Sunday, July 6, 2014

Short and Sweet

This is going to be short,
I added sweet as that is how the expression goes but...no promises on that front. The last two weeks have been pretty decent weeks overall, punctuated with some tough times.

Work continues to be interesting, I definitely feel more able to do some basic parts of the job but am now at a point where I need to start being more entrepreneurial in the work that I take on, to demonstrate that I have the ability to seek out and do work myself rather than simply follow tasks. I have a few topics that I am interested in, particularly in the field of deforestation and environment in general. Hopefully I'll get some time this week to learn more about those areas here in Burkina Faso.  I have also enjoyed getting to the point where basics are understood as it has allowed me to ask more questions about substance, career and depth and less about necessity, deadlines and font-size.  I am thankful for patient co-workers and supervisors as I continue to learn a lot and also thankful for the ability to at least learn lessons fairly quickly.

Last weekend (29th), was a jam-packed weekend of social events. On Friday evening, a bluegrass band from Tennessee (although 2 of them are actually from just outside Raleigh) called the Barefoot Movement that the Embassy brought over for 2 weeks played at the French Cultural Center. They are an excellent group and I would definitely encourage you all to listen to them online and buy their cds if you enjoy this style. They all had great energy and the bassist I thought was particularly energetic when playing. After that, I took 2 folks with me and met up with my 3 European friends who I often hang out with and we just went out and had drinks and relaxed.  Saturday was definitely socially-charged with a 6-8 goodbye dinner party for one of my coworkers and then 8-4ish evening at my friend's house where they had a bunch of people over. That night was amazing as it was a collection of Burkinabe, French, Swiss, Brit, Japanese and even a few Americans and we talked lotcal politics (of course seomthing I'd find fascinating), cultural norms and the role of men and women in the household, work environment etc. So incredibly fascinating to have such a diverse dialogue with people from all over the world, from various religons or lack thereof and from different economic backgrounds. This weekend (4th, 5th and 6th) has also been pleasant. Of course, when you work in an embassy, July 4th is a big deal so there was a huge evening organized with hundreds of guests attending. I got to help a bit with the evening by standing by our tent that discussed the Embassy's "Self-Help program" where we give some grants to 15-20 organizations across the country each year. Each organization is usually a women's group or handicapped, widows etc. they are meant to help support income-generating activities although they are not always direct income-generating. For example, in some cases we will pay for a well as that will free up hours upon hours of time (mostly for women) to do other things.  It was cool to be part of the committee this year and it was fun to try to explain what the purpose of the program is to lots of our guests. A much more popular part that my office (although not barely me at all) was involved in was the Expo which featured various american-run companies or companies that sell American goods. I thought the organizers did a great job, for my Fletcher friends, Lala and Galloway's Clair de la Lune group was there and I think that they got some good (and deserved publicity).

I will end this now but before I do I want to take a minute to thank the many, many people who have written me, called me etc. since Tuesday.  Many people know this, but while biking on Tuesday, I was hit by a vehicle and sent flying quite far. For the sake of posterity, I will not go into details but I am incredibly grateful to have not broken anything, for my head to have come out with no serious damage and that no one else was hurt in any way. Despite some pain and some ugliness, I am expected to be completely fine and look normal (or as normal as I ever have!) in a few weeks.  I am so incredibly grateful for the helmet, for the many people-from emergency responders to doctors to nurses to embassy staff and to friends for all they have done to help me and then check on me.  While it is not an event I wish to repeat, I can confirm that time really does slow down in that situation and that bike helmets are 100% life-saving tools, despite how ridiculous one looks when wearing them.  Thanks again to all, I am excited to start back at work for whole days again and am looking forward to feeling 100% again at some point...

Peace and love to all!  Sorry for no photos, my camera card has decided to stop functioning and... I'm too tired to bother seeing if I can fix it or I'll have to format the sd card...

Thanks for being forgiving and reading just text... and listen to barefoot movement! :-)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Keep on keeping on

June 22, 2014,
Wow! Been here for just over a month now! Seems hard to believe but, c'est la verite.  Sorry for no blog post last week, I know some of you were crushed... ;-)  In fact, last weekend, I got to get out of the city for the first time, my housemate organized for a large group of people an outing to Nazinga Game Reserve which is by the Ghanaian border. This is a game reserve, meaning folks can hunt as well as just be camera tourists. I had never been to any game park in West Africa so, it was interesting. Certainly, the number of animals and the diversity of bigger animals cannot be compared to East or Southern Africa but, one thing that was really nice is that it is a much more relaxed, low-key park so I think we only saw a total of 3 other vehicles while w were there-also, this is not peak season which also helps.  Nazinga is best known for its elephants, of which it has approximately 800.  We were at the park for about exactly 24 hours and the first afternoon/evening, we didn't see any elephants, but the next morning, we got to see 2 different groups of elephants which was cool. There were some young elephants in the group and one of the mama elephants was not too pleased to have us around so she half-charged us a couple times, enough the one time to get us to speed away in the pickup. Anyway, it was really nice to get out of Ouagadougou and see a bit of the countryside. Burkina Faso, particularly now in the rainy season, is way more green and lush than I ever thought it would be. Really beautiful to be honest, lots of great Baobob trees which are just amazing to see, and during this time of the year they even have their leaves, though their fruit is pretty much done "pain de singe" is what they call the fruit here, make it also into a delicious drink, which people in Senegal also drank.





This weekend has also been a good time. Friday, after work, we had a cocktail event to honor one of the Embassy senior members and it was a really fun event.  Got to meet a lot of Burbinabe in various different positions here and had some scintillating conversation about politics here in the African continent.  In particular, we discussed the challenges faced by countries such as Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Algeria and what the futures of these places might hold.  It was really interesting to get their insight, as well as the insight of some of the other expatriates that were in attendance.  I also found out that an individual from the EU delegation went to HKS so it was fun to chat about Boston a bit with that person. Overall, a really good evening. The man who we were celebrating is on the defense side of the embassy and it was humbling to see how appreciated he was by the Burkinabe in attendance; so many compliments on what he's done and how he treats people. In his concluding speech, I really appreciated that he started it by thanking the Burkinabe for their work with him and he did it in French. That may not sound like a huge effort, but it really is and you can tell that it's things like that which have made him be such a loved member of the community here in Burkina Faso.

