Monday, June 28, 2010

New Uses for Chalk

It seemed that some very strange things happened to me after a bout of malaria subsided. Maybe it was just that I was off my guard, worn out. In any case, I remember these three occasions very clearly, despite the fact I was at less than 100%at the time. I can already tell that what I am about to recount won't sound as strange or odd as they struck me then, but I will press on....
I was just back in the classroom for a few hours after my first experience with the disease. It was about 100 degrees with 75% humidity, and I was teaching fifty children in a small, poorly ventilated classroom. I was sweating, weak, but determined to finish the lesson. I hadn't prepared the lesson properly, so I was unaware of what was coming. When we were practicing dialogue, there was a conversation between father and son over allowance. The son asked for a large sum (about fifty dollars) and the father said, "what, do you want to buy an oil well?" The students were a bit perplexed, they didn't get the irony. Luckily, I thought, there was a new offshore oil well right off the coast where I was teaching. I pointed out the window, and asked them in Arabic if they could buy the oil well for 500 riyal (fifty dollars in the Yemeni currency). As if on cue, half of them said "mumkin" - Arabic for maybe. I sat down. Where do you go from there? Anyway, I pressed on, a bit exasperated. I got to a new section of dialogue (that I hadn't read), and we began making progress on a conversation between two friends (British friends, the curriculum was British based). The two friends were arranging a meeting, and the kids took turns reading the parts. At one point, I had a boy and a girl (I had boys and girls in my class, quite a concession for a westerner in a very, very conservative climate!) reading the parts of the friends. We turned the page, and I did not read what was coming. Instead, I heard the boy tell the girl "why don't I come by and knock you up later?" I had had it - I choked, started laughing and couldn't stop. Poor kids. I was choking, laughing, then I got very light-headed. I leaned forward to put my hand on a desk to steady myself and I missed. As I was falling to the floor, I saw their terrified faces. Now my hand missed the corner of the desk, but my head did not. I woke up thirty minutes later in my tent. The kids had carried me back somehow. When I sat up, there were three kids on the floor of my tent staring at me. The had volunteered to stay with me to make sure I was ok. I smiled, considered laughing but thought better of it, didn't want to scare them. I very soberly thanked them and walked them back to the school. When we entered the classroom, a little girl solemnly handed me a piece of chalk as the whole class watched silently. I sat back down in the front of the class, and we continued reading dialogue, not missing a beat. No one ever mentioned the incident again, and I often wonder if it really happened (it did, I still have a small dent in my head).
I had just recovered from my second case of malaria, when I got up the strength to take a long walk. It was my custom to walk out to the beach and walk up and down a few miles in each direction collecting small seashells. I would then make them into jewelry for the girls in the camp. It was another scorching day, and I headed out from my tent. About half a kilometer out, I saw two women approaching me. They were dressed appropriately, but they were not Yemeni. As they approached, I realized they were both very attractive, one older than the other. The older woman made eye contact (the first weird sign) and just as she was about to pass me said "so Michael, you no $&^%^$$&, no?" (you can email me for the uncensored text). I was startled, I had never heard that from a stranger in the US. I supposed she knew who I was as I was the first westerner to ever live in the village, but I couldn't believe she said it, especially in front of the younger woman. I turned and they kept walking as if nothing happened. I shook my head, and chalked it up to the malaria. Later, when I recounted the incident to other Peace Corps friends, they told me I was nuts, so I believed them, at least temporary malaria insanity (TMI). A month later, I was talking to a Somali teacher who was a good friend. We were standing by the school and the woman walked by (it was a very small village). He saw me looking at her and asked if I knew her. I said no, and then I shared the hallucination I had. He laughed very hard, then looked at me and said "so you two have met?" I could tell by his tone and countenance that something was strange. He went on to tell me that the woman had married a man from Djibouti and lived on a naval base with a lot of "sailors." The other woman with her that day was her daughter, and according to my friend, they were both very vocal and vulgar. Sadly, I preferred the hallucination explanation, even if it was my hallucination.
My final post-malarial incident almost caused and international episode, well not quite that bad. I was teaching a very large class (70 students) in a small classroom. As it was an ESL class, I gave all the kids western names for roll call only (given the number of Mohammeds, this was helpful). The kids didn't mind, and they had to pay close attention during daily exercise. Once again, I was just back in the classroom, feeling very weak. I turned to the door where I saw my Somali friend standing with the local security agent. Yemen modeled its security protocols after the East Germans I am told. I believe it. This man had followed me quite a bit during my first few months in the village. He was large for a Yemeni, wore a perpetual scowl along with a pearl-handled 45 in his waistband. He never spoke to me or acknowledged me. Now he was in my doorway with a translator. I knew I was not going to enjoy the interchange. I gave my students something to do for a few minutes and attended to my guests. My friend translated - apparently there was a complaint that I was trying to prosthelytize the students by giving them Christian names. I patiently explained why I used the names, how it helped the kids learn proper nouns, etc. The security agent just shook his head and glared at me. I took a few steps back to write something on the blackboard for the students when my friend translated the last bit of the conversation. He told me that I was to discontinue the activity immediately or I would regret it. Maybe it was the malaria (nice name for a book I think),or maybe it was just me, but I had had enough. I took the chalk I was holding, hurled it at him hitting him in the chest. All the oxygen in the room was sucked out by 75 simultaneous gasps. I walked to the door, edged past the two visitors telling my friend the translator "tell him to teach the damn class." I then went back to my tent for a rest. An hour later a large contingent from the community came to my tent. We spent two hours discussing the issue. Finally, I was allowed to continue my English roll call, and I apologized publicly to my foe. He was happy, I was happy, and I had no more discipline problems in the class for several months.

