13 August 2015

Nous sommes arrives!

We are now ensconced in Douala, gradually getting settled in before starting staff meetings on the 17th (school begins on August 24).

As a city that has a larger population of the entire African country I last lived in (The Gambia), Douala is a busy place. We are in a relatively less crowded neighbourhood, although it still pretty built up. Travel within the city is quite easy (we missed some rains that flooded parts of Douala earlier in the rainy season), and within walking distance we have discovered preferred vendors of fruit and veg, hardware, and liquor bottles of nuts.

While French is the official language of most of Cameroon, there are large numbers of English speakers (many from the Anglophone, formerly British-administered west) and many people are bilingual. We are still getting plenty of French practice, though. While Douala was originally settled by the Douala people (fancy that!), urbanization and migration – and Cameroon's cosmopolitan population with nearly 300 different languages – mean that there is no local/indigenous lingua franca. So people in the largest cities tend to speak French or English with one another.

Germany controlled the colony of Cameroon until World War I and the Treaty of Versailles when it was split between Britain and France. Approaching independence, British Northern Cameroon opted to join Nigeria while British Southern Cameroon merged with French Cameroon. This was meant to be a federation but over time the French portion of Cameroon (the seat of national government) has centralized authority, thereby marginalizing Anglophone Cameroon. Many of the school's staff are of Anglophone extraction so I will solicit their thoughts on the arrangement.

Proof that we are “being treated like kings” (with a nod to my friend Alicia):

 We procured a Louis Vitton
individually-crafted wooden ironing board.

Further innovations: Flip-up umbrellas on moto-taxis for when it rains (which is often).

Ollie's Odyssey Begins

As you can see from these pictures, Ollie was not particularly enthused about her impending move. She also experienced several courses of rabies shots, a microchip implant, and USDA-notarized paperwork. Despite our only having a three hour layover in Brussels, she had to meet onerous EU standards (Cameroon's were not as strict – really just the rabies shot and confirmation).

On the road, though, she remained quiet, if not still, when confined to her soft bag (with “privacy flaps”...). Life outside the bag was more stressful, including when I had to carry her through the metal detector and was also selected for TSA extra screening. Once I walked through the metal detector, an agent called out “I need a hands check” (to inspect my hands for chemicals) so I waited with Ollie writhing in my arms as the agent became increasingly curt (“I need hands!” “Hands!”).

After a few minutes someone came to check my hands (as I swapped Ollie between arms) then we proceeded to collecting my carry-on. After conducting a chemical(?) check of the bag, Ollie was allowed to return to her sanctuary. This was followed by searches of my checked bags, a body pat-down, and the brief sequestration of my shoes for further scanning.

At this point the hardest (or most entertaining, from Blair's onlooker perspective) portion of the trip was over. Before landing in Brussels we noticed on a stub with our boarding passes that ALL flights to African countries depart from something called “Terminal T.” No, Brussels Airport isn't that large, these were just leftover gates from Terminal A that were redubbed Terminal T gates and partitioned away from the rest of Terminal A...

Terminal A: Shengen destinations
Terminal B: International (non-Shengen) destinations
and then there was Terminal T: Africa.

Guess which terminal has one cafe and one duty-free shop...

I carried Ollie through one more metal detector and asked whether we needed to present her paperwork anywhere. Nobody seemed terribly concerned so we proceeded to our gate.

This we discovered after sitting in a waiting area with the other passengers travelling to various African countries (along with flights to Washington, DC, and New York City) and taking a shuttle bus to the T portion of Terminal A.

Onwards to Douala. Ollie would occasionally push around in an attempt to escape (reminiscent of the “breakout” scene in Alien – the bag, after all, was not much larger than she was), but remained quiet so the passenger seated above her was none the wiser. Good thing too as one of United/Brussels Airlines requirements was that your pet “may not annoy other passengers.”

Upon entering Douala, officials were similarly uninterested in Ollie's arrival (the school thought there'd be a vet on hand to inspect her and her paperwork). Nobody even bothered to stop us at Customs and we were on our way to Ollie's new home!

Ollie scouting out new spots to sleep in Douala.

10 October 2012


Visiting a sleepy nook renowned for Sri Lankan fare, only to find it closed. Walk in vain for twenty minutes in search of another SR restaurant. Decamp to dumpy seafood bar (replete with clashing bouts from fervent singers-along to Brian Adams and heavy metal), only to retreat in the face of overpriced seafood for such a humble establishment. Consider an Italian restaurant with beer and pizza before my friend declares that Domino's is what he's after. 10 minute wait, no seats – a beer for the ferry? To the bodega, then across the street to wait for the pizza to be warmed over.

 Accosted from another bench by a man ominously wonders, among other things, “Who said, 'Houston, we have a problem?'” He refused the answer of Tom Hanks. A trio of pollis arrive, muttering about open containers and quotas. They proceed to bash their borough, while echoing the siren song that calls them to Florida and strip mall/divided highway heaven. Forty-five minutes later, two pink slips (which Romney feared) each, although mine are gone before we return to the terminal with our pizza.