Saturday night, one of the Americans hosted a really lovely barbecue at their house so that was a blast to go hang out, eat some delicious foods and just chill. I was there for about 3 or so hours and then I went to la Fete de la Musique. I guess that all across the francophone world, this is a thing. I didn't hear every single artist as the concert had started at "6 pm" which means it likely started around 6:40 or so. but, I did get to hear Akilignouma, which is a really high-paced band with 2 koras, dancers who were really great. Then, I also got to hear Mariam Kone who you are most likely to have heard of as she is a very well-known Malian artist. Coolest thing about this was I got to meet her after the concert and then at the afterparty concert which took place at Bar K, we just sat next to her and her drummer as different bands took turns jamming out! It was pretty darn awesome. To me, the true star of the night was the band Ibrahim Keita (le groupe Nankama), man, they were really awesome. also had several koras and just had amazing energy as a group. There were 3 different percussionists and I, along with the hundreds of others in attenendance got our dance one. Twas really fun and I definitely encourage you to listen to them/buy them on itunes even if you don't listen to any of these others!  Finally, the start for most burkinabe was Alif Naaba. He received the biggest Burkinabe award for a musician, the Kunde d'Or this year and he is a pretty big star around these parts; everyone knew all the words.  He was good, but I will stick to saying that I liked Ibrahim Keita group better. One thing that was cool was that throughout the whole night, all the groups appealed for peace, challenged usto make Africa develop itself. There was a really cool song by Alif Naaba which talked about the brothers, cousins etc. who had gone off to Europe or elsewhere to make dreams come true but have not yet returned, either because they had died or more commonly because they found that dream more elusive than they had hoped.  It really was cool.  Definitely in terms of music and just plumb having fun, this was among the best, I'd say even the best, evening so far. I got home round 3, very happy to have listened to great music at two venues, eaten at a lovely barbecue while chatting with lots of the American staff and having got my dance on throughout the night. What more can you really ask for in life! :-)

My work continues to go well.  I feel like I am starting to remember little details of this job that are shockingly very important to people/systems: left margin vs. justified for some types of papers I write, justified with 1.5 indentation for others, this type of embossed paper for some letters, double spaces for colons, but not for semi-colons, single space vs. 1.5 vs. 2.0..... who gets copied on what etc.  What all these details mean when you're new and don't go through training in D.C. at all is that, I make/have made a good number of errors which my supervisors then fix. BUT, I do think that I'm helping the office as they really are short-handed so even if they have to fix things, I can at least get pretty strong drafts into the system for them.  I also found out that the other officer, to whom I report, will be leaving post at the end of July which means that while the new Political officer arrives, we will be short anyone who has experience here for a little time.  Luckily our Burkinabe staff are great, embassies have all sorts of systems to make up for this etc. but, what that means is that I'll be covering for 1.5 positions for a bit while the new officer situates herself.  I'm incredibly lucky, really, cause I'm getting to do some interesting work and I get to interact with just about everyone.

Okay, off for now, going to eat, take a short nap (yes, cause I've worked that hard) and then do a bit of research, cause I didn't put my hours in this week that I was hoping too! Have a great day/night wherever you are!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Learning Curve-Our friends at Webster define it this way: the rate at which someone learns something new.

This week has felt mostly like the very beginning part of the graph below.

The greatest thing you can ask for in an internship is the gift of high expectation and no patience for poor quality work yet people who are very supportive. I am very grateful to have those expectations right now. I am surrounded by US diplomats and Burkinabe experts who are incredibly patient with what seems my awful French writing (considering corrections) and supervising officers who politely help me understand why the style is written in a particular why or correct what seems to be one of the million particularities required. Every day I try to be at the desk at 7:30, hopefully already with a cup of coffee but if not, I can get that later. Generally by 7:45, I feel like I've already missed something but... c'est la vie! Everyone from the top brass to the "lowest" member of the staff have been truly welcoming to me, whether it's showing something on the computer or whether it's telling me about the school their kid goes to and how much they have poured into making sure their kids succeed in school. I've pulled a decent amount of 11 hour days and even a couple 12, 13+ but I am learning so much and I feel so grateful. Plus, sometimes, work consists of going to lunch, getting to tag along to very interesting meetings or this week, I had to represent the embassy at the French Cultural Centre's Free Rights Film festival as they were showing a film called: Dreams are colder than Death, which was a really interesting depiction on race and "the state of civil rights" in the US today. Definitely worth a watch to anyone who appreciates perspectives that I don't believe are always well represented in US media.

Outside of work, I think I am slowly finding a rhythm. During week days, I mostly go to work, then go home, eat and dawdle a bit on the internet before passing out, if I'm lucky do some fun reading. On weekends, I try to go out every evening. This weekend, I was lucky to be able to go out with other folks. Friday, I went out with a few folks from the Embassy and then joined up with some young French volunteers I met last weekend and we went to an outdoor concert with various Burkinabe and other African singers and then an Ivorian humorist named Amadou Dahico, who was really quite funny. Although I missed some jokes due to lack of regional contexts and culture, he was really funny and if you know French, definitely worth a watch. Also, Jeune Afrique just did an interview with him, which I'll provide for your interest sake: http://www.jeuneafrique.com/Article/ARTJAWEB20140606162937/ . Twas a lot of fun. Saturday I spent the morning sleeping off having gotten home at 4 am... In short, after the concert, we jumped in a car and ended up at the 50-something birthday of an executive in the city who was hosting a party at his house and one of the Burkinabe we were with knew the guards. Twas a great time, and an unbelievable house. We never actually entered but it was three stories of verandas, a huge pool, good music and a wide variety of drinks. Gotta love just having adventures! :-)

