seek and find

Saturday, December 27, 2008


23 december 2008
One of my most prized reasons for joining the US Peace Corps was to find an appreciation for America, the appreciation my parents feel and the appreciation my Grandfather and Great Uncles fought for – pride in our country, in our Constitution, in us as the American People.
Because my generation has nothing to be proud of, we have no movement in which we conceived, ignited or participated, we have no drive to better the whole, only the individual. We’ll live on the street as long as we’re carrying an iPhone and an UsWeekly. Many don’t vote because we know “it just won’t matter anyway.” Many reiterate just what the newscasters spout and we wear tie-dye and drive VWs and listen to the StringCheeseIncident on our way to the bank where we have an account that has nothing to do with us, but our parents, whom we never thank.
Coming from a liberal school amongst a very conservative, very loud state, my thoughts were these: if I leave this lucky life of mine, filled with parental pampering and luck that seemingly won’t run out, with Whole Foods just around the corner and a flare for fashion, a government that has nothing to do with the people and a general sense of American stupidity reigning true and I go and move to a developing, 3rd world country, where, even if you are able to read and write, you cannot speak or put to paper sentiment such as this, if I go and have to eat with my hands and poop into a hole and live without electricity or communication or ease of any kind, I’ll probably come back and think America is the best.
Although many of those statements are factual, they are not the reason, as of yet, that I am prouder than ever to be an American.
Megan and Dan invited me to Segu, a slightly northern city with lots of culture, for Christmas, Pilli’s 27th and New Years. The three of us had been inseparable during training and the two of them were able to see each other, spend holidays and weekends together, while I was thrust out into the abyss of Western Mali. Although many of our friends have it much worse than us, for example, Dan and Cahill were both evacuated from their regions due Touraeg rebel attacks, the three of us suffered severe separation anxiety – mine consisting of the fear that I’d be totally left out of our little group after 3 months of solitude and theirs being a fear that I’d loose my mind out there in the bush. Lucky for me, we were all a little right and all a bit wrong.
I decided to take the early bus, set to leave Kita at 2 am, and make it from Bamako to Segu by 4pm the same day. 4 hours after our scheduled departure we finally left Kita on our way to Bamako. On the way we hit a donkey and a dog and had to rouse an elderly dugutigi (village chief) and formally apologize for both. Finally, upon arrival in Bamako, and literally just as we were deboarding, a woman vomited and it splashed all over my feet and legs. With the exception of the slaying of the donkey, a true tragedy in this country, everything else went just about right.
I bought my ticket, and with an accidental 4 hour layover in Bamako, found myself sitting amongst other travelers. Everyone at the bus station was black, and although there was a bit of shock and awe when I came, sat down and went through the traditional greetings, I was sort of hushed and their eyes went from my face to just above my hair. All eyes were fixed on the 8in TV set mounted just above my head. The current tv show was a special on Giant Lizards and the Women Who Love Them. Its hilarious to see their reactions to the gilamonsters feasting upon a horse-sized deer, blood and meat and grunts everywhere. Big eyed, drop jawed and breathing heavy, they watch as the French woman kisses the still bloody scales of her favorite’s head – a 7ft, 280lb lizard named Saul.
This is yet another reason for why, when called Toubabu (translation: Frenchman) I clarify that I’m from the USA and with that single, seemingly simple remark, we cover any number of traits, including the fact that I am a proud representative of the United States of America, that I am culturally sensitive to these people and that WE DO NOT KISS GIANT LIZARDS.
I immediately made friends and just as a rat the size of a large cat ran over a pile of rice sacks and near a very large trash pile smoldering with its soon to be firey destruction, the bloody, scale-ridden kiss fresh on our minds, we sat around and dished about just how disgusting the French can be and reiterating just how awesome America is.

