December 16, 2011

(Begrudgingly) A Christmas Miracle?

So we didn't make our flight. Despite our extreme tiredness, we woke up early, absolutely scrambling to complete 5 different errands to change our flights.

Weirdly enough, we all actually benefit ted from spending an extra unplanned day in Kinshasa. for my part, I had forgotten my US cell phone in my hotel room the night before and the cleaning staff was able to return it to me!  Additionally, I was able to talk to a Congolese college who had partnered with me in the field (I had rudely left without saying goodbye).

A Christmas Miracle?

December 15, 2011

We Missed our Flight

We escaped a horrible 5 and a half hour traffic jam and just got to the airport. Unsuprisingly, all 5 of us missed our respective flights...

We passed wide stretches of water that look like 3 back-to-back olympic pools in a row, with city buses stuck in the mud. Since it's the rainy season, apparently a small river had overflowed, and in combination with the wet sand and the mud, and completely un-road worthy vehicles, it kept traffic at a standstill.

It's tragic and incredibly frustrating, fortunately we're all a bit loney at this point and that makes it entertaining...

This is like a Road Trip

But with no water and no place to pee.

4 hours and 45 minutes and still in traffic.

Uh oh

Our driver just pulled out his radio to announce to his colleague "c'est bloqué mon cher, c'est vraiment bloqué" (it's all blocked my friend, it's really blocked).

We've now been in traffic for 4 hours... And we can see the airport from here.

Worser and Worser Traffic

Oh my holy god. We've been in traffic for 3 hours now.

We've considered playing the license plate game but since we are not moving and many cars don't have license plates, it's proven to be utterly unchallenging. Also thinking about playing "truth or dare" but again, since we're not keen on getting out of the car under any circumstances, it's devolved into "truth or truth" and the game was quickly abandoned.

Traffic is so bad that Kinois (local residents from Kinshasa) have left cars, taxis and buses in droves and walking home.

I think it started raining in the car.

Traffic in Kinshasa

An email to a friend:

I'm stuck in this mad traffic going to the airport back to DC, bumper-to-bumper behind a truck holding about 20 yellow jerry cans full of sloshing fuel, pedestrians running around the cars, trucks threatening to titter to the ground and spill the mob of people contained inside, beeps and horns and sideway cars trying to make a left turn. And it just started raining.

Been in the car for 1 hour 44 minutes. We are spending our time analyzing the (lack of) traffic pattern and uselessly commenting on different strategies we would use to move the cars out of our way .

You know how Jean Paul Sartre said "l'enfer c'est les autres (hell is other people)" ? Ya well.

Just kidding, I'm glad to be stuck in this car these colleagues. They're pretty entertaining (and we're all thanking our lucky stars we didn't drink alcohol beforehand 'cause trust me, you don't want to be looking for a bathroom right now).

How many days until I see you?

December 08, 2011

My Main Concern in Congo: Porch Pirating

And of course, I do take the time to do a little online shopping.  Here's the latest email to my roommate:
Hey there,

So I'm in the Command Center and people are talking about this phenomenon of Porch Pirating - essentially people stealing other people's Amazon packages from their porch.  Sooo, I've ordered tons of presents for XXX and his family, plus clothes and shoes for myself (I'm really bored here since we're essential on lockdown).

Could you kindly keep an eye out for them and bring them in the house when they arrive on our porch?  Thanks!


November 30, 2011

Watching Laurent Gbagbo on Television

I'm watching the French news before the generator is turned off this morning.

Laurent Gbagbo (ex president of Ivory Coast) is being tried in the Hague today, for crimes his supporters committed when he refused to accept election results in 2010. I hope this is not a harbinger of things to come here in DRC.

November 27, 2011

Loud Fabric - because I couldn't resist

Also, I took a minute to buy this fabric today. Even though before I left, I promised myself I wouldn't buy any more items to bring back from Africa (I could practically start a museum at this point).

Because honestly, how can you resist a blue/white flower pattern, overlayed with baby blue and baby pink glittery design? How?

I'm going to make a suit jacket and wear it at work. Yep, I'm that girl.

A Day Before Election Day in Congo

From an email to my sister:

Yes, I will be in the Province for the announcement of the results. I'm a little nervous about it, and don't know where I should be when they are announced (at the Independent Electoral Commission? At UN Headquarters? In my "Hotel"?).

