03 February 2012

Programming Update

 It turns out when you go to one of world's top failed states, you get Internet even less often than you get power (between 0 and 3 hours a day), and more specifically, none at all for the last week. Go figure, I guess. As such, I've sort of run into something of a backlog of Congo updates. I've some interesting experiences, and have things to say about them, though, so here's what I'm thinking: rather than try to summarize the last 2 weeks now, I'm going to just keep track of everything and then write the updates when I get back to the states. It'll be like you DVR'ed this web page, and then watched it all 3 weeks later. 


So I'll be back here with exciting news about what happened two weeks ago in a week or so. It'll be great, you'll see. And totally worth the wait. 

Jeremy, in absentia

Hi folks -

Kim here. I am hijacking the blog without permission just to offer you some tiny little Congo updates, since Jeremy is so incommunicado.

I got an email from Jeremy a few days after the last post with this information:
"We've now met the team of drillers. The main guy, ahundambi, was selected as the leader I believe by congolese folks in the e free church. He then selected 5 others to work with him. He did a good job, most of them have a mechanical or electrical training background of some kind, and they all seem to be pumped to be here.

Yesterday we finally started making material preparation to drill the well. There are a lot of preparations to make! Dig a pit, bring in thousands of gallons of water, make all the tools that aren't already here, etc. We'll spend all day doing that today, and then hopefully the next we'll drill the well, which should be done in one day. I hope so bc I am leaving for the hospital soon and won't be back for 5 days or so--I'd like to see them do it!"

Then, I got a 2 minute phone call last Sunday offering this information:
1) Uncle Jerry & co. were able to drill at least 1 well successfully.
2) Jeremy left almost immediately afterward to spend a week at a hospital in the region.
3) They have no internet there and phone calls are $5 a minute.

Since we're all waiting in suspense for Jeremy to emerge from silence, I thought I might as well pass on these little snippets in the meantime!

23 January 2012

Crossing into the Congo

 Part 1: The geology and geography of Congolese well drilling

We reached the Congo Saturday by ferrying across the Ubangi River in long canoes operated by helpful locals who will motor you across, and carry your baggage, and even kindly point at the only open chair so you know where to sit--all for a fee, of course. To get to the Elikya Center in Gemena, where we're drilling our well, requires an 8 hour journey to cover 250km of dirt roads in such poor shape...that it takes 8 hours (12 on a bad day, I'm told) to go 250km. Nine of us accomplished this task in an extended-cab truck by riding three in the front seat, three in the back seat, and three wedged on a wooden plank between all the luggage and the back of the cab. (The travel guide I write based on this experience (Lonely Planet's Guide to Congolese Well Drilling?) will note that for its leg-dangling room, breathtaking views, and cooling breezes, the wooden plank offers the best seats in the house by far, just bring sunscreen.)  

As we walked along the river bank, and while we rode in the canoe, and throughout the bumpy truck ride, Jerry observed the land. How the hills slope, how many rocks you see, the color of the dirt, how the ground handled a recent rain, how the roads are rutted and what that means about the soil or sand or clay directly beneath it, etc. "You see a lot of rocks along here," he notes nervously (well drilling happens around or, ideally, in the absence of rocks). "Looks like all swamp in here," much less nervously. I knew this was going to be a job requiring a fair amount of flexibility to account for all the unknowns, but as I listen to Jerry puzzle over the variables involved in getting this job done, I realize I'm about to take part in the most elaborate improv show I've ever seen. Jerry has never seen the drill rig or the pump we'll install other than in catalogs, never met anyone he'll be training other than the guy who will be interpreting, never so much as visited the country he's working in. And on the plane ride over we came to understand that we weren't sure exactly of the site, either. Jerry's been doing well drilling, in one capacity or another, for about 40 years, but still I'm amazed that he's not completely overwhelmed by the job. 