pity party for one... please

Four hours of waiting went pretty fast. I found a lady who served rice with peanut butter sauce and pumpkin and after filling my belly for less than $0.45, I went in search of some potable water in the shithole that is Bamako.
There is a small group of folks who sit beneath umbrellas near the bus station, selling hibiscus juice, bananas, prepackaged and expired cookies, zippers, flip-flops, Sali-dagas and sacks of water. I quickly made the right friends with the woman vending and the man observing and bought a chilled sachet of water. They giggled and grinned as I sleepily stumbled through thank yous and farewells.
Just a few hours later, the bus now 3 hours late, I returned for two more, sensing the smog and smut that fills the Bamako air penetrating my lungs and drying my mouth. Maybe it was pity, maybe it was appreciation for my continued business, maybe it was out of friendship, she threw in two bananas.
Although I’m almost positive the former to be the true reason behind her charity, I am forcing myself to believe it was a compilation of the three: pity, appreciation and friendship. Even though it is nice to believe that I’ve still got that infamous “I can make a friend anywhere” charm, it irks me to think that I am pitied by a woman, sweat-less in this 110F heat, sitting on an overturned egg-crate, barefooted and toothless, selling sacks – not even bottles – of water from a filthy ice chest.
It put some perspective on my day, to say the least. And in the end, it irked me more to know, deep down, that irked me at all.

I smell a conundrum… or it could just be the open sewer.

noel nostalgia

Santa Looks Good in a BouBou
Its funny, being this far from home and our family gatherings and traditionally overplayed holiday tunes and hot cocoa. But because it is so foreign here, in the political, social and natural climate, I could easily have glided through this holiday season with no remorse or regret or American nostalgia, but instead with an aire of forgetfulness. I’d had to have stayed in my village for an entire month and not spoken a word to Ryan or my family and have taken down my ever important calendars and maybe a picture or two, and truly disillusioned myself, allthewhile knowing that those acts, the acts of separation, would drive me crazy any time of year. And so, I did not fake it. I did not try to ignore these times of family and love and togetherness and instead embraced my sadness and sought out my friends here, my hand selected family, and we celebrated togetherness under the guise of Noel Nostalgia.
One thing that helps pass these times with little trouble is the lack of gusto, of tinsel and of singing snowmen at shop corners. For that matter, the lack of shops and corners and legitimate streets helps to dissolve any holiday memories provoked by visual stimuli. Also, it was 115F on Christmas Eve and there were multiple dirt-devils that forced cars off streets and random pedestrians into said cars. That same day, while in Colorado, Ryan and Fish sought out sledding spots and my parents cooked a roast at Sky’s house where he was busy prepping his puppies for -7F.
Its all relative.
The pads of Zoe’s toes would be gathering painful ice balls if it weren’t for Mama’s skilled memory, knowing that Vaseline between and on those old lady pads helps to keep them moist, unchapped and icefree. Daddy is surely trying to budget and figure out how to get a fireplace in the Salida house while Skylar is budgeting and attempting to go boarding as often as possible. Snowtires have been switched out and chains are sitting in the trunks, awaiting their annual call to duty.
Ryan is wearing his red stocking cap and his beard is warming his face while his scarf snuggles his neck. Bubba is cursing the snows effect on the roads but praisining its presence on the slopes. Biglow is probably taken to cleaning up the office and Wyatt is surely enjoying the frequent trips to the bakery and Zoe’s old spot by the fire.
The morning news is being watched, not for the politics or stories warning of the inherent dangers of apple sauce, but for weather updates, highs and lows, fronts and closures.
Although economics are playing the coal in the stocking role, they aren’t disjointing families, friends or ruddy cheeked smiles.
Even from the sun soaked Sahel, I can feel the internal, innate, invariable warmth and joy of the holiday season. So although you’re layering the longjohns and flannel and sweaters and I’m soaking in the spf50, we’re all in this universally tough but beautiful time of year together and apart.
Thank You to Megan Pilli, Daniel Dayton and Jon Burgess. Thank You to Ryan O’brien, LeeAnn O’brien, Mohanta, Bob and Skylar. Thank You to Janna Thornberry. Thank You to family and friends. Happy Holidays

Sunday, December 21, 2008

blues amongst the reds

as you can tell, the holiday season is inciting a lot of nostalgia.
i promise there will be more stories of life here in mali soon to come.
bear with me. bare with me? i need a thesaurus. and a dictionary.

happy holidays.

perfection in parental form

19 December 2008
Today is Mama and Daddy’s wedding anniversary. They have been together for 35+ years. They have created a beautiful family, one filled with trials, tribulations, troubles, trips and as each one came upon us and passed, that beautiful family became better, stronger, fuller and closer.
I hope they know that Skylar and I are fully aware of this, of their creating, their coupling, their perfection found in mistakes and honest attempts and our follies and continued trials.
They are the most perfect parents. They balance each other, they balance us.
The four of us are unstoppable. The Fantastic Four. I cannot wait for us to be together again.
Happy Anniversary. I love you guys.