Time drags on when you have no internet or TV. Thankfully it forces me to finish books I have on my kindle - but since there's no internet, I can't download more books. I just finished a pretty good books on vampires (nothing like the Bella series - a lot more post apocalyptic), and am going through the incredibly voluminous Emperor of All Maladies (an almost complete history of the diagnosis of cancer and the search for its cure), and also Journal of a Plague Year, a fictional account by Daniel Dafoe written around 1722 based on his interviews of people who survived the devastating effects of plague in London.

From an email to my friend:


I'm also a little worried about dying of boredom during the time between election day and results. I'm planning mostly work meetings, but also a trip to a tailor, buying local DVDs and finding a library in town. I pretty much begged a EU guy to take me along with him during his jogging. Today, I worked out to a borrowed Baywatch Beach Workout DVD. A couple of additional sessions and I'll be looking like Pamela Anderson in no time. Haha!

November 23, 2011

Return to Kananga and the politics of elections there

Dear family,

I am alive and well in Kananga, which is located somewhere in the middle of the Democratic Republic of Congo as an elections observer. I've been to Kananga before but I've never seen so many foreigners here before. There are observers from the Carter Center (a reputable NGO), from the EU, SADC and us.

The hotel room has no running water or electricity (as it never does in Congo) but the generator gets turned on in the evenings.

It started to rain here and oh miracle! the AC just came on which means that someone decided to turn on the generator! OK and now 10 minutes later, it's off again.

The elections should be interesting. The country is split between the incumbent Joseph Kabila who has been president for the last 11 years, and Etienne Tshisekedi who has been trying to be president for a looooong time. Kananga city seems overwhelmingly pro-UDPS (Tshisekedi's party).


Anyways, I'm stuck here for 17 days. The food is very repetitive and there's really nothing to do so I tend to go to sleep by 8 p.m.

I hope all is well with you. Wish me luck!
007 in Africa

November 12, 2011

Observing Elections in Kananga

I’m back in the Democratic Republic of Congo after being away for close to 6 years. I am in the country for 2 months for an election monitoring mission.  Some things have changed.  But most haven’t.

President Kabila built a shiny new 6-lane highway in the center of the Kinshasa, with traffic lights (that stay on), marked lanes and zebra crossings.  In the process, magestic old trees have been chopped up, but it has managed to regulate traffic downtown.  On the other hand, side streets in the upper neighborhoods still remain sandbanks, and traffic stays completely choked inside the dilapidated neighborhoods.

I spent a week in Kananga, which is the capital of Kasai Occidental Province (there are 10 provinces in Congo).  I knew it well 6 years ago, and sadly it looks the same today.  It is said that 10 miles of roads have been built in Kabila’s 10 year tenure, and electricity is now available to selected neighborhoods for 3 or 4 hours in the evening.  The town is a dust bowl, interspersed with grandiose Belgian buildings and large avenues - there once was meticulous concern of city planning.  The Belgians hoped to make it the capital of Congo, due to its location in the middle of the country.

Fortunately this time around, I travel using UN flights instead of the crazy Congolese airline ones and as a result, don’t have to deal with the hassle of the airport there.  I also represent a larger organization so meetings with Head Officials are easy to come by.

Kananga is a quiet Province, so it seems I have been blessed with an area that will experience few population clashes at the time of elections.  Elections are November 28, 2011.  I heartily wish good luck to DRC in its nascent democratic process!

I’m back in Kinshasa now, and enjoying hot showers of running water, and vegetables, yogurts and cheese.  I’ll be back in Kananga again from November 22 – December 8, 2011.

I do miss the crisp, cool air of autumn, and the smell of decaying leaves of Washington D.C.  And I wish I could be with family on Thanksgiving.  Please have an extra spoonful of stuffing for me.

October 27, 2011

Photos of Kinshasa

View from the 11th floor of Grand Hotel Kinshasa.  According to one of my colleagues who lives in the DRC for 8 years, the large building (all encased in colored glass) in the back used to be the Central Bank.  He would exchange stacks of bills there.  According to lore, the windows did not open, and when there was an electricity shortage (as it happens often here), the interior would heat up like a greenhouse, and it would be get to an unbareable 120 degrees.  You'll notice that huge windows have been "punched" out in the building now, probably as a way to regulate the heat.  It gives it an eerie ghost-like glow...  I'm curious to know how they deal with the heavy rains during the rain season though.

