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Sunday, August 28, 2011

August 26 Halleluiah!

I was finally able to access the internet on the school compound! Granted, the WiFi doesn’t reach all the way back to the residences. I’ll take what I can get for the time being.

The internet came in handy for the second day of school. I was able to use to communicate with my Swedish student. We wrote back and forth to one another to explain directions, ask questions, and talk about the Swedish book he was reading. Thank goodness for technology!

After school, Miatta come for her first day of cleaning. Man, she is a hard worker! Together, we used a bleach solution to wipe down the insides and outsides of all the furniture – a necessary task since many of the dressers smelled moldy. Then, Miatta took out the trash, swept, and mopped the floors. The whole place smells wonderful and looks better than when I moved in! Our next cleaning date is Tuesday.

Unsure of how long my internet connection would last, I downloaded updates, checked my email, got updates about the weekend events in Monrovia via the Expat Listserv, and even Skyped with my brother Christen, who recently moved up north to attend Yale Law School.

Even though we only had two days of school, all of the faculty that live on campus were ready for a night on the town. We all squeezed in the school SUV and headed to à la Laguna, a restaurant/bar near the Chinese Embassy. At first, we were all ooh’ing and ah’ing about the beauty of the place. Our table was on a dock out on the water. The light breeze was doing a great job of keeping the mosquitoes away, and the stars overhead twinkled brightly. Two hours later, we were all grumbling and ready to leave, angered over the long wait time for our food. To a certain extent, we all have grown accustomed to “Liberian Standard Time,” the lackadaisical and non-prompt time it takes for anyone in Liberia to do anything. But, when our food arrived at 10:30 pm, no one was particularly forgiving of this aspect of the culture. My chicken was delicious, but I’ve learned my lesson. Go to à la Laguna before you are hungry because it will take forever to get your meal!

August 25 First Day of School

I’ve officially made it through Day 1 of school. All in all, I’d say it was a successful day, but it can’t really serveas an indicator of things to come because only 7 of my 17 kids were in attendance. Supposedly, the rest will trickle in during next week and the beginning of September as they return from summer vacations abroad.

Today, the kids that were there represented Canada, Zambia, Lebanon, Brazil, and Sweden. I asked each, in honor of Flag Day, to design a flag to represent himself or herself. One of the 2nd graders particularly impressed me as he described his flag to the class. He explained that the green represented the color of grass and growth; the red was for the blood shed for Africa, the orange was for the minerals of Zambia, and the black stood for the black men. He also drew an eagle to show leadership. Wow! How eloquent and reflective for a 7 year old!

The Swedish boy hardly knows a lick of English. I asked his mother to write a few phrases down for me, which was extremely helpful. I spent the whole reading time asking him, “Vad är det?” (What is this?) He’d tell me the word in Swedish, and I’d tell him the word in English. We labeled the objects in the classroom with both languages and practiced.

The challenge, I foresee, in teaching these kids is that, though they are only in one of two grades, they are all at different levels. Looks like I have my work cut out for me.

After school, Adisa and I traveled to the Cape Hotel for a change of pace. We needed a meal and an internet connection from somewhere other than the Royal Hotel. The Cape is another expat hotel, but it’s in Mamba Point. It’s located on the beach and surrounded by palm trees. I wonder if guests there get the wrong impression of Monrovia, thinking it’s a beautiful vacation spot instead of what it really is. How surprised are they when they walk not 5 minutes away and see chickens, dogs, and naked babies wondering the filthy streets?

Dinner was excellent. For the first time since I’ve arrived, I found a place that cooks excellent American food. I had a pork chop, rice, and vegetables. For dessert, I had a layered chocolate cake that tasted very much like tiramisu. Finally, I felt full and satiated!

August 24, 2011 Flag Day

Today is a national holiday, Flag Day, and it is observed by everyone. The stores have shut down and none of the staff is on campus. Even I have decided to take a break from the classroom and try to relax before the madness begins.

The Liberian flag very similar with red and white stripes. On the left hand side, in the blue rectangle, there is single white star.

My classroom is ready; it looks aesthetically pleasing and welcoming. I have printouts of the school schedule, my welcome letter, and my classroom policies ready to send home to the parents. However, I have never been so unprepared for work in my life. I don’t have a lesson plan ready to go, nor have I mapped out a rough idea of what the school year will look like. I’ve resigned myself to the idea that I will be improvising for a while…until I get a feel for how a classroom with two grade levels works.

On top of everything the copier not working and my handy sidekick, Theresa, is unreachable via phone. Hers was stolen while she was in a shared taxi riding home from work on Monday.

I used my free time today to finish another book. Since I’ve arrived in Liberia, I’ve read more adult books than I’ve read in the past three years combined! Usually, my nose is always in some children’s novel, but lately I’ve finished: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Larsson), The Girl Who Played With Fire (Larsson), The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Larsson), The Help (Stockett), and The Sorceress (Smith). I’ve begun reading Every Man in This Village is a Liar (Stack) and have downloaded The Game of Thrones (Martin) and Elizabeth Street (Fabiano) on the Kindle for Mac.

Thank goodness for books. Without television or consistent internet access, I need something to entertain me!

August 23, 2011 Rock the Vote

Today is a “holiday” because there is a referendum vote. The ballot will feature four issues:

1. The option to change the maximum age of Supreme Court judges from 65 to 75

2. The option to change the minimum time for someone to live in Liberia before he/she can run for president from 10 years to 5 years

3. The option to change the presidential elections from October to November

4. The option to change the voting process to reflect the majority (right now the government spends lots of money hosting run-off elections even when someone has already emerged with the majority of the votes)

Even though school starts in two days, the majority of the staff is not here. For some, I think it’s one of those excuses not to come to work. For others, who take their voting privileges seriously, it’s a civic duty to travel to the polls.