day 2 of Tabaski, day 4 of the Flu and day 152 of missing you

9 december 2008
Today is day 2 of SeliBa (tabaski), day 4 of my Flu and day 152 of desperately missing home, family and ease.
This time last year my life was not easy, far from it. I was fighting to find my self, a struggle one man witnessed and saved me from later on. We’d beet meeting up for casual four hour strolls, flooded with life discussions, trying to truthfully and attractively present ourselves, both holding back inner beauty we were unaware of and both knowing something strange and familiar was there – how, where, when? I was curious but guarded, respectfully questioning him situationally and he was lovely in explaining the rumored “man-in-a-homemade-van-down-by-the-river” story that I had pieced together.
I remember a specific night, one of our first of coffee sips, warm ups and walks. He had just found out that his father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. I interrupted that phone call and felt guilty for weeks. That same night he walked me home, distant but trying and attentive; he didn’t come inside and I found myself bawling, sleeping on the floor with Zoe moments later, exhausted by love that I knew nothing about.
Questioning myself, both physically and in personality, my parents and friends, Joe and Janna especially, wondering what was up. The mood swings, the crazies, the late night calls. They were adding up to a Sydney that no one recognized, even myself. I found solace and comfort and mental strength in my walks with Zoe. Once, trekking across the Chaffee County Courthouse yard, bleached by 4 inches of fresh snow, colored slightly by the early rising sun, we carelessly came upon a beautiful buck who upon raising his majestic head spotted us and casually stared. All frozen in warm stares, Zoe calm, the buck quiet and me, breathing, alive, able. Upon his swift, graceful departure, leaving only slight snow tracks and memories behind, we returned to the town, walking along the river to the park. There, smiling, glowing, loving, I found Ryan and his then one year old son, ruddy cheeked, playing in the snow – flying in the snow. Precious. Perfect.
With the early morning sight and connection, I had found a bit of my old self. Bold, fearless, I told him I was making some stew and asked if he’d care to join me for dinner. December 12, 2007, we ate, we laughed, we drove, we walked, we gazed, we touched and we kissed. We fell in love. One night. After green chili stew, a meteor shower and an 11 hour date.
Life isn’t easy, anywhere. It sure as hell isn’t here. It wasn’t there, nor was it in Austin. But it is made easier, happier, clearer, as I continue to remind myself: breathe, live, be able. It is made easier, happier, clearer with him – with Ryan. I miss him. But because of his presence in my life, I found me.

so, i live where!?!

1. A formation was held by a traveling Malian dance troupe in my tiny little village. They were attempting to encourage people to heavily treat well water or get their butts together, throw in 100 cfa here and there (+/- $0.30) and purchase a second pump. It began long after nightfall, under a dark blue, white pin tipped sky, heat lightening in the northern distance and a dry, cool breeze coming from the south. The area that they set up was circular, large and well lighted by spotlights - a phenomenon that caught more attention than their elaborate props.
Suddenly, without provocation, a strong backed, jet black, big hair’d woman flung herself out from behind a hanging tarp, hand held drums came about next, her feet burning holes in the dirt, their hands slapping the taught animal hide drums, beat after beat and beat beat. Dust came up from her feet like a smoke signal, her back straight and horizontal to the ground, the hairs on my neck rising with every flail – purposeful and seemingly painful – of her long, strong arms, and then, the drums smacked and she froze.
2. While riding my bike to my market town to see my friend and teammate Liza Clark, I came upon quite a few locals on the road. It was about 9am on a weekday, so the red dirt road was heavily trafficked by kids, three to a fixed gear steal bike, headed to junior high school, by men with axes, shot guns and tobacco headed to the fields and shoddy motorcycles piled high with 80lb sacks of rice, peanuts or millet.