Three months hence, a return to the once bucolic isle. Name is posted, written incorrectly. Sit in a room with a dozen other men; a couple have female support, otherwise no women in the dock. An encapsulation of the statistic that women outlive men? The sentries laugh amongst themselves while discussing football. Muttering from my neighbours about quotas - “bullshit, man.”

What's your last name? What? Wrong first name – no that's okay. And you? You're not on here. Open container. Go downstairs [to the clerk]. Back later: he doesn't have my name. Then you can go.

Some thirty minutes later a woman arrives laughing, positively giddy. Joins the sentries' conversation, adding details of her impending trip (Spain, and a Meditteranean isle? Not Mallorca or Minorca...). Another few minutes later the pageantry begins. Will the giddiness hold?

First, a late 20s young man in a shiny grey suit jacket. Using a student subway card he found. Did he know it wasn't his to use? Well, he rides the subway a lot, sheepishly...ECD.

Next, reckless driving/blowing a red light. Well, I was down by ___, you know it? Okay, and I turned in the wrong place and had to come out. I'm sorry if I'm nervous. There wasn't no red light there because the traffic would have been impossible to turn into. I realise I made a mistake. It's hard to get out of there – you know that street? He said I didn't signal my turn but you know that street? – there's four lanes on each side. But I didn't go through a red light. Maybe when I turned I went across. See I'm a steelworker. I usually look for cranes. He told me that I didn't have my license so he had to write that I went through a red light. Mild confusion followed by an ECD.

Open container. Through intermediary: we were walking home. But you had one? We were just walking home. But you can't carry one...ECD.

Excessive noise. What were you doing? I came to pick up my friend. He told me to pull around in front of him but then he told me to pull over. He told me he was giving me a ticket because he didn't like the song. I don't think I would have liked the song either – what was the song? I don't remember. ECD.

Off-street cycling. You can only walk there. The road was narrow and busy. Then you get off and walk. ECD. Imagined vocation – fast food delivery.

Invalid license. My license was valid – it was a mistake. Do you have it with you? No. Bring it back – see you in November. Vindication pending.

A barrister, no defendant. Can we reschedule? How about October 2? No, [mean] judge So-and-So will be there. How about the 4th? - I'll be back. See you then.

Open container, ignoring signs. A dual performance, the first that morning. Did you drink in the park? 1 – Yes. 2 - ...Yes. You agree with that answer? It's honesty day today! This is a misdemeanor you know? They all close at night. Even if you don't see a sign just don't go in. ECD. A performance stymied, a platform wasted. Justice served, yet denied.

An old cliché, returning to the scene albeit with tea/coffee. A neighbour's Cobra fell to the ground, frothing, its spilling contents met with profanity. Did he read the sign? It's the end of the month – quotas are coming due...Another asked if we were related – perhaps owing to glasses and dress shirts and trousers (the latter two being abjectly absent in the park).

Three months later, Sri Lankan was served.

28 December 2011

Operation Santa 2011

After polling several veterans of this field trip, I was apprehensive about taking my students to Operation Santa. This is what it reportedly entailed:

Four thousand students with special needs are seated at tables in a large square surrounded by parade fencing, in the middle of an aircraft hangar at JFK airport. After an hour or so, the hangar doors open and Santa taxis in on a jumbo jet. Then Santa boards a train/float and rides around the perimeter of the square as students variously try to get closer looks or try to avoid the noise around them.

The best thing my colleagues could say about Operation Santa was that it was a “rite of passage.” So I was naturally concerned it could have been a difficult trip for my students, given the close quarters, noise level, cool temperatures, and limited movement available.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by the trip. Organized by the Community Mayors (who also hold an excellent annual trip to the USS Intrepid Museum), there were numerous characters (including the Pink Panther) walking around to keep most of the students' attention while we waited for other schools to file in and for Santa to arrive. In addition, the square enclosure had been divided into four smaller squares, allowing for closer views of the anthropomorphic teapots, high school bands and Santa's train, as well as lessening crowding and providing easier exit points for accessing the Port-A-Potties. A pair of noise-dulling headphones I brought along for one student were also a great help.

In all, two of my three charges enjoyed the trip (a fourth would have found it too noisy and constricting), and I had a fairly good time myself. While a visit to El Museo Del Barrio and the aforementioned Intrepid Museum trip were superior, Operation Santa exceeded understandably low initial expectations.

16 November 2011

Speech Therapist Science Theater 3000

During the lull between Parent-Teacher Conference sessions, a colleague and I decided to watch X-Men: First Class while laminating worksheets and communication symbols/PECS. Our speech therapist joined us sporadically, variously interrupted by phone calls, errands, and lunch.

Given her pedigree, perhaps it was only natural to report observations on similarities between First Class and other movies, and to compare and contrast them. After all, she spends time helping our students do this.

