in our fleet.

"How wonderful," I though to myself. "What a lovely, authentic cultural experience."

I listened for a few minutes to the strong voice of the leader call out a verse, and the different harmonies that the other boys would do when calling back the chorus. The melody was simple, but made truly beautiful by the blending of tones and the syncopated rhythm. Occasionally someone made a show of hand-clapping or foot-stomping to accent a particular point in the song.

Wanting to appreciate the music from a closer place, I went down to the warehouse and sat with Ahmed, who was observing the workers unloading the truck to be sure none of the stock was deviated or damaged.

"What a pretty song," I commented. "What are they singing?"

"Ummm, it's in Changana."

"I know, but you speak Changana. Don't you understand the lyrics?"

Ahmed shifted uncomfortably in his chair, then took a deep breath and looked up at me. "Do you really want to know?"

"Yes!" I insisted.

And he proceeded to translate one of the dirtiest yet simple song lyrics one could imagine.

So much for my impression that this was a nice, innocent manifestation of culture. Well, I suppose it was an expression of culture, just that of a group of horny 16-year-old boys, not that of a wise Bantu heritage. I don't know what I was expecting - lyrics about the rising sun, or the destructive nature of floods, or the blessings of grain and milk - but it certainly wasn't what Ahmed translated for me.

Ah, yes. Boys will be boys, the world around...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Thanks

I'm going for a record 3 posts today, friends. Here is a gratitude list to round out the depressing beginning to the day's blogs:

1. I am grateful for my mom, who is my best friend and incredibly supportive of anything I do. She is beautiful and sensitive, funny and dependable. I can't imagine my life without her.

2. I am grateful for my dad, whose loving presence I always feel even though we sometimes go for a while without managing to talk or e-mail. What he and I share is proof that you can have the relationship you want with a person; it doesn't matter how it started out, or how the first 16 years went.

3. I am grateful for Rico, who is the best man I could ever hope to have in my life. I am amazed at how patient and accepting he his. Some days I am amazed that we even managed to find each other.

4. I am grateful for the cats in my life. Azul, Pria and Parceiro bring me enless joy and comfort.

5. I am grateful for my new job, my wonderful boss, and my coworkers who are increasingly also becoming friends. I am happy to have my potential recognized, and to have the challenge of putting myself to the task.

6. I am grateful to have enough. Money, food, clothes, friends, family, blessings. I am completely satisfied and provided for.

7. I am grateful to have a crazy streak that allows me to embark on all these adventures through the world.

8. I am grateful to have a family that didn't try to hold me back or make me fit in a box that wasn't meant for me.

9. I am grateful for a lovely extended family.

10. I am grateful that I know how to say "NO", though sometimes I could use a refresher course on this one in situations where I feel intimidated.

11. I am grateful that my allergy attacks seem to have decreased significantly.

12. I am grateful that I have a creative outlet (jewelry making) that allows me to do something I love and make some money at the same time.

13. I am grateful for high speed internet.

14. I am grateful for having the means to plan a wedding that will be truly special.

15. I am grateful for knowing how to read, write and speak.

16. I am grateful for little treats carefully brought back in a suitcase and stored for half the year, or unexpectedly discovered at the supermarket one week - cranberries, turkey, marzipan, chai tea, green chile, red chile, dried figs, dill weed, real vanilla extract.

17. I am grateful for this blog, as it has not only provided me with an amazing record of my experiences since leaving the US, it has also been my principal outlet for making new friends here in Mozambique (and virtually!).

18. I am grateful for the opportunity to travel home each year and visit my family and friends.

19. I am grateful for all the people that help me on a daily basis - my empregada, our guards, my taxi driver, my work colleagues.

20. I am grateful for music and dance, in all forms, all the time. They are what keep me sane much of the time.

21. I am grateful for this day, this moment, and all those still to come. I hope for the wisdom to realize that this is all that really matters and live in a way that makes me happy.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. We will be eating tonight in the company of about 30 friends. On the menu: turkey, cranberries, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, yams, matapa, rice, french crepes, spanish tortilla, pumpkin cake, cheeses, apple crisp and ice cream.