Part 2: Lessons in Lingala

The official language of the DRC is French, but here in the northwestern part of the country most people are more likely to speak Lingala, so the little French I've picked up along the way isn't particularly useful here. Not that it would have been, anyway, since my conversational phrases feel weirdly out of place here. "What do you do with your life?" "This." "Where are you from?" "Here."


But I generally enjoy learning bits of languages, and Lingala has been no exception. Instead of boring you with grammar or linguistic tidbits I found interesting, though, I'll share this, which I am concerned I might be stealing from The Poisonwood Bible (if I am, I read it like 5 years ago and this is totally accidental) :


Life in the Congo is tough. In order to survive you have to be resourceful, which can often mean seeing all 5 of the uses any item is capable of. Lingala is kind of the same: it's a relatively sparse language with only 1200 words to its name, but what it lacks in variety it more than makes up for in linguistic dexterity. Thus, just as yesterday's trash becomes tomorrow's soccer ball with a little bit of adjusting, Lingala's yesterday ("lobí") is also its tomorrow ("lobí")...you just need to change the context. 

Part 3: The psychology and theology of Congolese well drilling

"My feet are made of clay and they're expecting a miracle."


Jerry slumps down on the bed as he says this, rubbing his temples. We're getting ready for bed, and we've spent the day puzzling over how to best explain drilling and the hydrologic cycle and whatever else. For the first time I realize that Jerry is as intimidated and nervous about this project as I imagine I would be were I in his shoes. Probably more so, since he actually knows the challenges I'm only guessing at. 


To me, this trip seems possible because Jerry undertook it. He came all this way, so obviously he thinks it can be done. For me, he's sort of the "higher power" that makes this project feel like a thing that can obviously be accomplished. But Jerry can't be Jerry's higher power. So as he sits on his bed, feeling overwhelmed, we talk about e challenges we foresee, and we pray like crazy for the rest. 


20 January 2012

Bangui, Central African Republic

 So the well drilling part of our trip has been put temporarily on hold while we wait for our bags to make their trip to Africa. Since the flight from Paris to Bangui only comes once a week, we're hoping the luggage comes on a freight plane shipment today, bringing Jerry and me a change or 3 of clothes and (more importantly) several tools for the well. If those come today, we'll cross the Ubangi River by canoe Saturday, and then hop on a bus to head to Elikya, a little community center near Gemena. (Handy maps included for reference). I'll tell you a bit about that place when we get there, but for now, here's a bit from Bangui, where we are currently staying. 


Bangui is the capital of CAR, but with a population of 700,000 it doesn't feel unwieldy or very stressful at all. There are mostly dirt roads everywhere, the people are friendly, and I have only worried once that a car was going to run me over while walking on the side of the road. Electricity is on here for most of the day, with some scheduled and unscheduled lapses. I hear Bangui and the guest house we're staying in will feel like a vacation home compared to the setup at Elikya, so there's that. 


The smell memory I'll probably bring home with me from this part of the trip is the smell of fire. The second we walked off the plane we were greeted with the smell of burning and smoke. Most people around here burn their trash, and it seems like something's always smoldering somewhere nearby. The visuals I'll take will all be colored red, like the dirt on the streets and the thin dusting that covers almost everything else. 


Yesterday we went to the market. Lots of things to see and things to hear. Behold, I have a sight and a sound to share with you. Here's a picture of the market:



 And if I did this right, here's a link to the sounds: http://db.tt/tIfrCgzj

18 January 2012

In Transit

 I stood over my bags, preparing to zip up and head out the door for the airport. I paused briefly and considered putting a change of clothes in my carry-on, just in case. "Eh, who cares, really? If my bag gets lost (which it won't, duh), I can just wear the same clothes. It's dirty in Africa, so who cares, really?" I thought to myself. 


Having so decided, I confidently closed my bags, went to the airport, and landed in Bangui, Central African Republic, without my bag, which stayed behind in Paris. 