Plasmodium Malariae

I had malaria four times while working with the Peace Corps, three times as volunteer in Yemen, and once as an Associate Director in Tanzania (I also had typhoid and hepatitis, but that is another story). I should state, before the Peace Corps objects, that I had placed myself in an atypical working environment, and that I was eventually told I would be evacuated if I contracted the disease again (they only knew about two cases!). Each instance was very similar, I would start to feel sick, sorta like the advent of the flu, then I would quickly become bed-ridden, feverish, and somewhat delirious. Each case lasted about a week, at which point I would emerge emaciated and exhausted. Malaria is a special kind of hell, one you may return from.
In Yemen, I lived in a refugee camp for Eritreans. At first, I stayed in a ten foot by ten foot shack, and I eventually downgraded to a eight foot by eight foot tent. I had no running water or electricity to speak of, and the well water was salty (well, at least until the rat fell in it, another story). The place was dry and dusty, not very clean, and indescribably hot and humid. Not the conditions to be sick in. I don't remember a lot of mosquitoes in my village (it only rained once in two years), but I did see a great deal of cases of malaria. Of course we (Peace Corps Volunteers) were given anti-malaria medication, but I eventually started giving it to ailing refugees.
I would always have a good idea how long I had been "out" by the number of water bottles scattered around my tent. The villagers and refugees, mostly my students, would bring them to me as I would be largely bed-ridden. There would be a few bottles of water, and several "used" bottles that I had used to urinate in. There would also always be a pile of crackers, none of which I could eat. You emerge from malaria much like a dream. I knew the week had been terrible, I knew I didn't really sleep, tossed and turned, burned up, and was in agony. But somehow that all softened by the end of the week, and it seemed like a faded nightmare. Nonetheless, I knew the torment I had endured, and I didn't look forward to return.
Upon waking from the third malarial dream in Yemen, a curious thing happened when I took stock of my calendar (the various water bottles on the floor) - two of the used bottles were almost black. I had no idea what that meant, but I saved one and took it to the the city the next day. The Russian doctor I knew took one look at it, looked at me, laughed and said "You, you should not be alive. Blackwater fever."
I still didn't know what it was so he told me in broken English that Meryl Streep's husband had died from it. Years later I laughed when I made the connection, it was the character in Out of Africa that had died, Meryl's onscreen husband. Sometimes ignorance is handy.
Now these stories are interesting, perhaps cautionary if I was smart enough to recognize the accompanying moral of each. What is not interesting is the number of people I have seen that were taken by this disease, mostly children. Some from the camp, some from schools I worked in, and one from the very house I lived in while working in Tanzania. The latter was Nuru, a seven-year old girl who was the daughter of the woman who cleaned my house and took care of it while I travelled three weeks out of the month. Nuru only knew one sentence in English, one she would bellow when she and her peers were playing around me. She would get their attention, and state loudly "Only English spoken here!" That was it, but it sounded good and I always gave her an approving nod. I remember once I had given her a toy jeep and then borrowed it back to demonstrate a physics lesson on Zanzibar. When I returned, I was told that Nuru had been very disappointed with the fact that I had taken the toy, the only nice one she had ever owned.
Nuru died a few months later while on a visit to her ancestral home in southern Tanzania. I did manage to get the jeep back to her, thank God.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

What is the Most Embarassing Thing that has ever Happened to You?