Meme: Reading List

This one comes from my Romanian friend Alina.

My reading list currently consists of:

"Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond. I started reading it back in June, but gave up about halfway through when I became a bit tired by the textbook style of the author's writing. But the material is really interesting, and I would like to better understand his theories about why certain societies advanced and others struggle to this day.

"Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert. I've been resisting this book for a long time. About 95% of my blog friends have read it and raved, but for some reason I've not been rushing to read it myself. Recently, my friend Tracy gave me a copy and I've decided to give in. This will be some of my principal plane reading material for my trip back home next month.

"On the Trail of the Koh-I-Noor Diamond" by Kevin Rushby. My friend Jenny gave me this book several months ago and I'm really excited to start reading. Also one for the multiple long-haul flights and layovers I will face next month. I think it will really appeal to the gem-nerd and adventurer sides of my personality.

Also on the list, though not definite yet, are something by Nadine Gordimer and perhaps some Isabel Allende.

It's funny - I love to read, and used to do it all the time for pleasure, but since moving to Mozambique I've somewhat dropped the habit. I think it's because I spend all day reading for my job in one way or another, so when it's time for me to relax and unwind in the evening or on the weekend, I have no desire to pick up a book. I much prefer to relax these days by making jewelry, watching tv, working out or dancing...

Consider yourself tagged if you are so inclined. I'm curious to see what you all are reading these days!

Meme: Secret Fears

Meme was originally the 7 random facts about yourself, but creative Ms. Outlines modified it and passed this along instead.

I have many secret fears (though I suppose they're not so secret if I'm able to talk about them, which I am). I don't think I could name just one. Here are a few...

I am afraid that, deep down, I am a person who cannot be trusted.

I am afraid that I am unable to be honest or faithful.

I am afraid of having a loved one die in my arms.

I am afraid of giving myself cancer or some other fatal disease because I've lived too much of my life in self-hatred and obsession about things that don't matter.

I am afraid of being sterile.

I am afraid of my parents dying.

I am afraid of being assaulted/tortured/raped.

I am afraid of being discovered for the fraud I frequently believe I am.

I am afraid I am destined to make the same mistakes over and over, despite how much I may try to work out my issues through therapy, writing, and good old time.

Uffff. This is a bit of a depressing post. I will follow up with something more cheerful, perhaps a gratitude list, seeing as today is Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Anticipating the Crunch

I'm glad it's Friday. I need to catch up on sleep and make a shitload of jewelry. Excitingly, I've been accepted in the holiday edition of Mozambique's National Crafts Fair, but I have next to no stock at the moment and the fair will be for 6 days! I am starting to freak out a bit, but if I can manage to do an average of at least 3 pieces per day I should be okay...

Also in the works is a planning session for Thanksgiving dinner. I am organizing a meal with 2 girlfriends of mine for what I'm guessing will be a guest list of around 30 people. So I will be cooking on Wednesday and Thursday next week, which means I need to shop this weekend, which entails feeling rested and doing some planning ahead.

While on the topic of Thanksgiving, do you know how much a stupid frozen turkey costs here? The equivalent of US$113 (2,900MT)!! And this is just for a small-to-medium sized bird.

I've been toying with the idea of buying a live turkey from this man who sells assorted fowl in a cage on the roadside on my way to work, but am increasingly realizing the impracticality of this idea. I'd totally have our maid purchase, kill and clean the bird for a fee, but she is preparing for a massive party at the end of the month to celebrate her graduation from Bible school, so her freezer space / availability for killing large birds has dramatically gone down.

Right now I've got the warehouse boys calling their supermarket contacts to see if anyone here can get a turkey, or whether the best option will be to have a friend buy 2 frozen birds in South Africa for a much cheaper price and bring them up on Monday.