Despite Saturday fatigue, well worth the time and investment but... cansado I was. That meant Saturday started a bit tardy, but ended up going in the late afternoon to watch 2 films at the French Film festival with my host (whose birthday it was also) and then hopping a few places to get a drink, met up with a really nice Brit at a local jardin (outside cafe/bar). Then, it was our plan to go to listen to some live music but then something funny happened. We got a note from a waiter that "someone wanted you to have this". "this" ended up being the phone numbers of two women. We looked around and saw a big group of French girls (and a couple burkinabe it seemed). A few of these individuals were fairly attractive and we saw no other women in the area who were alone, all others were with a man, or a group. Names were French and we thought, well, we only live once so we proposed to said numbers to go to another bar in the area. They texted back that they were interested. Great news! :-) So, we finish up our drinks-just so no one judges/assumes, I was strictly on cokes Saturday-and we get up to leave. Right when we're leaving the big group of French(ish) girls leave. We are feeling pretty da** good right now. We get outside and we flag a taxi, getting ready for what could be epicly great or a complete disaster. Right when we get a taxi, two girls come up to us and say, "are you going to ____ bar". You may have guessed it, it wasn't the French girls.... no, rather it was two young women, who were indeed very pretty but, also pretty evident to both my housemate and I, looking for paid adventure.... Sigh... that is how my 2nd Saturday night in a row ended up with being directly approached by those who practice one of the world's "oldest professions". At that point, my housemate and I had to have a somewhat painfully staged "conversation" about whether we wanted to continue our evening and in the end, in the most apologetic French I could muster, we apologized that we were actually so tired that we needed to go home, decently embarrassed and now very much ready to go to sleep.

While, for me, this became a relatively benign, even if slightly embarrassing, story but, as anyone who lives or has lived in places of poverty and desperation, it also reflects the challenges faced by so many people here. To these two young, lovely women, my host and I seemed like men "out to have fun" and with sufficient $ to pay some bills. They didn't know us or probably care to really chat with us in any depth. To me, I struggle to imagine the revulsion one must have to feel going through all the small talk and game with someone who really is going to pay for that night. They may well have a boyfriend, a husband, kids, but they almost certainly have siblings and parents. How difficult must it be for them, who are likely as smart and as hard-working as I, to do a job where I fear many customers see them as little more than objects, and at worse, may treat them as objects for use and discarding. I don't know them, I likely never will, and I know that some argue that a profession like that is a choice which some choose willingly. Maybe it is... maybe it is,but somehow I don't think for these two women it's probably what they hoped to do in their early 20s. I hope to God that there is a day when no one, in the world, has to do jobs like this (among a good number of others) or at least that they can do it out of choice and get paid very richly for it, instead of about $50/night which is what I was told a "good" hooker will cost you....

A recent report in B.F. said that well over 1/3 of prostitutes in the town of Bobo know that they are HIV+; this compares to a national statistic of Burkinabe is right around 2% (estimate is Ouaga rate is similar). We need more men like a 35 year-old I met last week, who works a low-brow job of security guard. While chatting with him and another friend (for over 2 hours after a 12 hour work-day), his friend joked that this guy, all he does is work and be with his family with one of his girls in his arms. He spends over 50% of his income paying for his 3 daughters to go to a good, private school. He said that sometimes, the girls are embarassed because lots of their friends get picked up by chauffeurs and live in fancy quartiers. I told him that at the end of school, they each have the same degree. He said, yes, and that he would spend even more than that to make sure they get the best education possible. He said that he is going to do all he can to make sure his girls learn english, get to Ghana for high school and maybe go to the US or Canada for college. I told him to look into Australia as well. I don't know for sure if his girls will get to go to a Western college (though I know he's going to do everything possible to try) but I know that the world would be a lot better if rich, poor and middle class parents loved their kids as much as he does. Man, to make it more personal, I hope that if I am ever a dad, that I can come close to pouring my love, my resources and my time into my kids.

As we say at Green Street UMC in Winston-Salem: God is good, all the time, God is good....  But, as a personal addendum, seems pretty clear we human -f things up a good amount.... Thank you all, wherever you are, for reading, hope you are well, and I'll try to have some photos for next time. Going to be a good, busy work week, and hopefully another great week in general!


Saturday, May 31, 2014

One week in!

Hello all.
So, I've now been in Ouaga for one full week, though Monday was a US holiday and Thursday was a Burkinabe holiday so... haven't actually worked a full week. Some things I've appreciated so far.

First) People here are so incredibly kind and welcoming. This seems to clearly be a culture where not saying hello, how's your family, how's the health is super impolite and just about anyone is willing/interested in chatting with you. I have found particularly friendly and helpful all the guards in my neighborhood. I'm staying in a ritzy part of town which means that every house has a guard so every street has a little paillote or hut or shaded area where the guards from around there hang out and chat. The collection of a dozen or so guards on my street are my Moore teachers, taking time to help me learn a new word/phrase each day. A great example was last night. I came back quite late and a few guards down the road-whom I didn't know-said "bonsoir" and I responded with my 5 words of wolof and then I began chatting with them. ONe of them then insisted on giving me his chair but instead I sat on the ground, so he did too and the four of us chatted for more than an hour in the middle of the night. One of them had worked in Liberia for an NGO during the war and been shot twice and actually ended up crawling away through the bush so we talked a bit about conflict and war, which got us into talking about religion. Two of them were Muslim, the other Catholic and they talked to me about the protestant movements here, which preachers are really crazy, how Wahhabi Islam is really making inroads here by offering financial resources to people who adopt their ways. They talked a lot about how so many in religious faiths have personal interests/material desires and how that can't be real religion because one must love God to choose that religion. One of the guards, Moussa (I think) said something quite great; he said, how can I force someone to adopt my religion by pushing them or giving them money etc.? Someone should want to know my God and religion because they see something in how I live that makes them interested. What a GREAT way of phrasing it! Anyway, that was supposed to be a quick example but, in short people are really nice. I had a young man come find me because on Tuesday I had asked him where people play football and he saw me walking one day and told me to come join on Saturday at 4 pm so I'm going to try. I also had another man invite me to come play petanque (bacci) with them on the big road. They play each evening, so I think I'll try that Sunday evening.