 Another view from the hotel, watching the rain clouds roll in.

Turbo King, a beer made in Congo.  I particular enjoy the dramatic lion, with arms tensely resting on the logo, ready to pounce at the person drinking it.

Being part French, you may be surprised that this is one of the rare times I tried snails and frogs legs.  I don't know what I liked best about the snails: the butter and garlic sauce, or the cool 6-holed dish they came in.  The frogs legs were super yummy - too bad it's such much work for so little meat!

October 25, 2011

October 25, 2011: Going Back to Congo

It’s been about six years since I, wearily, left the Congo.  Tired, and burnt out, it nonetheless remains a strong memory - fraught with vivid stories and half-remembered fears, stuck in frozen time.

As part of my work, I have been asked to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo for two months, to observe the climate and the processes surrounding the second-ever elections since its independence in 1960. 

It doesn’t hit me that I’m really going back to Congo until, after an 8-hour flight from Washington D.C. to Brussels, and a 7-hour flight from Brussels to Yaounde (Cameroon), we slowly descent over Cameroon.

I’ve never set foot in Cameroon, but flying over its sparse forests, punctuated here and there by thin clay roads, and with clearings giving way to metal-roofed hangars, houses and huts, I am reminded of Central Africa.  At the risk of restating trite and perhaps naïve/colonial platitudes, I love seeing the surface of the earth as it was meant to be - at its most natural, lightly touched by human habitation.  Perhaps nature here is particularly indomitable and impossible to control into ordered patches of vegetations.  Or perhaps instead, city planners in Yaounde don't have the right tools to push the forest to the far corners of the city, loosing the battle between nature and urban sprawl.

I fall in love again with the tall, slender trees that reach their trunks and branches to the sun, topped like a scalp with a thick layer of dark leaves.

Another couple of hours until we arrive in Kinshasa.  I am curious to see if it has changed.  I hear it has.

October 16, 2011

Celebrity Dentist

I have a celebrity dentist.

I know what you're thinking.  That guy that looks like Timothy Dalton, who bleaches and applies veneers on all the starlets teeth.

Nope.  I just came back from my dentist.  Every time I go there, I sit in the reception area with a number of low income folks, mostly hispanic.  The wait is not long and the staff is polite.  As happened the last time, Dr. Rahim Sharmin engages me in really interesting conversation.

I always assumed he was hispanic but I learned today that he's actually Iranian and has been in the States for 20 years.  He was a oral/facial surgeon in Iraq and Iran.  Offhandedly, I told him that he must miss the field, given that he does mostly preventative dentistry and fillings now.  He disagreed and proceeded to tell me about some of the horrors of war he saw while there.  He vividly remembered seeing a young boy of 12 come in to see him, with a large bandage on his face.  The youth scribbled a note to him asking "when do I get back to go to the battle field?".  Dr Sharmin then removed the bandage, revealing a mass of exploded flesh, from the bottom of the throat to the top of the jaw, the lower jaw being completely missing.  Dr. Sharmin, misty eyed as he recalled the event, had to tell his patient that, even if he had access to the plastic surgeon, it would take the boy years and years of surgeries and rehabilitation to even begin to be OK again.

After a long 20 minute conversation, he sends me on my way (I have good oral health, yay!) and shows me a certificate on his wall.  Vincent Gray, the current Mayor of Washington DC, honored him for taking in underserved people from Washington D.C. on Medicare and Medicaid.  Mayor Gray decreed that April 6, 2010 was "Dr Rahim Sharmin" day.  I congratulated him, and said that we would have to celebrate it next year.

Before I left, he shook my hand and said "at my age, I don't care about money, but being recognized for my efforts in the community means everything to me."

Good job Dr. Sharmin!

September 19, 2011

If the Rains Don't Cleanse

A week ago, I received this email:

Hi there,

My name is Ben Patrick Johnson. I'm a novelist. 
In 2009, my book IF THE RAINS DON'T CLEANSE was published. It's a fictionalized retelling of my parents experiences as schoolteacher missionaries in Congo in the 1950s. I had the advantage of considerable source material to draw from -- interviews, news reports from the time, telegrams and cables, personal letters. I wrote first-person from the perspective of a young woman based on my mother.