One of those I passed by, greeted and grinned at was my host father, in a fabulous bright pink, oversized boubou with matching pants and 3 cattle at the end of his handmade rope. Later down the road, passed innumerous peanut and millet fields, I came upon a bull-drawn cart, with three women sitting in the back, fully garbed in traditional Muslim conservative dress, a man with a cowboy hat and 1930’s blazer, worn from sun and age and Sahel, with his son sitting next to him, wearing a shirt that read “Arizona RazorBacks 2012 Presidental Nomination”.
Minus the misprinted shirt, you would assume they were on the set of some western film playing on the theme of settlers…
The US Embassy representative that spoke with us before swear in said that, for those of us who would be living in small villages especially, we would be trying to maintain our 21st century, American lifestyle amongst people who haven’t fully escaped the 7th. I now know what he meant.

3. After handful after glorious handful of rice/corn mush with gritty, gooey, goodie leaf sauce and topped off with meat-juice (my host family, you see, cannot afford to eat the meat, but they can afford to swipe the juice in which the meat was cooked… “witamini be” – it has vitamins), I find that, night after night, I recline and watch black faces, white teeth and darkness for eyes are magically lit up, for my personal enjoyment. Dabi, my 2 year old best friend and loved one and youngest host brother, climbs up, lays his back on my belly and together we gaze at the stars. I’ve recently been able to ascertain what it is that he sees – white and black, lifeless, nothing. He sits, coos, snuggles in and we talk about Ryan and Fisher, names he’s finally able to mouth, and he, before dozing off in my arms, our breath in sync and his giant belly gurgling, he says, in Bambara, “good night Sydney, good night Ryan and good night Fisher” and a tear falls and he is out.

We lay there, under what I see to be white, black, blue, red, life, everything and I think to myself, in English “good afternoon Ryan and Fisher and Mama and Daddy and Sky.”

Its times like these, truly traditional, truly foreign, where I realize that I live in a small, traditional West African village. Its times like these where the hairs on my neck stand up and my stomach turns and my smile grows and tears form and fall and are fantastic.
It is times like these, a view into the past, a vision for the future, a swell of complete comfort, home and love and I realize I live in a small, traditional West African village. How wonderful.

white christmas, yea right. i'll take a cloud... just one, please

With the holidays upon us, Ryan and my First Anniversary, Fisher’s 2nd birthday and my parents thirty-something-nth anniversary, this was a really tough stint. The language is sitting in, but some mornings, after waking up at 2am to donkeys and 4am to the urge to pee and 6am to the sheep and roosters and dog fights and children crying and women working and me coughing (the winds have brought about some pretty serious colds, flus and red-sand-colored ick), its nearly impossible to be focused on the lingual stylings of Brigo country here in Mali.
That is, of course, until, I find myself grinning into the perfect face of a week old baby goat. Prancing amongst dirt and chickens or pouncing upon nothing; being precious and perfect and, strangely, a reminder that we’re all innocent and vulnerable and capable.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

blog schmog, haketo (sorry in bambara)

i just spent three solid weeks in village. a bit of a test of my abilities, my patience and my budget. although i
succeeded, i found that at around day 17, i was rendered useless by my plateauing language skills, my plateaued
patience level and the god forsaken heat of so called Cold Season.

Cold Season has daily highs in the 120s and evening lows in the 60s. needless to say, we're all sick and grumpy.
this is compounded by bush fires, filling the air with suit, and the big breezes coming from the Sahel, combating,
mid-air, the suit with sand. i've never been sweatier, dirtier or drier in my life.

these days i'm drinking, easily, 7 liters of water a day; trying desperately to sleep through the night - thanks to
Vickers' books, i'm having to trouble falling asleep (currently i'm knee deep in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom); and
doing home repairs like nobody's business.

now my mud huts and i have a 1.5 inch cement barrier between us, one that not only makes me visually calmer, but also
cools them off during the day, thus making my home the sanctuary it should be; my gwa or hangar was raised 3 feet
by my friend Madu and i am no longer suffering from neck strains trying to get from one hut to the other; goats
sleep in my nygen at night because it heats up during the day to produce an overnight oven and they tend to keep
the bugs out... not sure how that works, but it does; i've got lizards living in my kitchen hut and subsequently
less bugs; all and all, things are nice at home.

as you can tell, three weeks renders my imagination and memory somewhat useless as well.

i promise i'll keep better tabs of the goings on in village for my next update. pictures should be up soon too.

happy holidays.