James, who has been at school even on Saturdays and Sundays, is not here. When his daughter was sick with malaria, he still came in to work and brought her too because there was no one at home to care for her. He drives two hours to work and two hours back home. I’m assuming he’s voting and not just taking a free day. I admire James’ work ethic.

My assistant, Theresa, spent the whole day working with me and helping the first grade teacher, who’s just now able to get into her classroom to work. Theresa has opened up to me and told me how the previous teacher treated her. The woman referred to her as “thing” instead of calling her by name! I can’t imagine that level of disrespect being tolerated in a school. Theresa has 25 years of teaching experience. She’s taught her own kindergarten classes and has her teaching degree. The only reason she does not head a classroom here is that AISM requires its teachers to have a valid US teaching license. Theresa has told me that she’d like to open her own small school, but that it’s very difficult for Liberians to get business loans.

Tonight, I baked some sweet potatoes. They’re not at all like the yams at home. First, they are white inside like a regular potato. Second, though they are sweet, they are not as moist inside.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

August 22, 2011 Ladies’ Luncheon and Escargot

The faculty met from 10:00am – 1:00pm to finalize the Welcome Ceremony and discuss grading, homework policy, etc. There were some mildly tense moments, I must admit. As teachers, we have strong opinions about what should and shouldn’t be in the school’s “policy.” Thankfully, we all made it out alive.

Afterwards, James took our pictures so that he could process the paperwork for our new bank accounts. Then, Amos opened his office to us so we could pick up any office supplies he already had in stock. Unfortunately, most of what I put on my “wish list” was not available in the storeroom.

Linda, Adisa, and I bummed a ride from Amos, who was heading into town on a school errand. We ate at Dona Maria’s, which has large sandwiches for $5 and a fast internet speed. I actually had the chicken fettuccine and would recommend it.

While having out “ladies’ luncheon,” Linda told us about how she met Aminu and married after only months of dating.

Adisa’s phone rang to remind her that it was Mefloquine Monday, an affectionate nickname to remind her that it was time to take her weekly meds. Linda relayed her misadventures with Mefloquine, an anti-malarial medicine that sometimes induces night terrors and hallucinations. For Linda, the last straw was when she left her front door wide open after letting the leprechauns in her house go free. Needless to say, I began to feel more confident about my decision to take Doxycycline.

When lunch was over, the girls weren’t ready to quit each other’s company, so we decided to venture into the market close to school to buys some fruits and veggies. Before heading to the market, we actually explored some of the empty rooms in the compound. Walking through the high grasses behind the rooms caused Linda and I to pick up some briars. Adisa said some of the Liberians call them homework because they take forever to dig out of your clothes. Linda decided to change, so Adisa and I decided to sit outside and wait.

I sat near the AISM sign within our parking lot. That was a bad move!

As I got up and began to walk around, Adisa began slapping my butt. She was trying to rid me of the red fire ants that had begun to crawl over me! Thankfully, I only sustained a few ant bites on my right foot. I think I owe Adisa a bottle of wine because I can’t begin to fathom the pain I’d have felt if those buggers had gotten into my pants!

Linda returned and we walked the 50-100 meters to the market. Accurately explaining the market place really requires pictures. I don’t know if I can adequately relay the sights and sounds of that place.

First, I must say that the markets are located behind the street vendors I had been seeing on the sides of the streets. There was no indication that these stalls went back so far! Street vendors sell things from roughly hewn tables or wheel barrows (I saw one guy selling large snails from his wheelbarrow!) and make stands out of tin roofing material turned on it’s side and covered with cloth for its roof.

Second, the market is – well – imagine the dirtiest flea market you’ve ever been to and multiply it by 100. The roof is tin and held together with string and held down with rocks. The tables are blackened by the same filth that’s on the floor. The dirt here isn’t hard-packed. Rather, it’s fine and gritty and impossible to keep out of your shoes.

The tables varied from spices, peppers, fufu, vegetables, and fruits. It was when I caught sight of a massive amount of flies that I realized there were also tables with meat – pigs feet, chicken feet, livers, fish, etc. The smell was awful. I tried to hide the fact that I was gagging, and had to put a considerable distance between me and the meat tables until the urge to faint finally subsided.

Third, the people in the market are interesting to watch. Some are like vultures, sniffing out this white girl as financial prey. I always have to look to Adisa and Linda to see if the prices I’m quoted are reasonable. There are children playing in the mire and muck on the floors. I’ve noticed that many of the toddlers are taken care of by children on slightly older. Older women have no problems falling asleep on top of their tables, while younger women might be seen slaving away using mortars and pestles to grind what looks like butter or cheese. There aren’t many men here, but one kind guy did let me take his picture as he used a meat grinder to process some cassava leaves. (I had to promise to print a picture and bring it to him.)

After I made my way home with my meager purchases of bananas, oranges and sweet potatoes, I set about the task of scrubbing my flipflops. There’s so much trash mixed in with the dirt that I can’t stand the idea of carrying that in and around my apartment. So, part of my nightly routine is scrubbing my feet and my shoes with soap and water. I bought a special brush for the purpose.

Later that night, the electricity went out. Ed was out with Adisa and Albert getting some ice cream, so no one was here to turn on the generator. So, to date, I’ve had times in Africa without water or electricity. No, I’m not in the US of A any more.