The book has done reasonably well commercially and I'm working on a screenplay adaptation. As I was seeking additional source material dealing with rainy seasons, etc., a Google search landed me at your blog. I am struck by similarities between your real-life entries and some of the fictional letters and and journal entries I was writing for my protagonist Eva and almost the same time you were there in Africa. 

I'd like to share the book with you! I wonder if you'll find the same amusement/surprise. If you'll provide me a mailing address, I'll put a copy in the mail to you.
Ben Patrick Johnson

Executive Director, The Ben Patrick Johnson Foundation
Board Member, Equality California Institute
Board Member, The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles
Board Member, NOH8 Campaign

My response to him was equally as enthusiastic:

Hi Ben,
I'd love to receive a copy of your book - glad  you gave a voice to your mother's experiences.  Living in Congo is indeed an incredible adventure.
Incidentally, I will be going back to the DRC in mid October 2011 to do some election monitoring so my experiences will come full circle as I get ready to witness the second "real elections" since 2005.
My address is XXX.
Thank you for thinking of me.

Here's the website for the book , and some very positive feedback on Amazon.  I'm excited to read it soon!

September 08, 2011

Never compare yourself to other peopl...

I call BS.  Teachers always told me not to compare myself to other people.  But let's be honest, sometimes it feel damn good to compare yourself to others less fortunate.

And so while I lament the water drips in three places in the ceiling and the slow but steady leeching of water from the brick wall to the basement, I amuse myself with these comments and stories of rain and flooding from Prince of Petworth:

September 03, 2011

Gaddafi Cabernet

Seen yesterday in the window of the Bacchus Wine Cellar in Georgetown D.C. yesterday:

Gaddafi Cabernet
with nutty flavors & a curiously disappearing finish

August 31, 2011

Update on The Wall

The roommate emails:

I just sanded the drywall and cleaned up the best I could but that stuff stays airborn for days and weeks. We'll definitely need to dust...

And goddamnit, I'm covered. I look like I'm wearing a powdered wig.

Sigh, I won't even start going into the trouble Hurricane Irene got us into.  Many more walls to fix at this time...  No energy to talk about it today...

Fixing The Wall

As I mentionned previously, the earthquake left hairline fractures in my dining room wall.  Thank goodness, my super awesome roommate took it upon himself to fix it.  Here are a couple of emails from him about the situation:

No, not the album/movie by Pink Floyd, the one that got cracked in our kitchen...

I use the drywall compound to fill in the cracks. That said, there's a process that has to be followed for it to be done right. which is as follows:

1. apply compound
2. let it dry
3. reapply compound
4. let it dry
5. sand
6. wipe down with wet rag to remove drywall dust
7. using the roller apply primer
8. let it dry
9. using angled brush, cut-in along corner, ceiling, floor molding and window
10. repaint wall with the roller from corner to window (otherwise it'll be obvious that only certain spots were painted)
11. possibly apply a second coat depending on appearance
12. MOST IMPORTANT--drink a glass of wine to celebrate a job well done

Currently we are on step number 2. I'll take the lead on this and have it done by the end of the week... Then you must join me for step 12.


August 26, 2011

Other Item

I should also remember to have a wrench or pliers close at hand...

Things to Do Before the Storm

Things to Do
- Move all patio furniture indoors
- Move pepper and basil plants and succulent inside
- Tarp area underneath the porch to prevent water leaking into the basement
- Unclog drains originating from the roof
- Close all blinds (to prevent glass shards from getting into the house)
- Recharge all essential electronics tonight

Things to Buy
- Battery operated flashlight
- Battery operated lamp
- Battery operated radio
- Candles
- A few cans
- A gallon of water

Place These Items in Easy to Reach Location
- First Aid Kit
- Solar charger
- Leatherman
- Flashlight, lamp, candles, radio
- Can opener

August 25, 2011

The Earthquake Shook Toronto Too

A friend who lives in Toronto wrote me the following email:

No damage was done to my building from [the] quake. Plus we have really good collective owners governance for a condominium, and I am now going to look at my insurance policy to double check. My big windows creak alot during earthquakes, but they seem just fine (seeing as glass is a liquid). Sorry to hear about your wall. I hope it's just cosmetic damage? Do you want me to consult two elderly architects about it for you?