Oh. And I need to go to the bank, to the tailor's, to DHL and to the art market at some point soon. Not that I have enough on my plate at the moment or anything.

That's one of the most frustrating things about being car-less and bored stiff at work on occasion (ahem, today!). I feel the pressure of this massive to-do list mounting, and I can do absolutely nothing about it...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Assorted Experiences from the Past Few Days

Recently seen/heard/tasted/contemplated in my world:

  • Outside my office window, in the small patch of grass between the warehouse loading platform and the national highway, there are 3 goats and a spotted, shaggy-assed animal I only recently identified as a sheep that idly graze throughout the day. They are not collared or chained, or even tended to by a small child as is often the case with hooved animals, yet they don't run into traffic or try to escape. I find this amazing. [By the way - what is the collective group name for hooved animals? I've come across it in livestock reports here, but for the life of me can't remember the term. I have the word "rudimentary" stuck in my head, but this is obviously not what I'm looking for. Anyone??]

  • As I was working at my desk yesterday, I noticed a furry brown jumping spider about the size of a penny. He was quite content hanging around the area near the front of the desk where I have my phone and message pad. My initial thought was that I should somehow get rid of the spider - either by killing it or taking it outside - but I was lazy and/or creeped out by the possibilities and decided to do absolutely nothing. Good thing spiders don't bother me; I was able to forget about the thing and go about with my work day as usual. This morning, I heard a strange buzzing noise and couldn't figure out where it was coming from. A bit of investigation turned up my friend the jumping spider gripping a giant fly between its front legs and injecting it with what I imagine to be some sort of poison, as after a while the buzzing stopped and the spider disappeared into my ceramic pot with his prey. I am glad I didn't kill the spider, much in the way I imagine farmers with rodent problems tolerate snakes. My skin crawls a bit with the idea of a poisonous predator spider, but at the same time I do have a significant fly problem here in my office...

  • In case you are wondering, the flies come from the warehouse. They are attracted to the produce, and have been particularly bad this week after we received an entire semi-truck load of rotten potatoes from a supplier in South Africa. I don't know if you've ever come into contact with potatoes so rotten they have turned to slime, but let me tell you, it's a terrible smell and an equally disgusting sight. However, it is an interesting business situation - what is one to do after importing a load of rotten produce? Do you destroy the rancid products? Do you send them back? What do you pay your supplier, if any thing at all? How do you offset the costs associated with the loss? How do you prevent this from happening in the future?

  • Yesterday I went with Ahmed, the warehouse manager, to deliver several important letters about town. I was happy to be out of the office, even if it was just to run some errands, and Ahmed was even happier because the warehouse is like an oven these days, the metal roof trapping the heat that has finally arrived in full-force here in Maputo. At least my upstairs office is air conditioned...

  • One of the places where I had to drop off a letter was at the Ministry of Agriculture, a building that was partially destroyed by a fire last year. The blaze was more than slightly suspicious, as it happened to do away with an incriminating paper trail just when someone high up was about to be investigated. The office I had to visit is on the 4th floor, and it is surreal to climb up the stairs in the bowels of this building and see the roof and walls becoming increasingly black and charred. There are spots where you can look right into someone's office from the stairwell because the fire opened up a hole in the wall that has yet to be fixed. If this were in the US, I can assure you the building would not be open for public use, but here it's a different story. Work continues as usual despite the burned structure and lost data.

  • The best part of the letter-dropping mission? The 25 industrial-sized fire extinguishers clustered in front of the building's reception area. Given the evidence at hand, you'd think someone would have distributed those extinguishers to the upstairs offices instead of having them all concentrated and useless just 10 feet from the front door. Ah, the irony...I admit to having had a good chuckle all by myself when I saw the scene.

  • Also on the letter-delivering mission, Ahmed told me a terrible joke inspired by a song that came on the radio. Unfortunately it's one that doesn't translate well into English, but here it goes in Portuguese for those of you who can understand the language: "Qual é a coisa que muda de cor, anda para trás, e come crianças?" The answer: Michael Jackson!

