Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Game

A boy walks with cleets, and two rare air-filled footballs. He leaves the beach brimful of children. Girls in bright frilly dresses nearly falling off. Boys in stained t-shirts and trousers. Running, playing, screaming on the pearl-grey sands of a Zanzibar beach. A little girl comes to ask me for my pen, then screams in ecstasy rolling in the sand. Dangerous to sit so near the beach. The wazungus a few meters down are drawing a crowd. One girl is older, perhaps 13 or 11. She wears a kanga, pink and black, as a headscarf. A little boy in loose pink trousers and a black shirt throws a water bottle into the sea, then moments later a piece of driftwood. They are the same--washed up, thrown to sea. A boy in the water wrestles with a huge log. The base of a palm tree. It is black, and heavy in the water. He rights it and toys with it and the water until it comes crashing down. Blue football jersey attempts cartwheels. One success. There is just a touch of fading in the light, crabs--small white ones--begin to scuttle across the beach, leaving their holes for the sea. The game begins.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Hai Phong

Yesterday for work I went to Hai Phong, a large city on the Red river delta. I walked on the beach of the Pacific ocean--it was wonderful to smell the salt in the air on the ocean breeze. I went along with a woman I work with and a group visiting from HPI (Health Policy Initiative) China, to visit the HIV/AIDS legal clinic that HPI Viet Nam (the project I'm interning with) had set up in Hai Phong. The clinic was small but effective: two rooms, one for greeting potential clients and one for counseling clients. It works well on a shoestring budget because the lawyers who work there are retired and receiving healthy pensions. Jurists and peer counselors work together with the lawyers--clients first meeting with peer counselors to review their situation and determine whether their case is HIV/AIDS related (discrimination in workplace, school, etc).
After learning about the clinic's work, hearing some success stories, and holding a question and answer session we all went to lunch. There were lots of amazing foods on the table, including a salad made of thin strips of black speckled jellyfish , seaweed, carrots, and other vegetables. Of the course the first and last dishes (steamed octopus and squid and crab soup respectively) were passed over my right shoulder and placed nearly directly in front of me--rather than the 5 other people who would be sharing them.
Luckily I was sitting next to my co-worker--a former anesthesiologist--who was familiar with allergies. I was a little suprised when, after telling me she was allergic to peanuts, coconut, basically all nuts, as well as seafood, she proceeded to eat a peanut and dig into the shrimp-filled fried spring rolls. I looked at her quizically and inquired. She then proceeded to tell me that her allergy was a different kind than mine--hers was cellular, her bodies' cells would attack anything foreign and send out too many histamines, but she didn't feel the affects right away, she said she felt them a few days later. If she didn't take a claritin (antihistamine) before she ate foods she was allergic too, she said she would feel sick and swollen 2-3 days later. She also said she only ate limited amounts of the foods she was allergic too. She informed me that my allergy on the other hand, was "in the blood," and when exposed to an allergen my allergy acts faster and is therefor more dangerous.
I tried to argue that we both had the same things happening in our bodies--an overproduction of histamines which causes swelling of soft tissue--but that her allergic reactions were simply not as severe, given that her 10mg of claritin seemed to do the trick, allowing her to partake in what seemed like far more than "a little bit" of shellfish. The last time I accidentally "ate" shellfish was when only the rice on the edge of a piece of sushi containing crab was dipped in my tamari. I kept using the tamari to eat my vegetarian sushi and 30 minutes later I had a lump in my throat which made it very uncomfortable to swallow. Though it dissipated in a few hours my throat was sore for 24 hours. But no, my allergy was different because it was in the blood. She also said that people like she and I (allergy sufferers) wouldn't get cancer, because our bodies would recognize cancerous cells as allergens. Hmmmm....
Allergies are bizzare. And certainly, different cultures have different perceptions of what they are, why they happen, and what can make them better. As far as I know, the number of people with allergies to food, latex, insect stings, and pollen etc has increased dramatically in recent years. Maybe there only seems to be more of us because we're living longer thanks to medicine and EMS; but I think there actually is an increase beyond this and I do wonder what kind of protective factors having allergies gives us. I doubt resistance to cancer is one of them.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Dreaming of sleep, and hoping it will be in my bed tonight and not in a hotel. I've migrated from the coffee shop that closes at 9pm to the coffee shop that closes at 11 pm (that gives me 1 hour and 11 minutes for the situation to resolve itself). The beauty of the house I live in are the roll-down metal security gates. At night when we sleep we are uber secure (kind of bizzarely excessive I think). a few weeks ago during one of the somewhat infrequent power outages, we realized that if the gates were down, we wouldn't be able to get out of the house. Fire, earthquakes, medical emergency--we could think of a few reasons why this might spell problem. So we devised a plan--leaving the roll-down gate that opens to our neighbors little shared courtyard open all the time, as there is another metal padlocked gate (to which we have a key) barring entrance to that courtyard from the alley. For some reason this plan was never put into action. As it happens, today on my way home from the 9pm coffee shop, as I walked down the alley home most of the neighborhood blacked out. Foiled. On this rare occasion no one else was home. The husband-half of the couple who live in the house is in the states for work, the wife and the visiting daughter were just out at the night market in downtown Hanoi (they've been home tried the door, called me and are now coming to meet me), and my roommate I haven't heard from--but she was at a friend's house down the road.
Barring the fact that most of the powerlines here look like woven sphagetti (the other day after a windstorm I was practically limboing under falling wires on my way down the steps from the street to my alley) this problem could be resolved if people used less power. At the last power outage (about a week ago) we consulted the neighbors and discovered that our house is one of the houses on our block that's on the "bad power connection system," so anytime someone on that system (or the combined input of all of us) runs too many air conditioning units at once, or too many of our on demand hot water heaters, the power is--apparently--likely to go out. This should certainly make us all more conscious of energy use, but with the hottest part of summer approaching, I anticipate this will be regular occurrence. I think we might be getting a generator.