My dad just took a while to clue in that my screaming 'earthquake' wasn't part of a bad skype connection (and indeed a real earthquake). I guess when people are on the phone with somebody who is in another area (it’s hard to understand that something as weird as an earthquake is occurring on the other end until you yell earthquake about ten times!). I mean this is Toronto, it’s like yelling volcano...

We have friends in New Zealand and they are still in shock. Pretty jarring stuff. Things are definitely not alright with them yet on so many levels.


Sorry about the cracked wall. I hope it doesn't leak water. My mum explained to me at a young age that the main goal of architecture is stopping water leaks...


Hurricane Irene

Aaaaand, less than 24 hours after the earthquake, apparently, DC is going to get plowed by wind and rain from Hurricane Irene.

So it's off to Home Depot for me and my roomate on Friday, so we can put tarp and sandbags underneath my porch in a sad attempt to prevent water leakage into the basement.


Devastation in the Dominican Republic After Hurricane Irene

Earthquake in DC

Yep, we had a 5.9 earthquake in the District of Columbia and nope, I don't have earthquake insurance... Here's an email I sent to family:

Hi All,

We're all so glad that it wasn't a bad earthquake, but I must admit that not having access to calling the family for 2 hours after the earthquake (all phone lines were jammed) was quite panicking. I have several hairline fractures in my dining room wall in the drywall, which I suspect are not a structural issue, but I'll be calling my insurance and getting some professionals in the house to check if the fractures impact the actual brick wall underneath :(

Ack, who ever convinced me that owning a house was a good idea?

Anyhoo, hope all is well with everyone,

xoxo [007 in Africa]

PS: By sheer stroke of unluck, there is one building at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that is closed for further inspection, but it doesn't happen to be the one in which I work! I could really use a day off today :)

The church spire of the Church close to my house fell unceremoniously and dropped unto the stairs in front.

Life-threatening damage from a plastic gutter that detached from the front of the house in Petworth.

OK so the gutter fall was not that life-threatening but it's now resting on a loose electrical wire.  I'd like to see you handle electrified metal!

August 05, 2011

Blue Moutains

Sister on her mean motorcycle

Sister at her Radio Desk

White Rocks of Bondi Beach

Looking Back at Bondi Beach

So I finally made it to my sister's last week.... She lives in the Blue Mountains around Sydney, about an hour's train ride away. I arrived on Friday while she was still in class. She has ordered me a taxi from the station, but no taxi to be found. So I followed her directions, with suitcase and backpack in tow, and climbed odd hills blindly (the directions were far from perfect), and frustratingly asked for directions to her house. It's a small town here but no one really seems to know the street names, and the streets are poorly marked.

Finally, she caught up with me, in her leather jacket and helmet on her little postman motorcycle. A sight to see. Regardless, she was able to show me the way, but I still needed to climb the hills with my heavy suitcase. Sigh.

It's unbelievably cold here. I can't believe I'm saying that, having living in Canada in -25 degree weather. But it's a humid cold that seeps into your bones. There is no heat inside buildings, so you never quite recover from your chills. I slept with long johns and socks, in a sleeping bag, with a cover and a heater. And still felt cold. When I took a (hot?) shower, I couldn't tell whether the water was cold or hot due to my skin being so chilled.

We went into Sydney yesterday - it took us three hours to complete a trip that usually takes one hour, because of track maintenance. You think DC's metro is bad? Think again. After walking for 20 minutes, taking the train for another 20, a bus for 1.5 hours and a a short taxi ride, we met up for brunch in Bondi Beach with my colleagues.

Bondi is gorgeous - for a winter day, it finally warmed up and we went for a walk on the beach sidewalks, seeing surfers in the waves, cautious swimmers in swallow pools created into hollowed-out rocks, white and beige jutting rock formations and people just generally sunning themselves on the grassy patches close to the beach. It's so beautiful here, I would move in an instant if there was a good job for me.

Then we walked around in an outdoor market full of local designers' wares, had drinks with her friends at the Opera House overlooking a sunset over the bridge, and had a wonderful Chinese meal in a tiny authentic restaurant. We also went to check out my sister's radio show, Diffusion Science Radio, and she interviewed me for about 5 minutes!