The good news, though, is that Jerry and I have safely arrived on this continent, and we only have an 8 hour or so bus ride to go before we're where we want to drill some water wells. 

16 January 2012

Congo Test Post

Yup, I am testing image uploads too

 Tomorrow morning I'm flying to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It's a three week trip, and I'm going to help my Uncle Jerry, who in addition to being a farmer from Western Nebraska has a long-standing tradition of traveling to places that need drinking water, sending a drill to that location, and then instead of simply drilling the well and leaving, trains locals on how to use the machinery while drilling the first well. Then he leaves the drill with them and they can drill more water wells. It's a pretty great system he (and my grandpa before him) have, and I'm really excited and petty proud to be partaking in this family tradition. 


Anyway, I guess there will be power and Internet access at least some of most days, so I'm going to try to post some updates and photos etc while I'm on the road. I'm hoping to do this in the most lightweight way possible, which means that right now what I'm really doing is writing a test post for this particular writing and photo uploading workflow that will not require a computer. Anyway, stay tuned, and if you know someone who would like to know about the trip, send the link on to them, too!


19 January 2010

of surgeons, snacks, and pee

yesterday, i had to use the restroom between surgeries. i asked a secretary person in the OR where the nearest facilities were, and she led me to a staff lounge, telling me there was one in there. i walked in to the lounge and found two people eating food and talking. i found the bathroom and, eh, did what people do in the bathroom, and when i walked out, the guy eating a salad said to me "you know, there are lots of bathrooms around here. [he named an alternative location.] it's ok if you use this one [he said this in a way that meant it was not ok if i use that one], but when there are people eating here....it's just...[a long pause to let you know something special was about to come from this man's mouth]...the smell of the urine, and the food...it just makes me want to put a knife to someone's throat. [he actually said, with no trace of irony or sarcasm]."

there are probably 500 completely appropriate responses to such a comment that would unfortunately be completely inappropriate, given the context and my status (none. no status) at the hospital. so i went with a response that would only seem sarcastic if you realized how ridiculous that guy's statement was. "wow," i said, GRAVELY, "i certainly hope you don't cut anyone's neck on behalf of my urine's smell!"

he sighed heavily, so that i'd better understand the burden he was carrying for my sake, and he said, "no, it's alright...it's just...you know."

so i laughed and left the room.

ugh, the OR!!!

08 January 2010

top albums of 2009

10 sonic youth, the eternal

i'll be the first to admit that this is here because i love sonic youth more than because i love every last second of this album. but here's the thing: no matter how many of the lyrics are dumb (but sung as though they're awesome) or how much the song "anti-orgasm" feels pretty much like it was assembled specifically to annoy, those guitars are still...THOSE GUITARS. and sonic youth is still uncannily adept at building discordant note on discordant note and then instantly turning on a dime into moments of grin-inducing or jaw-dropping loveliness. and they still make music that can be simultaneously described as "noise" and "fantastic". and thurston moore still sounds like the coolest guy ever. and i still love listening to whatever they put out. so there.

09 grizzly bear, veckatimest

i'm really ambivalent about this album. on the one hand, yes, it is probably the most carefully and flawlessly assembled, arranged, and executed album this year, and the harmonies and reverb and instrumentation are always interesting, but somehow it just never all becomes the sum all those parts seem to be building toward. it's a bit like meeting a really pretty girl who dresses in unique scarves and sweaters, and you imagine she must be really cool and interesting, but then you start talking to her and realize...there's not much more there. that's this album, for me. so why is it on my list? that's the thing--that boring but pretty girl is still very pretty. and in this analogy, this album is a very, very pretty girl. you could sit and listen to this girl talk about jersey shore for several hours before you realized you were bored to tears.

