26 November 2005

New Orleans: Proud to Call it Home


I am sitting at my favorite coffee shop on Magazine St. on a beautiful Sat. morning. It's around 8:30 or so, and signs of a new day are happening. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be doing this. I would have preferred to stay in Mali the full 10 months with no return trips to the states, but alas circumstances beyond my control prevented that. I am very glad I came back, even if for a short period.

New Orleans is the same, but different at the same time. As I stipulated in my previous post, my old neighborhood is fine. My old house in the Lower Garden District suffered moderate damage to the roof due to wind, and the subsequent rain caused some water damage. My roommate Jason, a Surgery resident at Charity Hospital, decided to stick out the hurricane with his dog, and had a hell of an experience. Water leaked in the house, a fire next door that burnt down 4 houses and yet spared ours, gangs of thugs looting, dead bodies floating on Claiborne, national guard troops everywhere: experiences that were not for the lighthearted. Well, I visited my old house, and it does not look the same. We have this huge magnolia tree in the front yard that survived, this peace of shit tin structure in back that is still there as well. The house is an absolute mess: 1 part Jason, 10 parts the 10 Hondurans hired by our landlords to fix up the place. I left some big ticket items there (couches, TV, electronics, my awesome bed, etc.) that are somewhere in the pile of shit that is my former house of 6 years. My bed is missing, but the box springs are still there, and someone is sleeping only on that. Turns out that the Hondurans decided to "guard" our stuff next door after they were kicked out of our house after setting a fire that destroyed half of our kitched!!! My bed, my roommates computer, half of our kitchen appliances were next door. We ended up catching them red handed and made them take it back. Whatever problems I had with my Spanish recently suddenly improved dramatically, as I was rather emphatic in my threats to call Immigration and the police. But, it eventually got resolved. Shortly thereafter, my old landlords laid it on us that they were going to start renovating the place on Monday, and we had to remove all of our stuff before that. Well, with no available storage facilities for 500 miles (no joke here!!) I decided to take only my bed and one of my couches, and leave the rest to whomever wanted them. I had some decent stuff, it is just a shame I had to get rid of it. Oh well, c'est la vie.

My cousin's house in Mid-City is a different story. The drive over there revealed a part of the city that is very slow in recovery. Few cars on the roads, mounds of debris festering on the tree lawns, huge Oak trees lying on their sides. Entire streets were sectioned off with Yellow tape, forbidding people from entering. My cousin's house itself still has no power, no water, no gas. The house is officially described as a raised double shot gun (i.e. the main living quarters are upstairs and 2 different families can live on either side of each other). It was freezing when I walked in. A few of my belongings were on the floor right by the door: 2 stacks of public health and medical school notes, 3 stacks of review books, a dictionary set and my favorite leather satchel. Of those belongings, only the dictionary and leather satchel are things I really wanted: I never got around to recycling the notes before I left. As far as the books, they were (and still are) a part of a grand scheme to make some money when I returned, as I was going to sell them to some unsuspecting underclassmen. What about my anatomy books (Netter, Rohen), my Medicine textbooks (Cecil's), and my other books?? And my keepsakes? My dress-up clothes? My pictures? A brief walk to the stairs that lead to the basement would reveal the answer.

I donned a mask and gloves, picked up a flashlight, and descended to the unknown. The smell of mold was evident still, even with the sheet rock peeled back to reveal the skeleton of the house. Piles of garbage were everywhere. I saw about 10 black garbage bags on shelves. I knew those had to be mine. I picked up each one and started the process: A bag of crappy t-shirts I was going to donate anyway; a few sweaters that are now multi-colored from bleach cleaning; pictures in small, black binders that are stuck together, but have a cool, psychadelic rainbow ring around them; a bunch of soggy files that I now must throw away. There was also a table with a tarp over it that revealed even more stuff, all of it not really essential: linens, school supplies from my old desk, random crap from my dresser, and a large storage container with my nice clothes (suits, dress shirts, etc). There was also another large box with a label on it that said "donate." That seemed to be the general theme of my rescue operation: things I wanted are gone, things I was going to give away are still there. It is a shame, but c'est la vie.