August 21, 2011 Movie Night

Linda’s husband traveled via public transportation all night from Sierra Leone to be with his wife, arriving around 9 yesterday evening. Aminu is a tall, buff man with tattoos, large earrings, and lots of bling on his fingers and around his neck. He’ll be living on the compound, too. Already he’s been extremely helpful moving furniture and working in Linda’s classroom. He seems a bit shy but polite. Before he walks away from a conversation, he always says, “Excuse me”

I can’t help but wonder how having a married couple on campus will affect the balance. Albert’s happy, though, at the prospect of another man, who is not his boss, living on campus.

Albert volunteered to drive me to the 8:30 Mass at Our Lady of Lebanon, but I had to back out at the last minute. I pulled a muscle in my neck and shoulder that kept me up all night. The pain was sharp and uncomfortable, and I was relieved when I remembered that I had brought some Heat Wraps with me from the states. (I had pulled the same muscles just days before my flight to Africa.) Thankfully, those provided enough relief for me to get some sleep.

Albert went to Mass without me anyway, which surprised me because he’s not Catholic. He reported that it was a great service with African drums and all. The homily was actually the reading of a letter from the Archbishop, encouraging people to go vote in the upcoming referendum.

I hope Albert will continue to take me to Church. I miss it and feel at a disadvantage since I used to have Mass every Monday at my old school.

I feel like everyone was getting a bit antsy today. Maybe it’s the fact that no one had a raucous weekend or the fact that we know that the start of school is right around the corner, but everyone was looking for something to do. So, we arranged a movie night.

All of us (Linda, Aminu, Adisa, Albert, Ed, and myself) watched Avatar in Ed’s room and munched on popcorn. He’s got about 500 movies stored on an external hard drive, and the school has a projector. So, we were able to watch the movie on his living room wall – like a mini-movie theater. Ed talked quite a bit during the movie, always noting that it was the females of the Navi that had all the power. Albert kept asking when the characters were going to get some; Adisa, who hadn’t seen the movie before, kept muttering “Oh no” as suspenseful scenes unfolded.

August 20, 2011 You know… I mean…

From Wednesday to Friday, I’ve spent the days busily preparing for the beginning of school. I have to admit that I haven’t done the majority of the physical work in the classroom. Thank God for my assistant Theresa and the newly hired first grade assistant, Weata. Those ladies have been busy going through the supplies and books, dividing everything between the 1st grade and 2nd/3rd grade classroom. Although I made the to-do list and sketched the classroom layout on the board, it’s Theresa who’s been “getting it done.” Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been busy too. I’ve just been pulled in other directions.

First, there was some difficulty with the schedule and how we’d fit the foreign languages – French and Arabic – in the mix. No worries – I was able to work with Jihane, the foreign language teacher, for that. Second, there was the curriculum. I didn’t do much original thinking on that task; I simply downloaded the Core Curriculum from the internet. Third, I kept adding things to our agenda for the faculty meeting next Monday. We have to discuss a laundry list of things like the grading policy, discipline procedures, the protocol for kids coming and going from the school…

Thank goodness Ed and my other coworkers are okay with me being high-strung. Perhaps high-strung isn’t the way to describe it, though. I think the rest of the staff view me as ambitious, organized, and hard-working. I just don’t want that perception to turn sour or annoyed.

Ed did take me to lunch on Thursday to thank me for my “initiative.” I bought him dessert to thank him for giving me the opportunity to be heard.

(Side note: While at lunch with Ed, Adisa called to tell us that we had run out of water on campus. Sure, there are two containers with 500 gallons of water each on site, but someone actually has to climb up to the water tower and connect a hose. So, I went without washing dishes or showering until late Friday afternoon, when the tower was refilled.)

I’ve had the privilege of working at a school that’s well-oiled and well-run. Notre Dame Academy had all those things in place when I walked in five years ago. What I wouldn’t’ give to know how AISM functioned before without things like a student handbook or an-up-to-date website to disseminate information.

On Friday evening, the last compound-mate, Linda, arrived. We were all wrong in our notion of her being an older white lady. Rather, Linda is a dark-skinned black 34-year-old woman from Miami, Florida. She’s spent some time in Kenya teaching at a school for the deaf there. And, she recently married in June to a man from Sierra Leone. Linda is very bubbly, with a large smile constantly on her face.

Originally, the plan was for Ed to take Linda out for dinner. Afterwards, Ed, Linda, Albert, and I would go out for a night on the town. (Adisa is in Kakata, visiting friends she used to work with there.) Linda passed out when she and Ed returned from dinner, and the three of us ended up just chatting away in Ed’s room.

I got to witness Ed and Albert “jam.” Albert knows that I love the singer/songwriter Amos Lee, so he borrowed Ed’s acoustic guitar and began playing “Sweet Pea.” Ed joined in on his electric guitar. I couldn’t help sit back and think I’m in Africa and this is how I’m likely to be spending many of my Friday nights. Not too shabby. Then, the men began pouring themselves some wine, and I got the hint that we were not gearing up for a night out on the town. As they polished off a bottle of wine, we covered a variety of subjects: how to deal with beggars, drunks, hustlers, and wannabe lovers; cooperative learning; curriculum; the “laziness” of Liberians; etc.

I caught myself chuckling because, even after only two weeks, I’ve got a handle on the different personalities I’ll be living with.

Ed is the epitome of laid-back. Sure, he’s the director of the school and has a vision of what he wants the school to be, but he won’t force his vision on anyone in a dramatic fashion. He’s part Peace Corps hippie, part Mr. Fix-it, part artist, and part musician. He also, at 66, is like a teenager in love. His girlfriend Elisa is moving to take over a different school in the area, and Ed is counting down the days till she gets here. In the meantime, they are having their tiffs and their make-ups via text and telephone.