Friday, June 5, 2009


Our first journey (and subsequent journeys) to IMTU (International Medical and Technological University) was by way of "private" bus. Our country coordinator didn't feel comfortable with us taking public transport for the 25 minute voyage from our semi-rural community, a satellite of Dar es Salaam, to the University--also located well outside of "Dar." The buses are called Daladalas, but our Italian professor from University College London preferred to call them "Dalalala"--said with the inflection of an Italian accent. Each morning we waited at our "bus stops," sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for an hour, until our purple ~18 seater arrived. My bus stop was in front of a little corner store, in a neighborhood where dusty dirt tracks met the towering walls of little enclaves with houses which more often than not offered an extreme contrast to the tiny one-room open-front dwellings that lined the back streets of the market near the main road. Under the trees at the corner store, rough-sawn plank board benches that swayed underseat acted as temporary repositories for our bodies, yet to adjust to the Tanzanian heat--already overwhelming at 7:30 am. Not far beyond the borders of shade, brilliant green grass--clipped short from ruminants--reminded us of the sudden thunder showers that sometimes came at night. A few meters further afield a little muddy creek ran west toward the main road, paralleling the line of tall metal towers and their snaking plastic-coated wires, which brought power to the community of Tegeta.
Walking at twilight, nearly breaking the "home before dark" curfews, I sometimes saw children hauling buckets of water from the slow, shallow creek. A creek where each day in the evening drivers of mini-trucks came to wash their vehicles, wheeling them into the center of a wide spot not 3 feet deep. They would splash buckets of water over their machines and scrub them with rags--washing the dust, oil, and sweat of the land into the still water, destined to quench the thirst of gardens and tiny bellies.
Somehow we always managed to squeeze 31 sweaty students, 2 professors, 1 travelling fellow, and 2 or three "bus drivers" onto our little bus. We got friendly. There were always a few people standing, occupying the steps and front 2 feet of the passageway. The aisle was always full, as the flip-down center seats were never without bodies to fill them. The first day at IMTU we took a tour, visiting our long cavernous third floor classroom with its tightly packed desks, open-air windows, and ceiling fans that ran as inconsistently as the power. We journeyed across the grounds, past the dirt and turf volleyball and football zones to a residential building that housed a little cafeteria serving Indian food. Broken in two, the halves of our group passed each other on the stairs to floor five, and there were whispers of disgust from some. They had found the cadaver room, where two medical students worked meticulously, dissecting their dry, gray-brown almost unrecognizable human body. A note on the chalkboard read: "Please do not run away from the cadaver room."
Later that week we discovered a miracle of taste. Hidden in the corner of the Tanzanian food spot on campus, two women worked overtime slicing and dicing in the palm of their hands as foreign customers lined up each day for a perfection which can't be found in the US. Mixed fruit platters prepared to order right before our eyes--pineapple, banana, mango, avocado--served with a toothpick for the price of just ~30 US cents. That was my lunch (usually two plates) more often than not on school days.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


I miss Tanzania: Africa is complicated. The sun there had a brightness and heat that helps shed light on the memories I might otherwise forget. They seem drenched in color, and I can still taste the dust in the air. I can smell the green of foliage and feel the cool heat of inland hills rising into the sometimes mist--with tiny white veins of water falling high above rice fields. There all things moved with a comfortable pace--pole' pole', (slowly slowly, take it easy). Walking down uneven rutted roads with friends, far from highways, we would take refuge in moments of shade offered by trees. Our nostrils and lungs often filled with dark smoke--trash burn-piles set the air on fire. The ocean was sweetly salty and the hospitals all looked the same--long open air covered corridors, courtyards filled usually with nothing. Nothing but people, sometimes--staff walking and working, patients and would be patients, resting and waiting in the corridor's shade.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bert and Ernie