Second) Work so far has been really interesting. WOrk days start at 7:15/7:30 and so far it seems that my supervisors leave by about 6 pm except on Friday when one can leave anytime after 12:30 and my supervisor left round 2/2:30 so that gives you a ballpark of my hours. Pretty fair, and it's nice that Friday we can leave early-prayer day for Muslims which is why offices all close at lunch. I am definitely going to get to do some serious work. My first day at work, I was able to accompany senior leadership to high level governmental meetings. I got to be the guy who held important people's bags/notebooks while the press flashed photos but... still very cool to get to be there for them. By the end of my first day, I had been assigned my first project and by Friday afternoon, three hours after most people had left (cause I'm slow at everything right now...), I sent out my first cable and now have a nice stack of eight or so projects that are on-going that I need to work on. Ouagadougou is a small embassy, and people have been really great about entrusting me with some interesting tasks as well as giving me good advice and rides when I needed them! As is commonplace in this job, almost a 1/3 of people are transitioning out of Ouaga this summer so there will be lots of new faces. My direct supervisor in political left today so I get to inherit his projects and a good number of his responsibilities-though the Econ officer is now my host officer and is super helpful and will step in when it's above my head. I am so incredibly grateful to be in a place where I"m being trusted with real responsibilities and interesting tasks.

Third) Social life: Well, I live in a super nice area but it is very far from downtown so I can't just cruise by a popular bar to get a drink BUT, I have done okay so far. Last weekend, the econ officer and his wife took me and the guy with whom I'm staying out to watch some live music downtown-and dinner-which was a blast. We went to a place called Le petit bazar which was really good-high recommendation. Thursday night, a bunch of military guys and some officers went and ate at a sushi place. I went purely for the social part; cause of course, I don't often eat seafood. It was fun for that reason but, everything was so expensive that it really blew my budget for my first week so I can't do that again for a while! hah. and I'm actually okay with that, I think next time folks are going out to a nice place like that, I just have to remember to eat before I go and that way I can just have a drink and hang out. I really did appreciate the opportunity to go and meet people though. I've also been told that Saturday evenings at the International School here that people play soccer so one of these Saturdays I will try to go. Tonight I can't because I have to go to a conference at one of the town halls in Ouaga for the embassy-Jeunes contre les drogues (youth against drugs). Other days I've been free, I've tried to go walk around the area near where I live-but not too close to my house cause it's a quiet neighborhood-and I've just stopped at little kiosques to have a coke and read and watch the world go by. I have really, really appreciated the much slower pace my life goes (when I'm not at work). I can't work from home, other than read/watch media so it means that when I get home, I am mostly relaxed. Last night was so far the most fun/most social I've had. I managed to venture downtown to the French Cultural center where i heard a band play at 7 pm, met a random Chinese/French girl who is working with an ecotourism group here (just arrived on Sunday), I met a brit gov't consultant, a British diplomat, various Burkinabe who do everything from play music (and I'd guess smoke a lot of pot from his demeanor/smell....) to do tourism etc. Then, at the end of the evening, I walked up to a table of 6 NGO looking French speakers and just invited myself to begin chatting with them. It ends up they are all university/post-university people from Switzerland and France doing their internships here in Ouaga and so after the French cultural center, we went to two other bars; one of which had a rooftop bar and music stage (Bar K) and the other was a Burkinabe bar (aka plastic table outside with plastic chairs). It was a blast and we hung out till about 11:30 and I think I'll plan to hang out with some of them other days too, though 2 are leaving next week. All seemed interested people and, I have very few friends right now so... can't be too picky! haha. All in all, it was a great time, getting some new phone numbers, drinking big ol' African beer (only 4% so... don't freak out....) and enjoying the night time, which is truly the most pleasant time of day here.

Okay, this is longer than I was planning it to be but...c'est la view. Going to eat some lunch and then do a bit of research for Fletcher world-very hard to think about academics right now....
Hair salon near my house

it's a busy road, lots of all types of people

The Martyr's monument near my house

Burkina seems to truly look like this... a lot!
Baraka (thank you) for following along and hope to hear from you at some point. :-)


Saturday, May 24, 2014

Departure to Burkina Faso

So.... I decided to restart my blog for the summer of 2014. That's right, get excited!
So, this time I'm going to be writing from Burkina Faso-and I'll only be there 11 weeks. Let's be honest, compared to the initial installment of this blog where it focused on my experiences in Andorra, Burkina has got to be at the complete opposite spectrum. For yours(and my) benefit, I put a map on the bottom too... To begin with, a few very basic facts that I know:

1. Burkina Faso is loosely translated/understood in English as "The Land of Upright People". I think that is a fantastic name and I look forward to meeting the 'upright people', learning from them and getting to know a new country and culture.
2. Burkina Faso is wedged into West Africa in a lovely neighborhood with its neighbors being, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Benin, Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin. It is one of the few countries to be totally and completely land-locked.
3. It is an incredibly agriculturally focused country with almost a third of GDP coming from cotton-most well know is cotton.
4. The capital of Burkina Faso is Ouagadougou.
5. It is a true fact that Mark Titus Hoover learned about this country in the 3rd grade with his friend Ben and will admit to having memorized it for the map quiz by remembering the close-sounding word for beach apparel for women.
6. Burkina Faso has a rich diversity of different religious groups with a majority belonging to Sufi Islam, a minority being Sunni and a minority Christian population. Animism remains active throughout Burkina Faso and the country has enjoyed a long tradition of interfaith work.
7. Burkina Faso has one of the largest Diasporas in West Africa, with millions in neighboring Ivory Coast, Mali and Ghana.