I guess the biggest thing I have garnered from my trip home is that New Orleans will never be exactly the same as it was before the bitch that broke the levees. Invariably, it will be a smaller city. Plans are in the works to make part of the areas with the most flooding parks and buffer zones from the river and lake. The poor and disenfranchised who were forced to evacuate and who are now living in other cities on money from a different government agency than before may never come back. A quote I read in The Times-Picayune a few days ago summed up the demographics here rather well: "The majority has become the minority, and the minority has become the majority." Before the hurricane, New Orleans was 67% African American. Now, it is only about 20%. Will the cool, funky culture ever return? Will the politicians get off their asses and forget about their cronies and start thinking about the real people this thing affected? Will Craiger stay here for residency? Only time will tell. For now, we must band together as New Orleanians and work to make this city better.

24 November 2005

A New Orleans I Do Not Remember

New Orleans is different, and yet the same. Driving around the streets here in Uptown reveal what appears to be the vibrant city I left almost 5 months ago: bars, restaurants, coffeeshops thriving with business; rich housewives driving their SUVs and shopping at the boutiques; cars occupying every parking spot along the funky, vibrant Magazine St. Unfortunately, my old stomping grounds on Magazine St. provide a false sense of the utter reality here. The reality is that we are an island in a sea of despair. Drive a mile or two away, and it is deserted. Yes, there are some signs of life in these areas, but very little. Refrigerators wrapped with duct tape line the streets, debris from houses 4 feet high adorn the tree lawns, signs of destruction both subtle and grand are everywhere. At night, driving along a main artery of the New Orleans throughfares (Claiborne Ave.) reveals vast sections without power. These are the neighborhoods of the disefranchised, vestiges of a city that care forgot.

Life is a trickle of what it was. "Will it ever be the same?" I find myself asking myself all the time as I look for signs of the old New Orleans. It has to be. I long for the past, I am astonished by the present, and I am hopeful for the future.

18 November 2005

Brief Update from Cameroon

So it has been a while since my last post, and rightfully so. I am currently in Yaounde, Cameroon for the 4th Multilateral Initiative on Malaria (MIM) conference, which started Nov 13 and ends today. To make a long story short (I will fill in more details later) I spent basically the week and a half before this correcting previously arranged travel arrangements for the conference. What a pain in the ass that was. Then, there was the pain of the travel itself: 53 hours of travel, layovers, and connecting flights, a day in Casablanca (!!), airport jail in Cameroon, and finally arriving at the conference with no record of my registration!! Despite all of this, I have learned a lot and have made some rather valuable contacts, and the more and more that I think and work in this field, the more and more I would like to do this as a career.

So, I head back to the states on Saturday evening to begin a week of fun and clean-up in Louisiana. It will be a good visit, as I have recently found out that some really good friends of mine will be there, and I can at least get some New Orleans culture while I am there. I plan on updating this blog a lot while I am there, so please keep checking it out.


08 November 2005

Ramadan is finished

Ramadan officially ended last Wednesday, 2 Nov 2005. I really cannot believe it has been a month since I decided to try this crazy fast thing. Just as I was getting used to it, the temptation of having 3 meals a day, guiltless trips to the refrigerator for a beverage, and caffeine during the day got the best of me, and I am now whole again. I have been back to normal eating habits so to speak for the last 5 days now, and I am still getting used to eating again. I think my GI system is still adjusting to all of this food. What follows are my last days of the fast and some general things about Ramadan that I hope to take away from the experience.

I broke fast with my Malian colleagues in the village on Tuesday evening (1 Nov) for the last time. It was good to be with them for the end. They urged me to keep doing the fast in subsequent years, and I agreed with them. However, there was a small problem with our idea of “last break fast”: there was still a chance that Ramadan would continue for another day. The reason being that there needs to be at least one full day between the last moon sighting of the previous moon cycle and the first moon sighting of the next moon cycle (the official end of Ramadan). The issue here was that the moon was still barely visible as of Monday, meaning that Wednesday might be another day of fast before Eid al Fatr (the Feast of Ramadan) could begin. I was a little demoralized after hearing that, but I was vowed to finish this fast to the end. I would have stayed in the village that night, but my PI (i.e. my boss) from Maryland was in town for the week, and I had to return to Bamako that night to work with him on some issues. So, as we drove into Bamako, the driver and my friend Guindo (one of the other doctors) decided to have a beer downtown. We ran into Guindo’s brother at the bar, who told us that someone in Timbuktu had seen the moon that night, and Eid al Fatr would be Wednesday!!! (Aside: Some other Malians think that the Malian government may have had a hand in this, as they did not want the party to be on Thursday, because then they would have to give everyone Friday off as well for a gian 4 day weekend. Ahhh Mali) Well, needless to say that one beer became several as a celebration, and I enjoyed the night out with my Malian friends.