  • Today Hugh Marlboro told me that he is intrigued by my personality, that he sees aspects of me that are basically complete opposites and that he can't manage to reconcile. I took it as an immense compliment, because I like to be complex and shit, ya know?

  • Slowly but surely, I am starting to understand Afrikaans. Not to the point where I can say anything useful, but I can totally follow conversations. Most of the management here at the banana empire consists of Afrikaans-speaking South Africans. Exceptions are me (American), an Italian guy and a Mozambican woman. I find it fascinating to see how everyone manages to communicate. On a daily basis I hear English, Afrikaans, Portuguese, Shangaan, Zulu, Swazi and Italian being spoken (though this last one consists of mostly cussing!). All of the managers here speak the local dialects because they learned them as children growing up on farms with laborers. The dialects are the main language in the plantations and the warehouse, but they also crop up in unexpected places. For example, the other day a high-up member of the Government paid a visit to our office. I found it fascinating that he and Hugh Marlboro communicated with each other in Zulu, despite the fact that Hugh M. speaks perfectly good Portuguese. I am almost to the point where I can tell the dialects apart, as Shangaan sounds very smooth and is full of vowels, while Zulu and Swazi have clicks and are in general more guttural.

  • I went to a Macanese restaurant the other day and had spicy soup and deep-fried crab. I've been curious about this place since I first visited Maputo, and I totally regret having waited so long to try it out! The food was delicious, I was entertained by the decor (fake grape vines full of red grapes suspended from half the ceiling, red lanters on the other half) and even found some cool teas for sale that I will try over the weekend. Supposedly one is for energy and the other has a calming effect on the drinker. I'm afraid I'll be overly sensitive to one or the other, so I'm saving the tasting for a non-work-day. [My Google skills provided me with "Macanese", the adjective for a person or thing from Macao. I've been wondering about the proper form of this word for quite a while, but it's just one of those things I never remembered to look up.]

  • Speaking of food, I had a yummy thing sent up to me this morning from the warehouse boys that unfortunately I don't know the name of. It is a fritter made with the nhemba bean. There were two fritters nestled inside a french bread roll. They were slightly spicy and reminded me of falafel. Definitely something I will eat again, if I can manage to remember the name.

  • My work day is coming to a close, so I will go. Yes, I am blogging at work. I am bored again, as Hugh Marlboro has taken off for an early weekend out of the country and failed to leave me with adequate tasks to keep me busy. This afternoon I am writing. Tomorrow I will read some Peter Drucker and feel slightly less guilty about the whole not working thing...

  • Have a good day, y'all! (Which reminds me, I should be receiving a duplicate Texas drivers license in the mail at my Dad's house in the next few weeks to replace the one that I've "lost" while out of the country. Mozambican transit authorities, eat your hearts out, there is an original US drivers licence coming your way shortly!)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Pressa

I slept poorly last night. The boys kept me up - Parceiro because he was playing attack underneath the duvet, and Pria because (s)he was desperate for carinho and would claw at my face in protest every time I stopped petting her. Sigh. I wonder how on earth people manage with kids...

So I am tired on this beautiful Monday morning. I am trying to have a cup of coffee (I've gone back to drinking it occasionally now that I'm doing early gym and working a full day). It's not going down so smoothly, but I suppose I can blame it on the Nescafé just as much as my intolerance for the stuff.

Shit - just got a call that the driver is 10m away from my house. I've gotta run!!!!

Sunday Scribblings: Left & Right

In Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, they drive right-hand-drive cars on the left-hand-side of the street. Why? Because all of Mozambique's neighbors drive on the left. In fact, Mozambique is the only member of the Commonweath that is not a former British colony, a decision made for mulitple strategic reasions. As a result, here in Maputo you will find the British High Commission, the Tanzanian High Commission, etc. [as opposed to Consulates] because this is the terminology used for diplomatic representation within the Commonwealth.