I will be here for 11 weeks, interning with the US Embassy and look forward to the opportunities and challenges that come with living in Burkina Faso. I can't promise this blog to be exciting, to have lots of photos of cool things but... if you want to keep up with me, feel free to do so through this blog.

I thought I'd wait to re-start this thing until I arrived in Burkina Faso. I just arrived in Ouagadougou at midnight Burkinabe time on Friday night. Crashed pretty soon at the place I'm staying. It's a nice house with my host Matt, who is similar aged to me and here with DoD. Thus far, my first impressions are, yes, it is definitely warm, it's 11:50 am and it's 100 degrees. Last night it was 34 (~90) at midnight...haha. But,I'm sure I'll adjust; a little sweat never hurt and in housing I have AC so I can easily escape. Also, people have been incredibly friendly so far. Walked around my neighborhood and sat down with some guards and gardeners and all were very friendly. Need to get local CFA money, a phone and a few other things but, going to wait for a bit as I believe someone from the Embassy is planning to come by in a bit. I have attached a photos that demonstrates a) the extremely limited amount of things I have seen thus far and b) that I am lucky enough to have some super nice digs.

Peace and Love from Ouagadougou!



Thursday, June 9, 2011

Last post from the Principality... How does that make you feel??? ;-)

Dear all,
Well, it feels like yesterday that I was writing with excitement and nervousness as I first arrived in Andorra. Those first days are firmly entrenched in my memory and I will never forget arriving fresh from Barcelona and going directly out to eat (at 9:30 pm) and then dancing, my first meeting with the head of the department, the highly memorable conference in Madrid, selling myself as someone in the upper 20s. I remember when the gorgeous drive from Barcelona to Andorra was still a novelty, when I used to look up at the mountains and be blown away from their gorgeousness (yesterday), discovering the tiny almost invisible alleyways hidden behind boring, new apartments. I remember being afraid when it first snowed in September (it just snowed last week again...), I remember my first tutoring family (Ian), I remember my first football practice (in Spain), I remember the first Catalan classes. I remember lots of wonderful things.... I love first times, I love exploring new things and discovering more about myself.

There are less new things now for me here, but there are still new things, and some things still feel new, like the beauty of the Pyrenees. Just over one year ago, I had just said goodbye to so many wonderful people at Wake Forest knowing that some I would not see for a long time and surely some never. Such is life, and now, I find myself in a similar emotional place if not a physical. My dear roommates are all going to disparate places in the US of A, none of them close to my destination of North Carolina. Will I see them, probably... or as so many say, nch'allah. but, life changes, and I've had a lot of good days with them right here in the grand capital of the Pyrenees.

The teachers at my school who I've eaten with, whined with, laughed with, drunk with... many of them probably I will not see again. A few of them, I certainly hope life will throw some curves so we see each other again. My teammate Dany from football, one of the most generous people I've ever met, a guy so full of life, you can't help but feel better around him. I hope someday to visit him at his house in Portugal and have him show me the vineyards where his father worked to pay the bills, the little house that didn't have hot water, and the little village he grew up playing in. That will be awesome... but who knows when. My friend Clare, a number of years older in age and many decades wiser in the ways of the world. The coffees, conversations, and her generosity have never ceased to amaze me. Jordi, from school who invited me to his house, who gave me rides, who went skiing with me, and is one of the most genuine people I have ever met. Laura, whom I met too late to fully comprehend and absorb knowledge, but who taught me and showed me so much about her Catalonia, about what it means to be a medical student and why the world really can, and SHOULD be a better place even without the belief in God. Laura, thanks for reassuring me that despite all the surface differences, the way our cultures form us, and the way the world teaches us we should be, some souls are just meant to connect and nothing can keep them from connecting... nothing. I don't find soul connections just anytime but when they come, they are unmistakable. These people as well as my friends the crazy irishman, the first cuban I've every known and one of the best dancers I've ever seen, an hilarious Catalana who confuses me with her ability to dance so long without sleeping, and a one-in-a-million Arkansas native turned ? I will miss but... hopefully will see again.

What about things I've learned? I've lived in Andorra for a year, and have confirmed that at least in the near future, I want to stay away from small places far from airports...! I have learned that customer service in general in Europe is at an all-time low and it must be only to the hundreds of years of history and the cultural pull of Europe that they manage to keep people coming! I've confirmed that milkshakes REALLY can't be reproduced anywhere outside of the USA. I've learned that girls are just as, and even more really, confusing in Europe as in the USA and that it would certainly take a very, very special non cultural American for me to consider marrying them (and by that I mean her, monogamy still seems cool to me). I've learned that to many Europeans-at least Spanish/Andorrans: God is an object in a church, a tradition of by-gone times, that religion is a curse which restricts the joys of men and creates bitterness and conflict. I've learned that if we, as Christians, really do believe in what we say we had better start being really honest with people because right now. It seems that our hundreds of years of misbehavior in the name of God, our authoritarian way of forcing people to adapt to our beliefs, and our scorn for and fear of others' ideas has resulted in a culture of disbelief and anger. And really, who can blame them??! As long as men act in our human selfish ways but yet claim God's blessing... how CAN people know the God I have seen who is Love, who is Patience, who is Forgiveness, who is a million shades of black and white but never one at a time? Let's be honest and maybe when my kids go to Europe they will find people who are not shocked at intelligent people who are religious, at people who seem to really care about others and are religious, at people who would have others choose their own way yet not yearn for the same things. God, I hope so, cause otherwise this island is going to grow.....

I have also learned how wonderful it feels to hear trees creaking on the abandoned slopes of an early morning ski-run,  how a sunrise can almost compare to sunsets when there is none of the latter, how a cup of tea on a Wednesday morning in your living room looking out to the mountains with John Mayer (or Creed Allison hehe) can make you smile, how you can bond with people whose lives look nothing like yours (everyone I've met here), how the taste of a snowflake on the tip of your tongue in November feels, how watching the late-afternoon sun's rays bend and manipulate the surrounding mountains in a way that makes you feel truly humble in the face of creation, how a chilly late night run with a full moon on the path above Andorra la Vella makes running almost fun, how being so far from people who share the same Passion can help you be more open to questions yet emboldened on its role in your life, how pancakes and bacon and Frieda french toast make a Sunday brunch so amazing, how much I crave for companionship, how much I have to learn about who I am, how rewarding it is to work with a teenager and see them gain confidence in the knowledge you give them, how being a teacher is totally not worth it just for vacation time...!