Albert, too, is part hippie in the sense that he wants to acknowledge the beauty in everything. He’s a bit of a roller coaster in the love department – not being able to decide if he wants “a meal or a snack” of a relationship. Hearing him talk – well, honestly, sometimes I think he’s trying to make everything sound beautiful, but in the end he ends up saying nothing at all. Almost all of his sentences begin with “I mean” or “You know,” and undoubtedly, if you talk to him for over 15 minutes, he’s bound to comment on words/language being beautiful/powerful.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

August 15, 2011 A Jack-of-All-Trades

The faculty had its second meeting; the overall goal was to organize the school schedule, planning time for the Upper School to rotate classes and provide the Lower School with the times of art, PE, music, and foreign language classes. I have to say that I was pleased with the way we worked. Sometimes this task can be very tiresome and confusing, but we were able to hash out a schedule in just over two hours. The most impressive thing, I think, about the morning is that no one ever seemed frustrated or bossy!

After the meeting, Gertrude, the PreK/K teacher, offered to “carry” me to lunch. When someone in Liberia offers to “carry” you, they are inviting you out and, therefore, have the intention of paying. Theresa, my teaching assistant also came. We ate at P.A.’s Rib House, where I had a cheeseburger and fries!

Those two women are a riot. They’ve known each other for years and love to laugh together. They talk a mile a minute; I try my best to keep up with them and to decipher what they’re saying through their heavy accents.

I get a kick out of them saying my name. It comes out at Tah instead of Tai. I was also amused to find out that they both thought I was 21 and teaching for the first time.

They’ve both offered to show me the ropes, so to speak. Gertrude already plans to take me to Waterside, a market area where she can help me get good prices on lapa, large pieces of bright African cloth, with which to get curtains and seat covers made. Undoubtedly, Theresa will be the one holding my hand as I navigate my way through my first year teaching 2nd and 3rd grade!

I think both of these ladies represent the upper class of Liberia. They have very elegant African dresses, speak “serious” English, and handle larger households. Both are in their late forties or early fifties and have grown children. Gertrude has a daughter living in North Carolina who is a registered nurse with hopes of becoming a doctor. Theresa has two daughters, one of whom is married.

Gertrude is a jack-of-all-trades, but she is very humble about her experiences and the great wealth I assume she has. She lived in the US for several years and owned two salons, which is how she made her money. (Doing African American hair pays very well, with weaves costing over $300 a pop. In Liberia, black women can get the same services done for $5-$10!) Here, she teachers PreK and kindergarten, manages Judge Phillip Banks’ office, and employs people to sell water. She said that during the dry season, she can make $200 in a day selling water! She has three cars and a driver, several “houseboys,” and employees who tend the stalls where the water is sold. (I must note that the SUV we rode in today is the first car I’ve ridden in so far that didn’t smell funny!)

Gertrude gave me great pricing advice about having Aletha’s daughter come in and clean. She said that, for five days a week, she would pay $50 a month. Adisa and I decided to have the girl come in 4 times a week (twice for me and twice for Adisa) and pay a total $40 a month between the two of us. You sure can’t beat having someone help around the house for two hours a day twice a week for $20 a month!

Last night, I couldn’t fall asleep and finally had the inclination to clean. It took me over an hour to do dishes, to sweep the whole place, and to scrub off all the muck from my multiple pairs of flip flops. I will certainly cough up the money for a part-time housekeeper!

August 14, 2011 B-First

The sound of a preacher woke me up Sunday morning. I can’t tell where he was, but he had a powerful microphone system that allowed his LOUD, repetitive messages to enter my bedroom before 9 in the morning.

Albert and I took the school car; he showed me where the nearest Catholic church is and promised to work out a schedule for him to drive me there so I don’t always have to charter a car. We also stopped in at the Royal Hotel. Around 11:30, the managers shut off the internet connection there. The reason being that they serve an $18 buffet from that time until 3pm, and the management needs to free up the tables normally used by internet users for people paying the big bucks for the buffet. Note to self: Do not go to the Royal Hotel on Sunday for WiFi access.

We, the faculty living on campus, had expected the last member, Linda, to arrive Sunday night. Turns out that our information was wrong and that she won’t arrive in Monrovia until August 19. Because we had expected to go out to dinner altogether, we decided to carry on with our plans and find a restaurant.

After over an hour of unsuccessfully trying to hail a shared taxi to Sinkor, we finally found Amos, the school driver, and the school car. Ed drove Adisa and me to a Bangladeshi restaurant called B-First. I had the chicken fried rice and the garlic naan (bread). Overall the place struck me as reasonably priced and clean…until I saw a cat run through the front door and into the rafters with a dead mouse in its mouth. Ed was not phased, commenting that “at least the cat was doing its job.”

During dinner, I think Adisa explained Liberian culture best. She said that Liberians don’t get the idea of why or concept of explaining themselves. It’s just always been a certain way and that’s what they stick to even if they don’t know the cause or reason for why it started out that way. For example, at the Bangladeshi restaurant, I tried to order an appetizer. The waiter told me, “It’s Sunday.” What did he mean? “None. It’s Sunday.” I inquired further into why there weren’t any appetizers on Sunday. Let’s just say that I didn’t get very far.

August 13, 2011 The American Building

The day started out with all sorts of shouting and banging, which was not appreciated after my late night out at Groovies. The Lebanese contractors had returned, though, to do some work in our apartments and there was no getting around the sound of drilling as they installed curtains in the kitchen and master bedroom of each apartment. (Note: One of the Lebanese guys is now the first Facebook friend I’ve made here.)