We finished off with walk in Glenbrook National Park (Bush Walk) and a picnic.

I'm now back in D.C. where it's been more than 90 degrees for 19 days. My lawn is a poor sight to see...

July 30, 2011

Pictures of Down Unda'


Mist over a field, as part of the the view during my morning run

Three Crocodiles, Sunning Themselves in a Nature Sanctuary close to Canungra

OMG, OMG, OMG, Koalas are so cute! It doesn't matter what they do - even when they defecate, people just say "oooh! aaah!". They're like stuffed animals when they munch, slowly and carefully climb trees and open and close their little palms. Ridiculously cute.

I'm petting a thoroughly unimpressed Kangaroo!


A Cassowary in the Sanctuary - a mean looking and dangerous bird

Some type of White Bird on a branch

Bundaberg (Australian Rum) and Coke, in a can! A cheap and delicious treat after a long 10 days at xxx

A little bit of down time in the airport after returning from Brisbane and on our way to Sydney. Time for a visit to my sister who lives in the Blue Mountains around Sydney!

July 20, 2011

007's Brother's Email


Man my life is so boring. My life isn't that exciting, but let me see if I can spin a narrative which makes it sound as cool as your lives.

Early on Monday morning, I boarded a small JetBlue aircraft. The air in Manhattan was thick, as if it was anticipating the rough terrain ahead. As my little plane pulled up on the tarmac at my destination, I realized I was stepping into a place few had gone to before: Pittsburgh. The name itself is synonymous with adventure and the unknown.

I rushed into my little taxi, swerved onto the crazy streets full of traffic and arrived at my client's office. I was working in the business that runs this town. Some say it's reach touches every person in this place, forgotten by the rest of civilization. It affects the lowly street sellers and the fat-cat politicians. It's what makes the world go round. It's... health insurance.

Monday morning was crazy, the minute I arrived, I rushed into a steering committee meeting. Sweating bullets, I reported our progress to the senior clients. These men in dark suits run the firm, and some say this whole town. Two members of my team were down and sick I said, so progress was slow. But we now knew how to attack the problem. We would focus, I said, on two key customer segments. Retirees and small business. The client went ballistic. What about medium businesses they asked? Isn't there demand in that segment? Aren't we leaving money on the table? No, we told them, it would just be too expensive. The IRRs wouldn't make sense.

After a full day of meetings, I retired to my small shabby hotel. It was called the Renaissance, and tended by a nice guy called Tommy. I could hear the bustle of streets below... Would I ever make it out of Pittsburgh alive?

007 - that explains why you haven't been returning my phone calls.

Hope all is well!

[007 in Africa's Brother]

007's Sister's Email

Hi all,

I'm currently staying at a YHA in Pitwater about 90 minutes out of Sydney (I have a week off between terms). It's heart-meltinglybeautiful-- a crystalline bay, gamboling wallabies, bickering magpies,soft warm breezes, a crackling fireplace, lazy hammocks, all set in anold sprawling house which dates back to the 1930s. There are stainglass windows that never get a ray of light. And piles of halffinished knitting abandoned on the worn leather couches of the livingroom. Only two others are here: an old man from the South Coast onrespite from caring for his wife (who has MS), and a sustainablefarmer who comes here every year to get away from things for a while.We've all come alone. At nighttime we play our favourite jazz albumsand discuss science, philosophy. Amiable company.

I have already been on two runs and had two naps. I've reacquainted myself with the physiology of the kidney (hello!). I leave tomorrow.

007's Email

Hey Dad and All,

Thanks for the news! It sounds like a nice vacation and I’ve very jealous...

Well after about 25 hours of travelling ([007's sister], my hat’s off to you for doing that twice a year or more), I arrived in Brisbane and met up with my group. We travelled to xxx a few days after that.