Driving on the left isn't so bad; for me, the problem is much more the right-hand-drive vehicle. I have a terrible time gauging where the car ends on the opposite side of the wheel and am constantly paranoid that I will come too close to a bus or pedestrian and not realize it. Of course parallel parking is also out of the question, something I struggle with even back home in a car with the "right" orientation.

I am in the process of getting my driving situation sorted here in Mozambique. I was recently (finally!) granted my residency permit, which means that I should now get a Mozambican Equivalency Driving License (once you are a resident, technically your home country permit, or even an international license like the ones issued by AAA, is no longer valid).

The process to get the Equivalency License is one of the better examples of backwards bureaucracy I've come across thus far. In addition to having to take an eye exam and a theoretical driving test, and get a $30 letter from your Embassy stating that your home license is valid and officially recognized (all reasonable requirements, though a pain in the ass), you have to leave your original drivers' license with the Mozambican National Driving Institute for TWO YEARS!

What on earth is the logic behind this requirement? Wouldn't it make much more sense to require tha the driver produce both his original license and his Equivalency License when stopped by the police? At any rate, you couldn't possibly convince me to leave my precious drivers' license with the Mozambican authorities for 2 years on the promise that I'll have no problems getting it back after that period of time, all I have to do is present the paper receipt they issue, and voilá, original license recuperated. Yeah, right.

So now I am presented with a dilemma:

Option 1: get an international driving permit in December when I am back in the US, and knowingly drive with the wrong set of papers here in Mozambique, knowing full well that I may have to play dumb/pull rank on/pay off police if they hassle me because I will technically be in the wrong; or

Option 2: through a "contact", manage to get the Mozambican Equivalency License without having to take the theoretical exam or leave my original permit for 2 years, but in return have to pay a price for the service that seems ridiculously high.

Then, of course, there are a few more things that must fall into place, namely I'd like to buy a car in January, and I need to get in some serious opposite-side driving practice. Hugh Marlboro has offered to let me go out on the plantations and drive around - I think I must definitely take him up on the offer.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Taken to Heart

Today was a day for philosophising, for introspection, for reflections on life over tea. Hugh Marlboro and I had an unexpectedly serious series of conversations this morning, reaching a much deeper level than our usual musings about personality, relationships and human nature.

Hugh Marlboro gave me some life advice near the end of our discussion. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Ali, your biggest challenge will be to truly learn to compromise. Once you can do this without feeling you are losing pride or handing power to another person is the day you will have figured out one of the tricks to life for your personality type."

I let his words sink in, trying not to take them personally or as a comment on a lack of ability to compromise, for I knew that wasn't what he was trying to express.

In essence, this was a variation on the theme of some advice my mom once gave me when I was about 10 years old. She said, "Your will is one of your greatest assets; use it to your advantage, don't let it become your downfall."

It's amazing how humbling it can be to hear an observation about yourself that you know is 100% true...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

No, Not the Singer, the Queen

I went with Hugh Marlboro today on his farm visits, a thrice-weekly event where he checks in on each of his main plantation blocks along the river.

When we got in his truck, music came blaring out of an mp3 player (surprise #1 for me - this man is seriously technology-averse) with a very familiar beat (surprise #2 - the song was Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie", a funny choice considering the last music Hugh M. shared with me was Verdi and Handel).

I suppose we were both in a silly mood because, as if on cue, we looked at each other and started singing at the top of our lungs and dancing in place the best we could given that we were restrained by seat belts and upholstery. We zoomed down the highway, music at full volume, making complete fools of ourselves but having a great time.

The next song on the mp3 player was "Don't Dream It's Over" by Crowded House (this was an ecclectic mix, apparently). Hugh Marlboro and I kept on singing, stumbling through the lyrics and building up to the chorus where we managed to do harmonies and hit all the high notes. It was very cheezy, but so satisfying much like the "best of the worst" in a cheap karaoke selection.