Adisa and I took a cab to the biggest grocery store in town, Harbel. The locals know it as Abi Jaoudi (I think I misspelled the name in an earlier entry), though. There may be an interesting story behind the change in ownership; I hear rumors that the store changed hands in a game of poker! I met one of the store’s owners; his two children attend our school, but I didn’t think it appropriate to ask if he was a lucky poker player.

I had been to Abi Jaoudi’s already, but since then I had made a list of things that I needed that I wasn’t able to get at other groceries in town – a laundry basket, a squeegee, scrubbing brushes, etc. I also broke down and bought a few things to remind me of home – chicken nuggets, Bisquick and Duncan Hines cake mix! When I checked out, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a discount because I’m affiliated with the Embassy. Food here isn’t cheap, and the 10% discount was an unexpected surprise.

In the store, I began to feel like a local because I ran in to several people I knew, including Ed, Javier, and the school office manager (james) and his wife!

I accepted a ride back with Javier and Ed; Adisa still had more shopping to do around town. I’m happy I did because the night turned out very differently than I had imagined.

Javier took us back to his apartment. It’s actually not too far from the school compound, although I wouldn’t want to walk that distance. It’s situated in what is referred to as “the American building” because the Embassy has leased most of it. Javier’s place is lovely with matching furniture, African art, lush carpet, his own distiller, etc. The apartments have a pool, tennis court, gym, and a nice view of the ocean. Those Embassy folks live the life of Monrovian royalty, and I can’t think of someone more deserving that Javier to enjoy those amenities.

Lisa, the WHO worker, was at Javier’s apartment preparing dinner for us – a Moroccan chicken dish with chickpeas and apricots! Before dinner was served, we were briefly visited by a Brit named Peter. What an extraordinarily motivated young man! Peter is organizing the first marathon in Liberian history. Over 1,200 people, including runners from Kenya and Hawaii, are signed up to run on August 28, and it’s his vision to transition the role of organizer to a local Liberian so the event can continue in perpetuity.

Javier told me that Peter works for an initiative affiliated with Tony Blair, which I plan to research when I finally get the internet on the compound. I’d love to talk to Peter more about how to get involved in future events like these – maybe not necessarily athletic events – but I have a feeling that he’s a busy, busy man. He was leaving the next day to go home to London for two days to buy the marathon supplies like walkie-talkies, water-proof runner’s numbers, etc.

August 12, 2011 Bats in the belfry. Lizards on the wall.

I find that when I sit down at my computer to write this journal I am overwhelmed. There is so much that has happened to me in such a brief time, but these numerous events are relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. I’ll still record them, though, in hopes that my experiences might somehow help another visitor to Liberia navigate his/her way around.

Friday night was deemed a “community building night.” What that translated to in real life is a night of drinking and going out to the local nightclubs. We had heard that there was a band on Friday nights at the Palm Springs, so that was our intended destination.

The Palm Springs is a hotel with a few shops, a small casino, a bar, and a restaurant. The décor of the place reminded me of a 1980s cruise ship. Bless their hearts, the Liberians do try to make ex-pat hangouts chic. (Expat is short for expatriate, which is someone who has left their home country to live abroad.)

Adisa, Albert, and I took the school car to the place and met up with Ed, our director, who was already dining on the property with Javier and Lisa. Lisa, from Seattle, works for WHO (World Health Organization), teaching about polio and its prevention. Javier, from Colombia, works for the American Embassy as a financial officer. He is quickly becoming one of my favorite people in Liberia for two reasons. First, he is actually volunteering his time to help out AISM and its staff; it isn’t one of his official embassy duties. Second, he’s a get-it-done person. If you need something, he either does it, will help you do it, or has a contact for it. Javier is an invaluable source of information and resources.

We quickly realized that the band wasn’t going to play at Palm Springs, so we each had one drink (shots of Jack Daniels are $7 there and cans of Coke are $2) before heading to Groovies, where a local band was definitely playing.

The band had a Caribbean feel and played from a repertoire of Bob Marley and Marley-esque songs. Culturally, the club was very different from any American club I’ve been to. First, I was one of very few white people. By the end of the night, I was the only white person in the club, and I never felt awkward or singled out because of it. Second, the men are the ones that were dominating the dance floor! Those guys didn’t care if there were girls or not; they danced with each other, marching and singing and swaying to the Rasta beat.

I got a particular kick out of one dancing man. His face and smile reminded me of a thin, young Louis Armstrong. His dance style was something akin to the drum major of Morehouse College – animated, energetic, and unabashed. He danced in a circle, for the majority of the night, with two other guys, one of who was wearing a coat with tails and silver sequined accents.

Ed and Javier had forewarned me that I would get a lot of attention in the club – not because I was white, but because I am new. If there were eyes on me, I didn’t feel them. However, I watched the interactions between men and women. What I discovered is that both sexes are very straight-forward and equally assertive.

When we returned home, several bats were flying in the hallway. I had seen them one at a time over the past week, but this was a bit much. They are flying into a room whose windows are missing across the hall from our apartments. I’m told they won’t bother me, which I have trouble believing. But, they kill mosquitoes and that makes a bat’s present somewhat tolerable

When I walked into my room, I saw two larger geckos – Irving Sr. and his wife. Irving Jr. made his appearance in my bedroom. Talk about going to bed with creepy crawlies on the brain!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

August 11, 2011 That little white girl is nice.

I have to admit that the past two days have sort of sauntered by. I wasn’t busy, but I was completely drained. I’m told that yesterday was the last day of my jet lag. Ha! What these people don’t realize is that I can sleep almost any time and anywhere. I wouldn’t mind, though, being able fall asleep before 2:30am.