I have learned that the guy who has taught me the most about generosity, the most about finding joy in life, the most about believing that life is a gift and that hard work is how you should live is a man whose formal education cost virtually nothing and although I could out-write him in style, out-debate him in intellectual points, out-score him on an exam, and out-boast him on the $$$ spent educating my mind, he continues to put me to shame with devotion to his family, his generosity, his wonder for life and joy to be in it, his refusal to complain, and his stead-fast belief in people. To know that through a personal friend when you never talk about it and only observe it, is one of the best lessons I've ever gotten. I've also confirmed that I like seeing new things, meeting new people, and learning to deal with the differences that I don't like, and that not everyone is cut out for that. I also know that I miss people, even if I don't tell them enough how much I think of them, I miss so many people, there are tons of little things that remind me of many of you who read this. How I will blend my love for travel and change with my love for my friends is yet to be seen but... I'm sure life will take care of itself.

I am so thankful to my Alma Mater, the people who poured themselves into me to help me get this Fulbright from age 0 to 21, for the people who made my stay in Andorra pleasant, for those who continue to pour themselves into me, and for the Love I feel in me which I continue to disappoint but continues to give me hope. To be able to live in this beautiful country and meet amazing people here as well as in my travels throughout europe and Morocco has been a huge blessing to me personally. As I have told so many people, I consider myself one of the luckiest humans in the world right now! I am so happy to be alive, and I pray that each day of my life I will love living even when it's not as easy as it is right now!

As I have met so many fabulous Fulbrighters, I remain flattered to the committee for having chosen me, and thankful to the American tax-payer for helping pay for this year. A virtually invisible gift from your taxes but I promise you that the conversations, the actions, our work, and the variety of backgrounds of virtually each fulbrighter that I have met is creating good images of America to many who have many false and negative impressions of what America is like. At a cost of $11,000 a year for an average fulbrighter we can fund 2,300 fulbrighters who will meet... oh let's put an average of 200 people in a year. If that's true, that means 2,300 fulbrighters make a direct person-to-person impact on 460,000 people a year (about the amount of people in Wyoming). If 150 of the people each of us has met has a good impression... just imagine how many people have the positive knowledge and impression of an American.... the glory of soft politics, and the glory of humanity. Or... we could buy 1 AH-64 Apache with its 1,200 rounds of 30 mm chain machine gun, 76 2.75" rockets. In theory, that has the potential of killing with an average of 2 people a rocket and 3 bullets for each person would be 552 before getting reloading.... Both of these options cost about $25 million. Guess whose budget got cut because it was seen as un-strategic spending? I'll let you decide which one you think does the most good and which one deserves to be continued and expanded.... I bet you know what I think! ;-)

Sorry for those who think that's too political but... in my mind our decisions on what to do with our time and our money are also life and death decisions. I've attached photos of all my classes and one of my friend Laura and I at Sitges near where she grew up. To end on a more personal, less heavy note thanks so much everyone for reading this blog, I hope you have enjoyed seeing my thoughts and seeing what I have learned along this journey. I look forward to my life next year in Winston-Salem but I hold no illusion that it is blog-worthy. Therefore, this is my last blog... I will return to doing my once-in-a-while email thoughts and I welcome you to check them out. If you care to get them and did not get them as of May 2010, shoot me a message and I'll add you on. Sorry this post is so long....

Thanks to all who read from: Singapore, US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, DR Congo, Kenya, India, UK, France, Spain, Andorra, Croatia, Czech Republic, Russia, Lichtenstein, Greece, Japan, Slovenia, Russia, Poland, Finland, Ukraine, Denmark, Malaysia, Romania, Ireland, Bulgaria, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Switzerland, Norway, Croatia, Uruguay, Israel, Slovakia, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Italy, Mexico, Italy, Vietnam. I know many of you... but I don't think all of you. If you read it cause you like me, come see me in America!!! :-) If you read it cause you are curious about Andorra, go visit Andorra, if you read it by accident... you're probably not reading this, and if you are one of those creepy robot things from servers, bugger off please. Thanks all and let me know what's going on in your lives!

Peace and Love from the Principality for the very late time,
Mark Titus Hoover











Tuesday, May 3, 2011

April and most of March... in summary (the post whose pictures shouldn't exist)

Dear all,
Hmmmm... it has been a long time and so much has happened. I will have to be brief, in order to save your sanity... and time! haha
First thing is first. During March and April I traveled a lot, much of it in cities and I came to realize a very important observation: I believe that the next evolutionary step for the city pigeon is... well.... a rock. In no way, shape or form can I see these creatures improving themselves in terms of intelligence. My hypothesis is that due to the inordinate amount of times that pigeons in cities run into windows, knock each other over in their humorous yet bizarre lovemaking, and the general lack of intelligence needed to peck up bread thrown from tourists will result in this evolutionary 'progress'. Look for this stunning piece of academic evidence in "Evolution Today" (Additionally i am happy to sign autographs for people). ;-)