It's funny, I used to sing all the time - I was in chorus in school, I sang in musicals, I sang in the shower, I sang to the radio while driving to work - but since moving to Mozambique my singing urge has largely disappeared. Perhaps it was the first 9 months of community living in Chimoio that quelched it, or maybe because Ricardo isn't really into music and never sings himself (other than terrible, purposefully off-key renditions of children's songs in Portuguese). Whatever the reason, I can't remember the last time I really belted out a chorus or tried to pick up on the subtle alto accompaniment to a song before this morning.

We pulled into the first plantation block - one where the plants are still growing and just a few months shy of producing the first bunches of bananas for export - and drove along the dirt perimeter road admiring the perfectly straight rows of green. On the other side of the road from the plantation, there was a beautiful view of the river and the Lebombo mountains just beyond, marking the border with Swaziland.

Hugh Marlboro stopped the truck and we rolled down the windows, listening to the wind blow through the plantation and breathing in the air thick with humidity.

"Look just there," Hugh M. said, pointing to a spot on the far riverbank. "Do you see that?"

I squinted my eyes and tried to figure out what he was trying to show me.

"There! Just near the edge of the water!"

Hugh Marlboro turned my head a bit to the right, and suddenly a bit of movement caught my eye and I saw what he was talking about. Flamingoes! About 6 of them, nearly white in color from the lack of crustaceans in the river at this time of year, but still very cool considering it was the first time I'd ever seen one outside a zoo.

We sat for a moment watching the lanky birds move their way down the riverbank, bobbing their heads in a constant rhythm into the water in search of food. Although it was near mid-day, dozens of birds chirped and called out in constant conversation.

At my flat in Maputo, the birds that roost in the abandoned Portuguese mansion across the street wake me up every day when the sun is just starting to bring a glow to the black of the early morning. I sit in bed and listen to their calls for a moment before drifting back to sleep, trying to ignore the fact that in addition to me, they have also woken up the cats, who eagerly climb up the window screens for a better look at what is going on outside. I am aware of the birds in the morning, and again at dusk, in a way that is special to Maputo. There is still quite a bit of rural in the midst of this urban creation, but nothing compared to the birds at noon along the river. When you notice such delicate sounds, you realize the true silence that predominates in the countryside.

Hugh M. turned the truck back on and the music returned, masking the birds. This time the song was "White Flag" by Dido, not exactly the best thing for a sing-a-long, but somehow quite fitting for the scenery. The sky was particularly gray, anticipating rain that has built up but failed to fall for the last 2 days, and everything had a slow, hazy quality that matched the mood of the song.

We drove to Hugh Marlboro's house to have a tea and use the internet, as the connection at the office mysteriously stopped working. As we walked into the kitchen, Hugh M. asked me, "Do you know who Dido is?"

"Ummmm, yes, she's the singer of the song we were just listening to."

"No, not that Dido. The other one."

The other Dido? I thought to myself. I had no idea what Hugh Marlboro was referring to.

"Listen, let me tell you a story," Hugh Marlboro said, leading me to his office where the maid had already set out mugs of Ricoffy and an assortment of cookies for us.

"Dido was from Tyre, a city in Phonecia, the firstborn child of the king in that region." he began. "With the death of her father, Dido inherited the throne; but her brother was jealous and ended up murdering her husband to gain rule over the land. Outraged, Dido abandoned Tyre and went on an expedition to North Africa, in what is now Tunisia."

Hugh Marlboro paused for a moment and asked, "Do you know what city she founded?"

"No," I said," I've never even heard of this Dido."

"Well, my dear, she founded Carthage, which would become one of the great cities of history. Dido was very clever, you see. She convinced the local villagers to give her as much land as could be covered by the skin of an ox on which to establish her new capital. Of course, the locals thought there was no problem, because how much land could really be covered by a skin?"

Hugh Marlboro stretched out his arms to emphasize his point. "Maybe this much?"

"Not very much," I agreed.