Here’s a few things of note that happened over the past two days:

1. I saw the presidential motorcade. Everyone had to clear the road for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her attendants to pass. I find it miraculous that these bikes and cars, which normally scurry to and fro like madmen, were able to clear the president’s path so quickly and readily.

2. I got more furniture. The embassy was holding an auction of some if its old stuff, and the school staff living on campus was able to go and pick things out. I added a dresser and bedside table for my guest room, a dining room table, set of drawers for storage in the bathroom, and a living room coffee table and side table. Now, my place really does look like a home. Albeit, the mix-match style reminds me of what a first-time apartment in the US would look like.

3. Another, bigger gecko made an appearance in my apartment. Must be Irving, Sr.

4. The basin around my shower is leaking. In my efforts to mop up the mess, I took a nasty fall. Wonder what that bruise will look like tomorrow? The contractor who is responsible for having renovated old classrooms into our new apartments. Much is made of the fact that he’s Lebanese. By this I mean that there is a certain stigma attached to Lebanese as being good workers who suck up to the foreigners and treat the locals poorly.

5. I had the most messed up dreams last night – about three or four different episodes. One segment featured me pooping out full-grown crawfish. In the dream, my mom told me not to worry – that that happened because I had diverticulitis. Anybody want to analyze that for me?

6. I’ve now eaten at Christine’s multiple times. So far, I’ve tried cabbage, bitter ball, potato greens, and cassava leaves. All the dishes are the same consistency – just different colors – and served with a separate dish of rice. The flavors are great, but my inexperienced mouth burns! Most often the dish features fresh or dried fish. Albert pointed out a piece of cow skin in one dish. Needless to say, I ate around it. Each time I visit Christine’s I make sure to say hello and good-bye to the ladies in the “kitchen.” They asked my co-worker Albert were I was when he stopped by without me. “Oh, that little white girl is so nice,” they ooh’ed and ah’ed.

This morning, we had our first faculty meeting. Eight of us were in attendance; two were missing. Quite honestly, I still don’t know what grades I’ll be teaching. I was hired to teach 2nd and 3rd, but another lady (who will arrive in Monrovia on Sunday) was assigned 1st and 2nd. Whatever happens, I know I’ve got my work cut out for me since I haven’t taught 2nd or 3rd grade before. I am a planner, and it’s driving me out of my mind to not know what I’m teaching or to have ample time to get myself mentally prepared.

I’m still having to frequent the Royal Hotel in order to use the internet. The director at school has arranged for internet at the school compound, but the company is giving grief about sending a technician out, wanting to charge us even though they haven’t completed their end of the initial set-up. Ed has threatened to take our business elsewhere, so I don’t know when we’ll get WiFi up and running.

Oh, I mustn’t forget to mention the oddest thing that happened to me today. I heard a light tap at my apartment door. I opened it to find Aletha, one of our two custodians. She asked if she could talk to me so I invited her in. At first, I was touched; she explained that some people make your heart “tick” and for them, your heart opens. She told me that she had that feeling when she first met me. Aletha had claimed me as one of her daughters. In real life, she has six kids – 2 sons and 4 daughters.

As the visit continued, I realized where all the flattery was going. Aletha’s daughter who should be in 8th grade cannot go to school this year due to a lack of funds. She explained that she wants me to take her daughter, my sister, Mitta into my care. To work beside me on the weekends or after work. I can show her what I want done around the house and offer her what I think is appropriate compensation.

Part of me understands. If I were Aletha, I’d want my daughter to go to school and to surround her with educated young women she can look up to and learn from. Before I traveled to Liberia, I had already been told that it was customary to employ local people to wash your clothes and help clean, but had put this to the back of my mind when I realized we had washing machines. The other part of me wonders if I’m seen as a mark – someone who work easily fork over the money.

I haven’t made any decisions regarding the matter and told Aletha upfront that I needed to think. I want to talk with my coworkers and feel out the situation. God knows, though, that I hate to sweep and mop and this might be a mutually beneficial relationship to have.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

August 8, 2011 How mow?

I woke up around 7am this morning as the light began to shine into my bedroom window. That’s 3 am Eastern Standard Time and 2 am Central Standard Time. Realizing that I probably needed more rest and that the sun was making my mind play tricks, I put on my sleep mask and forced myself back to bed. By 9:30 my screeching phone alarm had its job cut out. I begrudgingly roused myself from bed and splashed some cold water on my face because I had a date with Monrovia!

Albert, Adisa, and I ventured out into the city to run a myriad of errands. Our first stop was Stop and Shop, a chain grocery store. What a surprise that place turned out to be! On one hand, it has most things that an American grocery store would have. I can buy peanut butter, washing detergents, and corn dogs. Yes, even Hot Pockets. On the other hand, I realized that I’ll be paying out the yin-yang for these items. I had to quickly assess and prioritize my grocery list and ask Albert and Adisa what I should wait to get from the local vendors on the street. There were some things I couldn’t do without – toilet paper and hand soap for example. The toilet paper was 65 cents a roll , and it was $2.75 for hand soap. Not bad, right? However, when it came to most everything else the sticker shock was indescribable. $7.70 for a box of Quaker Oats Strawberries & Cream oatmeal packets. $4.30 for a jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce. $4.80 for strawberry jelly. $16.50 for a 32-load size of Tide detergent!

Thankfully, Adisa stopped me before that purchase. I had been thinking Golly, that’s a lot, but I should be thankful for the new washers and dryers we have on the compound. So, I was ready to shell out the absurd amount of money when Adisa showed me some local detergent options. Until I find a scent I like, she suggested I buy the 10-cent individual packets of detergent.