Okay, as for life in Andorra, which is where I currently reside, although not so much in the last 2 months. Life has continued to proceed well. Teaching continues to go, which is perhaps the best possible. My students and I have overall progressed to a stage where we have an understanding whether or not they like English or not. To say that I am the most effective teacher would be false, but to say that I had no control at all would be equally false. To say that I will be happy to finish this year would be also true. The rest of my life here though is great, our Encamp choir had a great minitour to Catalunya where we sang at a school in Manresa outside of Barcelona and also at a choir convention with over 5000 students! It really was a great moment and very fun to see the kids outside of class. Overall, we couldn't have been prouder of our 30 odd students and their representation of Andorra as they were polite, they tried their best with singing and they seemed to genuinely be interested in those they met. Particularly when there were any boys deemed "macos" or cute.... haha, being in choir with them is of particular joy to me. Two weeks after our "big" tour, we went across the border to Seu d'Urgell to do a concert with their school too. This was great because one day they came up here and the next we went down there. Again, our kids made us proud. When the other choir was here at our school some of our audience members were fairly embarrassing but the choir itself, impeccable! In the midst of one of those tours my friend Jenny came from Madrid and we had a great weekend exploring Barcelona from the luxury of the apartment of one of my co-teachers in Andorra. Thanks again Jenny for coming up, so many great laughs and it was cool to have you meet some of my students and co-teachers.
In other news in my Andorra life, my football team, Lusitanos are 2nd division champions of Andorra. I can now proudly say I was part of a european division-winning football team... even if I never actually played in a game... hehe. I continue to enjoy practice and starting this next week will begin running with Dany who is my closest friend on the team. What a wonderful privilege to be able to exercise, run around and play football with some very talented, and for sure exuberant people!!!!
Of the months of March and April I was actually only IN andorra for one weekend because of all these trips, and choir. For the one weekend I was here our choir had a concert at the mall as part of a fundraiser for a NGO working towards "ending world hunger". Then, I also got to go skiing which was fun as always although the snow was pretty crap so by 12 or so it was almost impossible to ski and certainly jumping was difficult. I had a very bad fall at the very end which resulted in skis, poles and me all in different directions. I twisted and bruised my knee fairly badly but after about 2 weeks I was able to once again run with fair ease. I also lost 1 pair of sunglasses*** (note, another pair of sunglasses will be mentioned later...) Because of the craziness of the weeks I have been here I did not go to Catala class or language sopars because of the busyness. BUT, I did get a chance to go to church which is fairly rare, and that week the pastor was from Malaga but was American. As always, church is a refreshing, albeit very different from church where I grew up or Green Street in Winston! haha, but that's probably good cause it's in a different place!
Final bad thing that did happen in the last month was teh collapse of my WFU issued Lenovo which died a painful death from 2 sources, both software and hardware. I was beyond repair but luckily a kind coteacher lent me her super old one to help me with my classes and then my gracious roommate helped me a) pick out a new computer, and b) he let me ship it to his address in NY where he was going for Easter so he could then bring it back for me. Angels and luck come in all ways, shapes and forms and this was luck although it started as seemingly an awful event! It's body has since been donated to the science class at my school for dissection and hopefully some sort of education purpose.

1st trip to talk about a bit. I went to Berlin for the Fulbright Europe conference which was a blast. Got to explore Berlin a bit, meet a few really excellent, cool people and hang out with a Wakie. Plus, got to stay with a dear friend of my sister-in-law which was extremely generous since they had a baby in April so she was very much pregnant! It was a great 4 days there, and then I was able to take the train down to Ulm, Germany where I was able to spend 3 very lovely days with my dear old friend Sara. She and her boyfriend were so unbelievably generous to share their lives with me for those three days and particularly generous since Sara and I did a ton of catching up which can't be too fun for him! Ulm is a very pleasant small city which I recommend visiting sometime. I went to school with Sara where I was able to enjoy a class with some of the darlingest little kids. They were really cute, they were so excited to have an english-speaking american in their midst that they were on really good behavior. I also attracted visitors from the next-door school during break time. Needless to say that the the fact that Sara and I know each other from Congo was probably going to be a bit too much for them to handle with ease... haha. It was a great time and Sara is a wonderful teacher so to see her in action and then realize how many things I have to learn to make my classes be even CLOSE to that smooth is humbling. So much energy, diversity of learning skills offered, so much stimuli, funny examples, really cool for realz.