The owners of the house I stay in have been gone for a few days, and my roommate--who's interning with IUCN in Hanoi this Summer--was off at a meeting and mangrove walk on the Red river delta. So I was left to care for Bert and Ernie. Unfortunately I've failed. Bert and Ernie are two birds, quite different from each other, who have been part of the household for about a month and a half now. Keeping birds is kind of a thing here in Viet Nam, people often bring their birdcages out and hang them in the tree braches along the streets. I'm never sure whether this caged communion with nature is a monstrous practice or a kind one. Ernie is small, bright lime green with a yellow throat and grey belly. He eats copious amounts of food and manages to entertain himself by doing vertical 360 degree flips in his tiny bamboo cage. Once in a while he sings quite beautifully. All in all, as caged birds go, he seems pretty happy. Bert on the other hand was clearly distressed from the moment he got to the house. He spends much of his average day flapping around in his cage, jumping to the "ceiling," and banging his head against the cage. He has managed to remove most of the little feathers from the top and sides of his head, and he seems to have two perma-bloody spots on either side of his face--I'm not up on my bird anatomy but I think it might be his nostrils. Bert is kind of a plain looking bird--brown and grey--he looks like he could be found anywhere. Yesterday was a quiet day at home, I opened the windows (the cages live next to them) and watched movies in the afternoon, I fed and watered the birds and Bert seemed to actually be having a good day. I think he was enjoying the lack of people coming in and out of the room--and because I didn't turn the air-conditioning on all day I didn't move their cages. (We fear air-conditioning may have caused the death of the last pet bird so we never leave them in a room with the AC on). Bert was singing a lot yesterday and he wasn't banging his head at all. Today I gave both the birds a bath, even though Bert is only supposed to get a bath once every three days and it had only been two, I figured he wouldn't mind. Bert's bath involves filling a plastic tub with water in the shower and lowering his wire cage into the tub so that the bottom few inches of it are submerged. He seemed to enjoy his bath as usual. I thought I would let the base of the cage air dry before putting the plastic "poop-catcher" tray which was lined with fresh newspaper back under the cage, as I didn't want it to get wet. No problem right? It turns out Ernie was Harry Houdini's great-great-nephew, twice removed. When I returned from grocery shopping I put the tray under the cage (it clips onto the bottom bars and the legs of the cage elevate the whole thing a few inches). I suddenly realized the cage was sans bird. And I had left the window open. Hmmmm. At first I couldn't believe it, but I had pet rats as a child and I remember a particularly scarring experience involving my friend's large corn snake and a heating grate--I know that seemingly large animals usually fit through seemingly small holes. After looking in disbelief at the impenetrable wire cage with its closed door for a few seconds I noticed that the wires that form the cage base are spaced further apart than the wires on the sides. Then I noticed that the sidemost wire at one edge of the cage bottom was suspiciously bowed. Bert had flown the coup. I think in the end I'm actually quite happy for him, which makes me feel strange that it happened on my watch. I'm concerned that he won't make it out there in the world, particularly if he was raised in a cage from birth (this is supposed to be the case, but I don't think his behavior around humans reflects this). I hope he knows how to catch worms and bugs and fend off mean birds. He's not exactly going to do well in the mating game, with his self-induced buzz cut. Who knows, he may not even have made it this long (a few hours) considering he hasn't had much opportunity to keep his flying muscles in shape. I like to think he's been planning this for some time. That at night and when he's been alone in his bath he's been gradually widening that spot at the base of his cage, and that his calm yesterday was in light of the fact that he felt freedom to be imminent. I wouldn't put it past him. He also ate all of his food before he left. Usually he eats very little. He certainly doesn't finish off a day's food by early afternoon. But I suppose he needed strength for his journey. If I were Bert I would fly beyond the tall buildings and traffic out past the borders of the city, and stay far from humans for rest of my life. But nonetheless, I'll be keeping my eyes to the sky, hoping to see a bald brown bird that doesn't fly quite as well as his fellows.

Bamboo and Bugs

We went to the bamboo furniture store in our neighborhood today and picked out a bamboo and wicker dresser, now my few items of clothing will have a home--I was kind of getting tired of having neatly folded clothing piles next to my bed. The dresser was delivered, as I suspected, on the back of a motor scooter and I helped the delivery man carry it up the five flights of stairs to the room. Bamboo furniture has its merits. A few days ago I got a bamboo pole-rack for hanging clothing on--it took me longer than it should have to figure out which of the three cross supports fit into which holes on the vertical pieces. And I always thought geometry was one of my strong points. To top it off, in the process of assembly a small, nasty-looking spider of unknown toxicity escaped from one of the base-supports and is now living happily somewhere in our room. Last week I caught a jumping spider in my room every single day and put it outside. It began to feel like a pointless exercise. I've stopped making an effort to catch them because a new one seems to materialize out of thin air every time I put one outside. For some reason I only ever see one at a time. Maybe it's my karma for purchasing a few "bug jewelry" pieces last week when I was in downtown Hanoi with the mom and daughter of the American family I live with. I definitely had reservations about purchasing dead bugs frozen into some form of plastic, and even thought to myself how strange it is that I would pay money for them, considering I always catch bugs and put them outside rather than kill them.