After shopping, we headed to the Royal Hotel. At a restaurant there, WiFi is free. Free, but not fast.

The three of us spent an hour there, checking email and chatting away. I signed up for the Liberia Expat email list, which is the way I found out about this position in the first place. As I looked around, I realized that it was the first place since the airport that I’d seen any white people congregated since I arrived in Liberia. They were all there doing what I was doing, soaking up the free wireless internet and sipping on American colas.

We made our way from the hotel into the CBD (central business district). I wish I could adequately put into words what the streets look like here and all along the path we drove. First, I must explain that there aren’t any traffic lights or signs, so it’s a blessing from up above that anyone makes it anywhere and that they do so without getting injured. Little motorcycles weave in and out of traffic and taxis/busses full of people cause congested intersections. Heck! Without lights, trying to turn left is like playing Frogger!

A note about the taxis… They are shared, meaning that when you get in, you will be squeezed like a sardine into the vehicle. People wait on the side of the road – sometimes for hours—for these taxis and to find one going to the part of the town they wish to get to. In one of these taxi busses, I counted at least 15 grown people. I’m talking about a Honda Odyssey sized van with grown people sitting on top of one another and 4 across!

Second, the streets are lined with shacks, mostly cinder blocks or plastered walls. All of the front doors are open, showing a system of shelves with wares to sell. On the roadside, people litter the streets, trying to sell anything and every thing: knick-knack stuff like fake flowers; sodas and juices; brooms; pens; packets of foreign cookies; clocks; calling cards. Children and women walk around with large buckets on their heads containing doughnuts, peanuts, eggs, bread, or whole dried fish. Some push wheel-barrels full of shoes, clothes, or surge protectors. There is also a slew of beggars.

There are over three million people living in Liberia. One-third of those people live in Monrovia. They ALL want to sell you something! It’s drastically overwhelming. However, the people are not rude.

Adisa explained to me that, because our 6’5” friend Albert was walking with us, we were not being bothered as much as we’d usually be -- because I do not look like a local and neither of us sounds like a local, the street vendors and beggars would normally follow us down the street. Great, I can’t wait for that.

In the CBD I was able to get my iPhone unlocked. For $40, my phone was “jail-breaked” and I got a SIM card from CelCom, one of the local providers here. It was my first experience with haggling. Of course, when the lady at the shop saw me, she wanted to charge more, but I was able to talk her down a few bucks and get the SIM card thrown in for free.

There are loads of street vendors selling “scratch cards,” which are basically calling cards. For $5, I can get about an hour of phone time. I also have the capability of texting. It’s much cheaper for me to call the states than for my friends and family to call me (Before I left the US, AT&T told me it was $3.50/minute to call Liberia).

I also exchanged some US dollars (USD), which is an acceptable currency in Liberia, for Liberian Dollars (LD). The exchange rate is normally about 70:1. Today the exchange rate was 72:1 so, for $20 USD, I pocketed 1,440 LD! It’s necessary to have this stack of LD cash for tips and smaller purchases.

You have to tip everyone from the parking attendants who “watch” your car when you are in the store to the grocery bagger. Thankfully, the tips are about 20 LD a pop – a mere quarter in US money.

I should note two things regarding money. First, US coinage is not accepted. When you go the grocery store and something rings up as $14.75, you cannot offer three quarters as part of your paymentpayment. Rather, you pay with cash. The cashier will give you as much as he/she can in USD and the “change” will be given in LD. Second, the US dollar is not accepted by street vendors for the full 70:1 ratio. Adisa explained that the US dollar is the most counterfeited currency here, so vendors often only accept it at a 50:1 rate.

Adisa – poor thing – has not received her luggage yet. Because flights from Belgium, where our flight originated, only come in on Sunday and Wednesday she won’t likely get her suitcases for a few more days. So, while shopping, we looked everywhere for women’s underwear for her. This is a great place for me to point out that finding new clothing and shoes in Liberia is like finding a diamond ring in a Cracker Jacks box. No new women’s underwear to be found – only used. Yuck! Needless to say, Adisa opted to buy a pair of men’s briefs brand-new in the Hanes packaging!

The last stop in that area was to Abu Jadi’s (I know I haven’t spelled that correctly), which is another grocery store. Technically, it’s called Harbel, but that’s not what the locals know it as. It has a larger selection but pricier items. There, I bought my cold items: a dozen brown eggs for $3, a block of cheddar cheese for $9, one-liter of milk for$1.80, butter for $3.95. There I made a great discovery – bottled water for cheap! A case of six 1.5L bottles is only $4.00!

Water is something I am going to have to start actively thinking about. By that I mean that I need to pay attention to where it comes from, how much I drink, and how much it costs. I overheard Ed, the new director, discuss buying water for the compound. 4,500 gallons (not sure if the amount was gallons or liters, actually) would cost $40. That’s the water that fills our water tower and flows to our sinks and showers. It is not drinkable water, unless you boil it first. Let’s just say that I think long and hard as I’m brushing me teeth – reminding myself to rinse with the water I’ve poured from the water bottle and NOT from the sink!

We drove back towards the compound, passing a variety of government buildings on the way. I saw the Liberian version of the White House. However, the female president has chosen not to live there. I also saw the Temple of Justice – court system – and the buildings that house the Liberian version of the Congress.

Which leads me to our last stop of the day….a (very) late lunch. Albert had scouted out a local place to eat. When I say local, you should just go ahead and imagine a hovel. We drove up to a place where Albert yelled to a woman who was sitting on top of a jug of oil, stirring in a pot. He asked if she still had food; most local places stop serving after lunch, so it was a shot in the dark. When she said she had cabbage, Albert went ahead and ordered a bowl. We parked and went in; Albert couldn’t even stand in the place!