The first film that merited comparison to X-Men: First Class was Pirates of the Caribbean: "Doesn't that guy [Johnny Depp] have superpowers?"

Next came Avatar since one, and later two, characters in First Class are blue.

Finally, there was Star Wars, since Beast resembled "What's his name? Chihuahua?"

Our SLT's contributions made for an enjoyable viewing, even though I was occasionally distracted by cutting and attaching velcro. It was a nice chance to bond without talking about students.

29 October 2011

Chebo Ceesay

Today I learned that Chebo Ceesay, my host father in Njau, The Gambia, passed away yesterday, October 28, 2011.

Chebo was a kind and thoughtful man, and an independent thinker. He travelled for work as a younger man, spending time in Mauritania, Cote d'Ivoire, and on a Spanish merchant ship that plied the west African coast. He even lived in the Bronx for a spell.

I could always rely on Chebo for useful advice, and contrarian perspectives on Gambian and international politics. I enjoy chatting with and listening to him as we took in BBC World Service reports.

One of my favourite memories was sitting under the mango tree by Chebo's radio listening to the penalty shootout between Cote d'Ivoire and Cameroon in the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals. After the first five players from each team made all of their penalty shots, it was time for sudden death. We listened incredulously as the commentators announced an amazing 11 shots made by each side, until Samuel Eto'o missed the 12th shot for Cameroon, leaving Didier Drogba to finally win the match.

Chebo always had humourous stories to share. These included Chebo's getting lost on his way home during his first night in New York, when he wandered around the Bronx for eight hours. Another favourite was about the time his Njau neighbour (and Bronx hot-bed mate) Ebou Secka got food poisoning from monitor lizard meat and Chebo could hear him groaning through the night from his compound across the way.

Perhaps the best story ended with Chebo urging me to ask the Alkalo (chief) of the Sey Kunda section of Njau "Ana sa beneen dalla?" ("Where is your other shoe?"), a cheeky reminder of the Alkalo's youthful indiscretions.

Chebo was a good husband to his wife Maram, and a good father to Omar Dye and Alhagie Sait. I wish them all well and they have my sympathies.

24 May 2011

The Seder

In advance of our stay in Bogotá, Becky looked into possible Passover Seders she could attend there. With some general directions, we set off on the Transmilenio to points north.

We got off at Calle 100 – well, Amy and I did. Becky didn't get out in time and continued to Calle 127. We decided to wait until Becky returned, presumably by the same bus line. Eventually a young man came up to me and asked “Are you Chris?” and pointed towards the exit. There we found Becky buying a bus ticket to enter, despairing of the effectiveness of yelling “Chris!” repeatedly. Becky reportedly managed her quick return to us by boarding a taxi and yelling “Calle 100! Mis amigos!” between bouts of laughter.

With this hiccup behind us, we proceeded along Calle 94 to the site of the “Israeli backpacker” Seder, which should've been a less formal affair than the one hosted by the Jewish community in Bogotá Having wandered past the pedestrian overpass, we scampered across one intersection and were promptly soaked by cars driving through the numerous puddles/ponds.

At this point we realised that we had passed the block the address suggested, although it soon emerged that the address was, in fact, incomplete (i.e. with block and street number, but no building number). At a hotel I began asking about a “sinagoga” nearby. Rather than being ushered back where we came from (perhaps on the other side of Calle 94?), a kindly, portly, moustachioed middle-aged man suggested that we continue along Calle 94 for several blocks. I was a bit dubious as this contradicted the partial address we had, but we set off nonetheless.

After several minutes' trudging, we decided that we should head back to the side of the block we missed on the walk over. Our friend from the hotel caught up with us though, and pressed on with us. I tried to ask him if there wasn't a synagogue behind us (“sinagoga” being the only known Spanish word that even approximated what we were looking for), but he said, “No, that's a hotel.” I attempted this line of inquiry a few more times, but had no way of fully explaining that I knew we'd met him outside a hotel, but was wondering if there wasn't anything further back.

Five minutes later he pointed to the left and said, “Es casi una sinagoga.” - That's almost a synagogue. He was pointing to the rather garish Farhaad Rugs: Persian Carpets emporium across the calle.

I felt compelled to ask, “But it's not...?” To which he declaratively stated “No!”

We went on a couple of more blocks before our friend said that it was just a bit further ahead on the left. He tacked right to catch a bus home.

We remained doubtful, but shortly afterwards we saw a brightly lit building with well-dressed people greeting each other and heading outside. The building was called “Lubavitch,” which turned out to be the synagogue for the resident Jewish community, earlier deemed by Becky as too posh for the likes of us in our (sodden) backpacker getup.

At first Becky protested that she couldn't enter in her current state (under-dressed and over-soiled), but Amy and I insisted that they go in after all the effort we made in finding the place. So Becky and Amy headed in while I searched for an affordable place to drink in the zona roja, finally settling on a quiet bar nestled amongst car dealerships (but still quite expensive).