"These villagers thought Dido was crazy wanting such a deal for herself, but really, she had a plan. Dido made her followers from Phonecia cut the ox skin into the thinnest strips possible, which they then tied together end to end to form an incredibly long thread. With the ox skin like this, Dido was able to encompass an entire hill, claiming the area for the foundation of Carthage. And you know what? Dido's new city was so nice that eventually the locals ended up giving her more land, and aligning themselves to the capital as well."

"Wow. What a story." I was fascinated by the tale of Dido, but also quite impressed that Hugh Marlboro knew it in the first place.

On a daily basis he comes up with stories like this to tell me, and we spend a significant part of our time together Googling assorted historical persona and time periods. For example on Monday, spurred by a random discussion we had while waiting for a meeting with one of the top dogs at the Ministry of Agriculture, Hugh Marlboro and I looked up Hernán Cortés, La Malinche and the date of Mexican independence from Spain. Just last week we Googled the role of acquarians and water management strategy in the Roman conquests.

Hugh Marlboro and I finished our coffee and snack, sent an e-mail to a lending institution that hopefully will give him a massive loan next year to double the size of his plantations, then got in the truck and headed back to the main office.

As we were driving, spurred by curiosity, I asked Hugh M. the following questions: a) if you could go back in time and observe any period of history, when would you choose? and b) if you could be any historical figure, who would it be?

I found Hugh Marlboro's answers intriguing, and I imagine they say a lot about his personality. He'd want to be an observer of the Roman Empire, and he'd want to be King Nebuchadnezzar.

He asked me the same two questions. The first one was easy: I'd like to observe the period of the great expeditions out of Spain and Portugal in the mid to late 1400's. The second one I really struggled with, and told Hugh Marlboro I'd get back to him. I've still not been able to come up with an answer, which is also probably revealing of something, perhaps my spotty knowledge of world history!

What about you? What period in history would you want to observe, and what historical figure would you want to be?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Under the Promise of Development, the Ever-Present Thorns

I have very serious things on my mind tonight related to ethics and the funding of projects in the developing world, spurred by recent news here of slave-like conditions in a start-up roses production project run by the ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mozambique. To what point are the consultants, multi-lateral institutions, commercial banks and donors involved in a particular project responsible in part for its outcome?

Certainly when the project goes well, all involved in its support and preparation are quick to lay claim to some of the merits. Even when a project fails due to poor market conditions, faulty strategy, lack of training or whatever other "legitimate" reasons one can point a finger at, for the most part the people and institutions involved in its realization step up to the plate and recognize the situation, drawing up a ubiquitous "lessons learned" report to hedge against damage.

But what happens when a project or a company goes seriously awry? To the point of involving abuse of power, abuse of funds and abuse of human life? Who is responsible then, in the large chain of players, and to what extent? Was it possible to see such an outcome before it happened? Would a different approach, or more cautious decisions along the way have prevented such a disastrous situation? Or are such things bound to happen no matter how careful the consultant or how many strings the donor institution attaches to the support it extends? Will unscrupulous people concerned with filling their own coffers always find a way to manipulate, bribe and oppress their way to the top?

In all aspects of the problem, I see money at the core. Financial gain is what motivates the consultant to push a project, even though he may see red flags associated with the feasibility of the idea proposed or the moral character of the project promoter. The need to spend the year's aid budget is what pressures many donors and development institutions to give money to beneficiaries who are, perhaps, less than deserving in an ideal scenario; but there are no other viable projects to be found, and that money must be allocated before the end of the fiscal year, so out it goes lest the next round of funding to the institution be put in jeopardy. Similarly, the desire to make money, either in the form of interest payments or by reclaiming assets on a failed venture, is what motivates banks and other lenders to back projects. Who can blame any of these players, especially when the entire game is given the positive spin of "development for [insert poor country here]"?