I basically work in a small, overheated portioned room with about 30 other civilians (or “hippies” as we are called here) from the US and Australia. It’s sometimes hard to hear ourselves in here as there are a number of other groups behind other partitions that are significantly louder than us. The building is rigged with a jungle of multicolored live wires, and holds buckets collecting water from the leaky roof - it's quite a run-down site to see. It makes me feel like I am in a humid bunker during the second World War.
 The food is actually quite good and incredibly fattening (fried potatoes, pasta with bacon, rice, chocolate pudding, chicken, pork, lamb, steak, a few pieces of whitish lettuce). You wouldn’t believe it but I actually walk or run in the morning to get rid of the calories (OK I did that twice, but still). The mist hanging on the long stretches of land is beautiful and I’ve seen lots of Kookabaras and hear their eerie laughing and cackling sounds. We sometimes hold our meetings in large tents made from a thin material that looks like plastic ponchos, or outside in the cool, sunny air of the Australian winter. It can be quite distracting as I see new flora and fauna around me... such as large black and white birds, and gnarled dry trees.


My days generally run from 6:00 am (time I wake up) to about 9:30 pm (time I go to bed), and that’s a perfect schedule for me!

Looking forward to seeing [007's Sister] in about a week,
007 in Africa

Email From Mum and Dad

Hola las muchachas et el muchacho,

Bonjour from rue Vendome!

We have just spent a week out of contact at Argentiere in the Colin's chalet. I was able to read a quarter of Middlemarch due to the absolute absence of any Internet or phone connection. (It turns out that for ATT to allow international roaming one needs three months or more of active contract, so I have been as though on the dark side of the moon. It's actually quite nice.)

The hiking was arduous and quite difficult but I'm sure did us both a lot of good. We spent the week with Jim and Elizabeth and Penny. Neither Elizabeth nor Penny did any real hiking but fortunately Jim is a serious hiker, and Maman pretty much kept up with us (or in fact, went down the mountains a lot faster than me! The weather was mostly OK but there was one day of heavy rain and a second when the mountains were shrouded in cloud so we hiked in the mist. We also went up the Aiguille du Midi, around 3,800 metres (12,000 ft) and admired the Mer de Glace with hundreds of Japanese tourists, then hiked across the mountain to the glacier. (007's Brother) will remember our traversée of the Mer de Glace about 10 years ago. Then yesterday we returned to Lyon via Megève, which I had never visited; a bit too expensive and ostentatious even for me!

This morning I put Penny back on the train for London, and Maman and I have spent the day doing the washing. Tomorrow we go and spend the day with Maman's godmother in the country, about 1 1/2 hours from here, then Tuesday we leave to spend time with the Martins in Dordogne.

Thinking of you, wish you were here,

Lots of love,
Maman and Dad.

July 18, 2011

Sights from my Misty, Early Morning Run

A Kookaburra Saying Hello At Breakfast

From Wikipedia

Kookaburras (genus Dacelo) are large to very large (total length 28–42 cm/11–17 in) terrestrial kingfishers native to Australia and New Guinea, the name a loanword from Wiradjuri guuguubarra, which is onomatopoeic of its call. The single member of the genus Clytoceyx, though commonly referred to as the Shovel-billed Kookaburra, is not treated in this article.

Kookaburras are best known for their unmistakable call, which sounds uncannily like loud, echoing human laughter — good-natured, but rather hysterical, merriment in the case of the renowned Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae); and maniacal cackling in the case of the slightly smaller Blue-winged Kookaburra (D. leachii).

July 16, 2011

Sunset Over Brisbane

Looks Just LiKe Burger Kings


In the last two months, I've been to Los Angeles for vacation for 5 days, Kenya for work for 10 days, and NY over a weekend. I haven’t had time or the energy to update my blog, but here’s a little information on my trip to Australia.

6 hours from DC to LA.
14 hours from LA to Sydney and 1.5 hours from Sydney to Brisbane.

Brutal - makes me appreciate what my sister goes through to come visit us from Sydney twice a year.

Having finally collected our luggage in Brisbane, we arrive, exhausted, at the hotel at 10 am, only to be told that hotel check-in is at 2 pm. Sigh... The bunch of us (9 that arrived that day + 2 that had arrived a day before) pile our identical black suitcases and beige backpacks in a room and go to lunch at JoJo's, an Italian- inspired restaurant (but with curries and Thai food to boot). The inside is gaudy with modern, blue, neon, wire lighting and colored, life-sized status of Louis Armstrong and what looks to be Josephine Baker.