The second trip that I went on could take pages and pages to describe but, I will spare you. In short, I went to Morocco and then to Southern spain. Further detail will entail now so you can skip if you just want the shortest of summaries. I went to visit a friend in Agadir, in southern Morocco which was interesting as it was completely rebuilt after an earthquake 60 or so years ago and it was built with the express purpose of being a tourist town. I spent two lovely days there resting, exploring a bit and catching up with friends. Then I went by bus to Ourzazate where I sat next to a very friendly, nice guy called Isham who was from the area nad therefore gave me a guided tour along the way pointing out caves he explored as a kid, valleys with high numbers of snakes, what this village or that village was famous for etc. It was really kind, and I enjoyed our 9 or so hour journey together. I spent that night in an oasis out of town which I got to by moped and got out of with a hitched ride. ***** (you can begin counting means of transportation for fun if you want now...). THe oasis was beautiful. Thanks to angels in the form of Michel and Cristine, two french tourist who have me a ride and with whom I enjoyed great conversation and a warm beer! haha, I am able to have any photos of this journey at all. This is because, beign Mark, I left my camera in their car but luckily we had exchanged contact information so that I was able to get it back in an hour or so... Wow, the only reason they even found it was that I had forgotten to totally close the window so they stopped to close it and found it... what incredible luck, eh? My life is grace-filled for so many reasons, but this being a clear materialistic example of such grace! Merci encore vous deux car si non pour vous, je n'aurai pas des photos d' un voyage magnifique! Vous etes toujours bienvenue chez moi. Et pour que vous saviez, j'ai nomme l'album de photos sur f-book avec le nom que vous m'avez donne! merci mille fois!
I then joined up with a tour group in town which was heading to the Valley of dades and then the desert. This turned out to be a fantastic, life-filled group which I felt SOOOO lucky to be part of, especially since I was a bit nervous about joining a random tour group. It turned out that we were all young(ish), lively, and interested in each other's lives so we got along well and were able to learn a lot. In particular, three of the girls ended up being Catalan so they live nearby and 1 will come up and visit me this first weekend of May and hopefully I will get to hang out with them later in May!!! What luck, eh? It was so neat to be able to meet some young Catalans who are interested in the world outside of them. Definitely something that is hard about living in Andorra, since there aren't many people around my age. We saw the valley of roses, a fantastic, steep, impressive gorge with one night spent near a rock formation called Monkey's fingers before culminating in the expectedly cool experience of one night in the desert. Most of this was done with a minibus by the end by camel... Camels, a good thing to try once, but I have no desire to do a trip with them again!.... EVER. ugh, my butt, and overall body hurt after 1 1/2 hours so I can't imagine longer.
At the desert I parted ways and headed to Meknes by another kind of bus (cheaper and without air) where college friend Monica was unbelievably generous and allowed me to crash with her three nights and showed me her town of Meknes and then I explored Fez mostly by myself with a visit to an old friend there too. WHat an honor to get to spend so much time with friends in places they live and know (and speak arabic). Arabic is now on my radar of languages to learn... it will surely be the greatest of challenges that I have faced linguistically but certainly cool. Again, I can't underline how much I appreciate Monica's hospitality. From her place I headed off to Tangier/Tanger by train. Trains are very comfortable and nice in Morroco. I spent the day in Tangier walking around, exploring, seeing a beautiful sunset and getting a shave! It is a decent town, but in my opinion cities of MOrocco are not the charming part of the country, despite all the talk about the Souks (markets). Also, I spent one night in a super cheap but equally super shady hotel which left me feeling like bedbugs all over and teh ice cold shower they offered did not help me feel like I got rid of them. No worries though, no actual signs of bedbugs.... gracias a Dios!
The next day I jumped across the Mediterranean (in a boat) to the charming,  lovely town of Tarifa which is a super place to chill out, and posssibly own a beach house if you have the funds... look into it and if someone ever does, tell me so I can visit cause I doubt it will ever happen in MY life! haha. THis is where adventures began. I spent one day in Tarifa just exploring, enjoying the beach and relaxing at a 12 euro hostel, awesome. I began walking.... about 5 kms before I got a hitchiked ride to the nearest intersection of the town of Vejer where I then had another 2 km walk up a steep mountain to the hilltop, which was worth the walk. I spent an hour there enjoying the first white-washed town of the "Pueblos blancos" before then walking about an hour and change. I figure I do about 7 kms in a good hour but I"m only guessing. Got a ride for about 30 km where he dropped me off at a 2nd pueblo blanco called Medina Sardinia. a half hour more walk got me to the actual town where I had a lovely menu lunch where I consumed as much agua griffa (tap water) as possible! Another hour walk before I got a ride that took me to Arcos de la Frontera. Lucky too cause there were no trees, no shade, no restaurants, nada and it was very hot in Andalusia. Apparently that day was the hottest day of the year so far... haha. Got to Arcos de la Frontera which was my favorite city of the south of Spain. Loved the views and the lovely guesthouse I stayed at there. Then began my longest straight walk. I ended up having to walk about 14 kms to the next town cause no one would pick me up and I needed to catch a bus in the next town. ugh.... definitely left my legs hurting, my back and backpack sweaty and my taste for hitchhiking significantly embittered.
I spent that night in ROnda which is perhaps the most touristed of the pueblos blancos and famous for its Bullring where modern bull-fighting started as well as its gorge-spanning bridge connecting the old town with the new town but it was not my favorite. Arcos was. From Ronda, I headed to Granada which quickly became one of my favorite towns I have visited, ever. Although I was only able to spend a day there, the proximity of skiing 1 or so hours away, the beach equi-distant, and the blend of hippies, modern business and the antiquity of the Alhambra was great. I came into serious luck here as I had no reservation for the alhambra (apparently booked for about 3 weeks now) but I went to the ticket office anyway and someone canceled right when I got there so I was able to visit the Alhambra in the end. It is a very impressive palace. I would definitely opt to be an Arab/Moorish prince to european princes trapped in shady castles and such organized bush gardens. The gardens at the Alhambra still maintained some wildness and were full of water.
The final part of my trip was spent in Madrid, which I went to by train and stayed with Kesley and Dan, two fulbrighters who stayed with us in January. Again, what luxury to be able to spend time with friends everywhere. and of course, all these lovely people saved me a ton of people which is what enabled me to do all this. In Madrid, I enjoyed a myriad of cafes, senegalese food! :-) hmmmmmm, and a whole day of Madrid Open tennis where I saw Nadal, Federer, Murray, and got the signatures of Sharapova (I think that's the beginning of a promising relationship.... ;-) hehe) and Wozniacki and got to see a good number of the top 20 women play in their respective matches. Sunday saw me return back to Barcelona by airplane and then the final three hour, familiar bus ride to Andorra. Oh, I got to see the Athletic Bibao football team at the BCN airport which was pretty cool. I was just waiting for my bus right where their bus was waiting for them so they all walked right by me... haha, but I didn't get any autographs this time.

What awesomeness, right? I feel like a rockstar after such a luxurious trip, and despite a great deal of money spent along the way, every cent was worth it and the amount I saw makes that sum seem incredibly small. I tried new things, met cool, new people, saw amazing places, tasted new food (some good and some bad) and overall loved living the entire way. Isn't that all you can really ask for, especially when you enjoy the materialistic luxuries of my life? Traveling alone isn't all that it's cracked up to be, although making decisions was easy... as was finidng places to stay. I would just show up in a town and start asking and visiting hotels/hostels till I found something in my price range that was decent. haha. but, I prefer traveling with others. It is my last real holiday in europe before heading back to the USA where I am very excited to join the WFU admissions team in Winston-Salem, NC at my alma mater as we try to bring the best and brightest who will thrive at Wake. I will have a luxurious 5 days between jobs as I drive from the midwest to NC with a car which my cousin is kindly organizing the purchase of.

Much love for now, pictures will follow later as they are on an external hard drive. Much love and thanks as always for reading and keeping in touch.
Peace and Love from the Principality for one of the last times....
Mark Titus Hoover