Ever been asked that question? If you drink, or bellow, or plow through life it is an inconsequential question - you just cannot afford embarrassment. I think I did all three, and embarrassing moments were allowed to slip by and disintegrate into that alcoholic amnesia governed by the statute of limitations of sobering up. It wasn't until I was nearly 35 years old until I gained my defining moment - an unequivocally embarrassing incident that would eclipse all other indiscretions. Now, when asked that question, there is no doubt as to my answer. It is nice not to have to think about a question.
I had been doing some consulting while I worked at the University of Akron, and I eventually got involved with memory training. I could literally look at or listen to a list of 250 items and remember them forward, backward, or by number. The first time I employed the technique in college (in a graduate course), I was accused of cheating. The professor had given us six potential test questions, three of which would show up on the actual test the next day. At that point my peers became probability experts: "If we prepare four, what are the odds at least two will be right?" I outlined all six, stored the information, and didn't care what three were asked. Afterwards, I didn't know why I was called into her office, and she beat around the bush for quite awhile. Finally she said "Michael, no one could remember all these things in one day!" It dawned on me what she was saying, so I told her I had utilized a memory strategy, and I explained it to her. She apologized a dozen times and then begged me to teach it to the class the next day. I did, and no, this is not the embarrassing moment.
A short time later, I was scheduled to do a memory workshop for students in my department. I was excited as this would be he first time I would teach the strategy to developmental students, and I was really curious to see how they handled it. A few hours before the presentation, I was called to the Dean's office to look over some candidate files that had some irregularities. I read them and started to rectify the information the best I could. After a bit of time, I started making progress. I must of gotten lost in the work, because I was there far longer than I wanted to be. I left the office and headed back to my department. I walked by a classroom and a colleague summoned me inside. I came in and saw a group of students and several other colleagues all turned around looking at me. In hindsight, I guess they were doing a great job stifling their laughter. One friend spoke to me saying "Michael, where were you supposed to be?" Now I usually think I am pretty quick, but I was slow on the uptake that day. My bewildered face only fueled the impending explosion of laughter seconds away. At the moment they finally lost control, it hit me between the eyes - I had forgotten to attend my own memory workshop!
I suppose it was about six years before I wasn't reminded of this faux pas on a weekly basis. I prefer to think of the whole issue differently though: I didn't forget to go to the workshop, I just failed to remember. Small semantics I know, but it helps.

Friday, June 25, 2010


I have a friend in Jordan, who never ceases to amaze me. He is a young man who wants to be (and actually already is) a journalist. He is nuts about someone named Paulo Coelho (yes, I am the only one on the planet who doesn't know this sage of sages), and somehow he is the most rabid fan of German football south of the Balkans.
M is an amazing optimist who is afraid of donkeys. He eats something called Mansif, yet is wary of exotic food. I bring him western newspapers when I visit Jordan, and I send him jokes on a regular basis. He reads the papers, and laughs at all of my jokes. A true friend.
M has a passion for his country, and writes genuine articles about local stories of interest for the national paper. His internal optimism bleeds through to the ink of his stories, even about abandoned wells. He once gave me a beautiful silver key chain with a verse of the Koran etched in it - I carry it every day. He loves his country, his family, and his friends.
I think I mentioned that M does not like donkeys. I learned this first hand as we visited Petra once with a mutual friend. We all decided to climb the summit of the south side of the valley to see the spectacular Monastery (featured prominently in Transformers 2 btw). Our friend and I opted for donkeys and horses as it was quite a climb and it was very hot. M got on a donkey for about ten seconds, jumped off, looked at us, shook his finger and said in his very nearly perfect English, "I will not do this." Fair enough though, he trudged along side us and kept up, never complaining. Two years later, we still get to rib him about his "asinusphobia", and he goodnaturedly accepts it.
If M loves his country, then he worships his home province of Ma'an in south central Jordan. He can find a kinsman anywhere in the country - at a one room museum in Mufrock, a hitch hiker in the middle of nowhere, or the maitre d' of an large upscale restaurant and grill. M engages strangers everywhere, something admirable especially in a twenty-five year old. He will earnestly debate anything, honestly arguing his point without offending or pressing too hard. The world truly is a place of wonder for him, and friends and strangers are treasures to him. I envy his enthusiasm, his naivete, and his passion for his culture. It will be a pleasure watching his career unfold, albeit from halfway across the world.