Then we split up and go on our merry way, some of us going to the water and other just strolling around the city. Brisbane is a bustling city with tall skyscrapers. Not terribly charming in terms of city landscape but the people seem diverse (in terms of nationalities, there's a good mix of Asians and Australians). It's really weird because I recognize at least 50 percent of the stores there - there seem to be a lot of chains, and most of them American: Target. (note the dot at the end, indicating that it's a little different from our Target), Starbucks, Body Shop (that one is British), 7/11, Ann Taylor Loft, Guess, etc... It's a little sad actually how chains seemed to be obliterating local businesses.

The next day, I go to the countryside for two days of preparation and briefing.  It looks remarkably like LA with its one-level cottage houses, palm trees, eccentric beach bums. But it's very hilly. There’s beautiful morning light.

That day, I learn Australian Military Slang:

Choco: part-time soldiers, reservists
Rockshow: a poorly managed group
Gumy and Goffers: junk food and soda
Have a durie: have a cigarette
Furphy: a tall story, a lie
Pouge (or POG): someone not involved in combat
Rat Pack: a ration pack, for 24 hours
Numpty: an individual who just doesn't get it

May 11, 2011

My First Mammogram

Because my job requires a very thorough physical evaluation, I got a mammogram. I must add that I'm about 7 years younger than the recommended age of when screening should start, be no matter.

A mammogram happens like this:

Step 1 - Stand in front of an X-ray machine. Nurse adjusts left breast on a lower plate, and then lowers upper plate as much as she can, effectively sandwiching the breast

Step 2 - Nurse takes X-ray

Step 3 - Nurse arranges left breast in same manner, but with machine now positionned diagonally

Step 4 - Nurse takes X-ray

Steps 5 - 8 - Repeat process again with right breast

While the nurse was tugging at my breast to arrange it just-so on the plate, I jokingly said "are you sure this isn't going to stretch my breast fibers and make them saggy?"

She responded "oh honey, you can't fight gravity, that'll happen anyways."

Oh vanity. What's wrong with me that I'm more concerned about my breast sagging than finding evidence of breast tumors?


May 09, 2011

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

"Rehabilitating" my house has been a whirlwind adventure of signing papers, calling my banks and lenders frequently, checking on my contractors and scheduling follow-up fixes to the renovation.

Thankfully, the largest projects are completed, and my timeline is now the following:

Year 1 (2010) - Complete Rehab of the House - status: complete

This has included removing carpets, restoring wooden floors, removing dropped ceiling and adding drywall, removing wood paneling from walls and smoothing plaster underneath, redoing roof and replacing joists, adding a second bathroom downstairs, redoing the upstairs bathroom, redoing the kitchen, knocking a wall between the kitchen and dining room, installing a large pantry, doing a heavy up on the electricity

Year 2 (2011) - Tending to the Garden - status: in progress

The front and back yards were composed exclusively of dandelions, onion grass and crab grass. So I had a landscaper removed everything and install sodding (see pictures below). It's a relatively cost effective option that temporarily "cosmetically" enhances the look of my yards.

Year 3 (2012) - Expanding Deck, Adding Attractive Fences and Sprucing Up the Garden - status: not started

Optimistically, I will be a lot richer in about a year and will be able to indulge in building a proper deck (the current one barely can hold a chair), putting up some privacy fencing (I now have a chainlink which makes me think of Dobermans for some reason) and making the garden look nicer. I've already signed up for the DC RiverSmart program which offers things such as free installation of rain barrels, design and planting of native species gardens, and installing permeable pavements to allow water to drain back to the garden. Given the general efficiency of DC services, I should be hearing from them next May 2012 (again, optimistically).

Year 4 (2013) - Possible Sale of House - status: not started

By 2013, I plan to sell my house for a million bucks. Hum, that may be a bit optimistic but there's always a chance inflation while skyrocket by then.

Backyard - Before

Rolled Up Sodding

Backyard - During, Phase 1

Backyard - During, Phase 2

Frontyard - Complete

You can also check out some pictures of what the yard looked like in April 2010 during the renovation of the house here. Warning: strong graphic contents of dead plants contained in the link.

April 02, 2011

Finally! My House Pictures Now!

A good friend of mine took these pictures of my house as it looks now (btw, he takes great pictures, go check out his website). I thought I would show you the "before" and "after" of my living room and kitchen:


The kitchen was split up into two rooms. I consolidated the kitchen in one room, and knocked down the wall between the small galley kitchen and the dining room to have more space.