I spent Ramadan morning on the front porch of my house in the bright sunlight guiltlessly eating a grapfruit, bread and jelly, and tea. I then went over to Maiga’s family’s house (See the Best Meal Ever post) to eat lunch. Yet again, a phenomenal feast: Poullet Yassa (chicken in lemon and onion sauce) over couscous, fruit for dessert, Malian tea, and Wejila (a bread dish from Timbuktu that is out of this world good). I then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening with Moctar, one of the administrators at the MRTC. He invited me over to his parent’s house, and then we drove around Bamako visiting his relatives. See, on Ramadan, it is customary for the younger generation to visit and “pay” ones respects (i.e. leave money) to one’s extended family of cousins, uncles/aunts, 3rd cousins once removed, sister’s aunt’s nephew, you know. We must have visited 5 homes that evening. They were all full of kids and family’s just chillin’. I ate like a champ, and probably too much as I think my stomach had adjusted to eating smaller amounts. I made it home that night content that I had accomplished something I had never thought I would be able to finish.

I weighed myself on the scale in Doneguebougou on Tuesday night, the last day of Ramadan.

Final Ramadan Fast weight: 75 kg (~ 165 pounds)
Pre Ramadan Fast weight: 83 kg (~ 183 pounds)
Total weight loss = 8 kg (~ 18 pounds)

I look and feel better than I have in years. I feel that I have more energy, more mental capacity (which was not much to begin with in the first place!!), and better posture. I have a general sense of well being that I have not felt in years.

Spiritually: While doing the fast, I was determined to pray more. I set out to pray roughly the same number of times as my muslim colleagues (5 times a day) but I ended up praying 3 times a day (right after breakfast, in the afternoon, and after dinner). I found myself feeling more relaxed, more in tune with who I am after praying. I also felt closer to God that I have in a long time. I even attended mass once in downtown Bamako at the main cathedral there. The mass was entirely in French, and I understood about half of it. But Catholic mass is pretty much universal, so I understood the basic of the prayers and incantations.

Lessons Learned

So you may be asking what I learned from this experience:

  1. That self-control is very difficult, especially when it comes to something that we need (food, water), not necessarily want or think we need (a new car, alcohol).

  2. The Muslim faith is an incredibly devout, passionate group who are grossly misunderstood by the rest of the world, especially Americans. Their devotion to their faith should serve as an example to all. They say that the key to successfully navigating the difficulties associated with Ramadan is ones faith, faith in that their beliefs will guide them through the hunger, thirst, and outright exhaustion they feel. Just imagine if we all could extrapolate this to our problems in our own every day lives??

  3. Fasting the Ramadan way is an incredible way to loose weight, regain energy, and understand ones limits.

  4. Water is a precious resource, and we must do our best to preserve it. And you realize this when it is 92 degrees outside, and you cannot have a drink of water!!

  5. Faith in oneself, despite the life’s temptations great and small, is the key to a healthy, happy life.

  6. Craiger likes being skinny again. . . .

03 November 2005

End of the trip (Note the newly 15 pounds less Craiger and the beard to tote). Posted by Picasa

View of the village from the pirogue. Posted by Picasa

My driver (Fa-Fa) and his brother Amadou. Posted by Picasa

My pirogue. Posted by Picasa

Remind you of anywhere in the U.S.?? Posted by Picasa

Cool shot of classic Sahelian architecture with French architecture justaposed. Posted by Picasa

The mountain of pottery I mentioned earlier. Posted by Picasa

Me and some of my Peace Corps friends (classic Peace Corps ratio- 5 girls:1 guy) Posted by Picasa

Cool just-after-sundown shot of the river and its denizens. Posted by Picasa

Almost sunset along the Niger.  Posted by Picasa

Recently, some French businessmen wanted to increase tourism on the Niger. So they decided to bring in jet skis. I thought this picture of the jet skis (new school) with the guy pushing the pirogue on the right (old school) was right on the money with the problem with this.  Posted by Picasa

Pirogue (aka canoe) on the Niger River in Segou. Posted by Picasa

Picture of people selling trinkets outside of the bus windows. Posted by Picasa