I don't think that any one of them deliberately acts in ill will, funding projects they know shouldn't receive support; no, it is much more subtle - an intuitive pang in the gut that something is off, numbers that don't quite add up, a scenario that looks a bit too perfect on paper for the reality in the field, etc. It is easy to overlook these issues and write them off to the conditions of doing business in the developing world. Still, at some point, I believe that at least one person involved in the support of a project hears the little voice say, "This isn't right." How does one act on that when there is such tremendous money-related pressure, on both a personal and an institutional level, to ignore what seems to be a small detail - intangible, even - and push forward with the deal?

It is certainly a complex situation, especially when a project promoter shows up with the right image, the right credentials and the right talk, a true chameleon when it comes to playing into the development system, only to turn around and carry out his project in a way that tarnishes the image of all of the players involved, if not the entire country as a result.

Happily - and quite surprisingly, given the political and economic clout of the owners of the roses project - the Human Rights League and the Mozambican Labor Ministry have conducted a serious investigation following the allegations of slave-like conditions for some 100 workers brought to the Moamba district of Maputo from far-away home towns in Manica and Tete Provinces. The latest news is that operations have been suspended, the minimal response appropriate given what has happened.

This is the subject for a much longer post than I have time for now, but the thoughts still swirl heavily through my head.

To add to my development-work-related ethical debate, I have an observation that Ahmed made this afternoon on repeat in my mind, weighing my conscience in a similar way to the discomfort I feel about the situation of the roses project. This morning Ahmed asked if I take a taxi to work every day, and I said yes, that I still don't have a car and I can't feasibly take a chapa (mini-bus taxi) since I'm hauling my laptop back and forth from home to the office (not to mention that chapas are inconvenient, piloted by maniacs with no regard for road rules or human life, and too much of a hassle for me to justify saving the money - who cares if they are "authentic").

Ahmed did a quick sum on his calculater and whistled at the result. "Who pays for your taxi?"

"The company reimburses me," I told him, not seeing the point in covering up the truth.

"Your taxi costs the equivalent of 4 minimum salaries each month!"

"Thanks for pointing that out," I said. "Now I'm going to feel guilty all afternoon."

And I did, despite all of the justifications in my head that the value I add to the company will bring about growth and job creation for much more than 4 minimum wage workers, not to mention the constant voice popping in to ask me why on earth I even felt guilty in the first place. Still, there is something about such a comparison - an expense you take for granted being equivalent to the lifeblood of a person's monthly existance - that is impossible to ignore in good conscience.

On a lighter note, Ahmed has thankfully gotten the message about the unsolicited grilled chicken lunches and afternoon snacks. I still get a daily ice cream cone, but I'm satisfied that he buys them for several other people and that, while I am certainly the most frequent recipient, I'm not the only one.

This afternoon I was down in the warehouse doing an inventory of all the things that need to be bought/fixed/etc. (I have a new addition to my job title - Building Administrator - though Hugh Marlboro used some latin word when he first described it that sounded totally dirty to me, phonetically it was along the lines of "fuck-totem", though I'm pretty certain this isn't correct. Must Google later. Updated: I did Google - the word he used is here.)

As Ahmed and I were putting together the master inventory, I was snacking on some carrot sticks I'd brought from home. Everyone in the warehouse thought I was clinically insane for eating carrots, as if my tupperware were filled with toenails or something equivalently revolting. Finally Ahmed had a few, but not before everyone on the warehouse floor had taken a good, light-hearted jab at my eating habits.

Later in the afternoon, one of the assistants from downstairs came to my office bearing a gift: a gigantic wooden spoon, quite rustic looking, with some charred designs along the hand-carved handle. "This is from Ahmed, but really from all of us, so that you can do some tasty cooking at home."

I nearly fell off my seat laughing. Apparently the boys in the warehouse have a spot-on sense of humor! The oversized spoon now sits in the glass utensil jar next to my stove, taking up a bit more than its fair share of space, just taunting me to make a green chile stew and knock their socks off with some homecooked spice.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Halloween 2007 (rocked!)

This was the least-effort costume ever - all I did was buy the carnations - everything else was already in my closet, even the Frida necklace. :)