On Another Jamaican Mountaintop

Never thought I would write about this, really only told the story when I was drunk, and it has been more than seventeen years since I last took a drink. I think about it most days, but it doesn't haunt me like it used to. It happened twenty four years ago on a lonely mountaintop in the cockpit country of Jamaica, south of Montego Bay. It began and ended in a few minutes, and I never knew what happened to the baby or her mother. I never dared return.
It was in my second year as a Peace Corp Volunteer doing literacy work on the western side of the island. I had complained a lot and persuaded a local Rotarian to help me secure a motorcycle from PC headquarters (our director was a big Rotarian, in many ways). PC did not look favorably on my assignment, as literacy work was not popular with the government at that time. But through persistence and some help, I got a nice new Honda 250 dirt bike - perfect for traipsing around the Jamaican countryside.
As in any proper myth, there was a steep price to pay for this political victory. This new motorcycle had a small glitch - the back tire would go flat every few days. I ordered new tubes, tried to get the rim fixed, everything to no avail. I learned how to remove the back tire and fix the flat in a matter of minutes, and resolved myself to my fate. Sisyphus would have been proud - I fixed that flat three times a week for a year!
Once I got the motorcycle, my work as a Field Agent truly took off. I visited remote schools, did trainings, and eventually established new classes in places few westerners had ever been. It was in one small community (about six shacks actually), that I encountered the worst experience of my life. I was on a mountain just above Horseguard, looking for a small church that had expressed interest in the program. There were no signs, and few landmarks to guide me. I stopped once to ask a older gentleman for directions. He pointed a worn hand in the direction I was travelling and said "gwan up so pas tree duppies." Now I knew the direct translation - Go on up past the three ghosts. The ghost part confused me. I smiled and thanked him and took off. About four miles up the road I saw a small house with three gravestones in the yard - the ghosts. To the north of the house was a tall slope and I could see a steeple just bobbing ahead of the crest. I put the bike in low gear and climbed a seldom used path up and over the top. There were a few shacks scattered about and one small but meticulously cared for church. I drove up towards the church when I saw a woman emerge from a shack with a small bundle in her arms. I thought she might help me find the pastor. I was wrong.
At first, the woman didn't seemed panicked. I think she was confused. She approached me and held out the swaddled bundle speaking an urgent patois (the Jamaican language) so thick I could barely understand her. In the next few minutes that seemed like a decade, I came to understand that she had mistaken me for a doctor that sometimes had made visits to the area. She kept thrusting the bundle at me, and I kept trying to understand. At one point she slowed down and I got her to unwrap the baby. It was barely breathing, and I could tell it was very sick. I then tried to get her to get on the bike with me to go down to town to a hospital. She did not understand and somewhere at sometime in that linguistic struggle, the baby gave up. She looked down at the child, who was now in my arms, and she began to sob violently. At that point, a few other folks had walked up and they gently took the baby from my hands, and guided the woman and her dead child back in to the shack. As quickly as that it was over, I was alone on that mountaintop staring at my useless hands. I turned slowly and got on my motorcycle and made my way back down the mountain. I went home, laid down on my bed and begged God to let me cry. He did not. Later, I learned to cry when I drank.

Monday, June 21, 2010


It is the small things that break me down. Yesterday the world lost and God gained a beautiful soul. She worked for a friend, and I only met her a few times. I am very saddened by her loss, for her family and for my friend. The few times I met her, she made me feel like there was no one on earth she would rather see at that moment. She would be excited, girlish despite her age. She had a light I have rarely seen. She cleaned houses for folks, and I had the impression that she worked very hard to help provide for her family. She was honest, diligent, and had a level of authentic integrity I could only hope to attain. The world is a darker place without her.
I watched her interact with my friend, who hired her to clean her house. It was touching to watch them together. My friend was quite a bit younger than V, but they chatted like sisters. Two beautiful women, one Muslim, one Christian with no barriers, no class divisions, no need for roles. I always thought their friendship was a testament to their faith: My friend treated her with dignity and often paid her far more than she had to. V was her giddy older sister, caring and doting. Two women living in and sharing God's grace.
It is the small things that break me down: V's squeal when she saw me or she knew I was on the phone, my friend's gentle smile when they bantered back and forth. I morn V's departure and my friend's loss, but it is the small things that break me down.