We ordered a liter of beer and split it between the three of us. Adisa was careful to meticulously wipe her glass with antibacterial wipes and dole out the wipes to us for our hands. She began to explain that I needed to make a list of places to eat. Local places should only be frequented if you’ve been taken there by someone you trust. The locals may not cook with clean water, which is a no-no if you want to avoid nasty stomach problems and typhoid. (It was about this time that I began to feel like a character on Oregon Trail and hoping that I wouldn’t die of dysentery or while fording the river.) Albert, being a local, is someone I can trust to be my restaurant guide.

When the “cabbage” came out, it was served with a large plate of rice with three spoons. I learned to spoon the cabbage and fish mixture into the rice. Spicy and oily, but yummy. It reminded me of my dad’s catfish couvillion. Thank goodness we ordered a second bottle of beer to dial down the heat.

When we finished Albert asked the waitress, “How mow?” That’s like Liberian English for “how much?” (Side note: Liberians speak their own dialect of English. I cannot understand it…yet!) The answer shocked me – this time in a good way. $3.90 for the whole meal! Can you believe that all three of us could pay just over a $1 a piece to eat wonderfully when I had just spent almost $8 on oatmeal at the grocery store? We shelled out about 450 LD, which is roughly $6. I plan on becoming a regular at the place, so I wanted to tip well and gain favor with the cook. In fact, Albert has told me that once I get familiar with the cook, I can begin to make requests for what I want to eat and can bring Tupperware containers to fill up and take home for dinner! This situation would be ideal because the restaurant it across the street and a block away from the school’s compound.

I definitely want to get to know the cook and let her know that I’d like to stick to chicken or fish. I’m told that most times, the meat is “bush meat.” Quite frankly that means that whatever is killed in the bush is what ends up on your plate. I’m not ready to be a connoisseur of rat meat or whatever else might be thriving in those weeds. Maybe, I’d like it. Perhaps my stomach and I will have to forge a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

By the way, Harold has met his maker…and the bottom of my shoe.

Monday, August 8, 2011

August 7, 2011 Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore….

August 7, 2011

Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore….

Where do I even begin to describe the Liberia I have encountered in my 7 hours here?

I arrived in at the Roberts Airport around 5:00pm local time. The airport is a tiny, shabby building with people bustling to and fro. No one seems to know the meaning of a line, and I can tell as soon as I try to vie for my luggage that I’m in for some trouble. Sure, some men in front of me were kind enough to grab my two suitcases from the conveyor belt, but only seconds later another man was loading them, unsolicited, into a cart. That’s the first lesson I had to learn: everyone is out to make a buck and will do so –um – eagerly.

After breezing through customs I sought out my ride. I walked out into 80-degree weather with a light breeze, finding Amos the chauffeur with a homemade AISM sign. After introducing myself, he quickly whisked me to the curb to meet Ed, the site director, and Javier, an embassy worker. We waited for another staff member to arrive. During that hour wait, I saw a monkey dressed as a baby, nursing on a bottle, and a fight betweens some locals. I am told that I came on a good day – that there hasn’t been any rain and that the temperature is cool.

When we (Amos, Ed, Adisa, and I) began our 90-minute journey to the “compound,” I was amazed by what I saw. The countryside is sprinkled with what I can only call shacks – the kind you see in those “sponsor-a-child-for-pennies-a-day” commercials. Most of them are staked out by slender tree trunks and covered with thatch; some with dobbed mud. There are also a few cement block buildings. Few of those look occupied. I am told that many of them are under construction -- meaning that the owners of the land are building their houses. When money runs out, they stop building. When money returns, building continues. There are also remnants of the past civil war. Burned buildings that serve as a reminder of a less peaceful time.

People line the streets. They sit on their porches or in a circle of plastic chairs. Naked babies play near buckets of water. Chickens roam freely between the people and their conversations. I’m told that the commotion will go on till about 1 am tonight because it’s a Sunday, but that locals may be roaming the streets until 4 in the morning on regular days.

It isn’t till we’re near the city of Monrovia that any electricity is visible.

The place where I’m staying is like the Shangri-la compared to what I passed on the road. First, it is gated. I have yet to see less than 4 guards there at a time. The property, or what I’ve seen of it thus far, is impressive for where it is. The “compound” is in Congo Town, a suburb of Monrovia. Some parts look well-kept, old but clean.

There are five members of the staff living in the newly built apartments on campus – four of us are here already:

Ed (50-60, there’s been some debate about that between Anisa, Albert and me)– the director of the site who has been a world traveler for years. He’s worked in Africa, Colombia, Alaska; lived on a boat; and worked three stints with the PeaceCorps

Albert (46) – a 6’5” Liberian guy who is all about his chakra. He’s a music and math teacher originally from Liberia, but has been living in Maryland for several years. He’s going to be an invaluable guide.

Anisa (41)– a lovely lady who spent the past year in Liberia working at a teacher-education program. She’s originally from New York City, but has traveled and worked abroad consistently.

Linda – hasn’t made it in yet.

My apartment has the modern amenities: refrigerator, stove with gas and electric hook-ups, hot water, two air conditioning units! There are two rooms – one with a queen bed and another with a twin. I have two couches, 6 chairs, and one chest of drawers (that smells like old feet). The table and hanging clothes racks are still to come.

I have found a few other living things in my apartment. There’s a lizard about one inch long. I’ve named him Irving. Harold and Maude are the two crickets that are somewhere in the corner of my kitchen; if I find them, they’re in trouble. Oh – and I did kill one spider that walked across my lap while I was reading a book before bed.