08 metric, fantasies

metric's collection of infectious synthpop songs buffed to a superglossy shine won my ear's affections all year by giving every song at least 30 seconds of greatness, whether in an unforgettable chorus, with a badass guitar lick, or with emily haines and her careful, whispy voice (finally delivered with more rock star cool than pop princess cutesiness). it's impossible to listen to this album and not walk away humming SOMETHING from "help i'm alive" or "sick muse" or "gimme sympathy" or "stadium love" or...well, you get the idea. compared to their previous work, fantasies feels more substantial and grown up, a bit more varied, and maybe a little more willing to get dirty.

07 califone, all of my friends are funeral singers

this is probably as much as i can like an album without being surprised in the least by it. califone is just consistently great: unique songwriting, and always imaginative and original production that is somehow both fresh and yet familiarly and distinctly califone. as on previous albums, the adjectives "rusty", "weary", and "dusty" will probably never be more applicable to a band making music in the 21st century, and while in some ways this album feels like a continuation of roots and crowns, this is hardly rote repetition. it's just that this band has found a way to explore new and interesting sounds by digging deeper down instead of always searching for new ground. and it seems the further they dig, the more gold and diamonds they find.

06 a sunny day in glasgow, ashes grammar

this album was a great surprise for me this year. i enjoyed ASDIG's debut in 2007, but after a few listens, i felt the reverb:song ratio was just a little too high, and it seemed like repeated listens left me less and less to enjoy. ashes grammar, however, is filled to the brim with great ideas (and yes, reverb) and the perfect blending of programmed beats with pop and rock that is often (OFTEN!) attempted but rarely done well. i'm sorry for this, because ugh, another loveless reference, but i feel like this album and MBV's classic have a lot in common. in particular, i've really enjoyed the way this is both a headphone and speakers album, and can be both background/ambient, almost study music, or at a louder volume, a really intense listening experience that demands a listener's complete attention. it sounds almost every time i hear it like there's more going on than i've noticed before, and the discovery process the last several months has been a very rewarding one indeed.

05 animal collective, merriweather post pavillion

i suppose this exposes me as having missed the boat on the greatest visionaries of our time, but i've found myself enjoying animal collective more and more the more accessible they become. i LOVE their harmonies, vocals, and melodies. i am less interested in the plinkings and bleeps of whatever electronics they're into this week. and this album showcases the best songwriting of AC's career while relying less on their experimental tendencies. the result this time is an album full of great music, and several songs i'll still be listening to when i'm 40. "my girls", "bluish", and "brother sport" in particular are pretty much masterpieces. there are a few songs that sort of drag for me, but every song has SOME moment of staggering immensity, like they're singing to me from the top of the grand canyon, and i never find myself wanting to skip ahead. just a really great album, and really 5 is probably too low for this album, but this was just a very good year for music.

04 phoenix, wolfgang amadeus phoenix

pop music: fun, sure. enjoyable, sounds great at a party. but how good can it really be? well, it can be this good. on very rare occasions, pop music can be this good. everything in this album--every acoustic guitar layered lightly in the back of the mix, each practically metronomic click and snap of the drums, every synth tone and note everywhere, and even every single gosh darn crack in thomas mars' voice--feel so perfectly placed that you'd swear it was all made by computers from the future if it didn't also sound so refreshingly organic and full of life. "lisztomania" and "1901" are the best possible versions of the incredible album opener some band you've never heard of and never hear from again occasionally comes up with, and "love like a sunset" is apparently just there to show you that these guys can make the slow-building ambient song some bands spend an entire career trying to write, as pretty much just a really long intro to ANOTHER super cool song. and that's just side 1! can you tell from my run-on and poorly worded sentences how much i like this album?!? (a lot! i like a lot!)

03 st. vincent, actor

i've heard lots of people call this music "dreamy", and that definitely fits. annie's guitar wizardry definitely often feels otherworldly, and this album often seems and sounds in particular like the kind of dream where everything is going along swimmingly as you walk through some fantastical forest, and then you discover a lovely little flower, which when you stoop to smell turns out to be one small part of an enormous monster that slowly rises above you and attempts to eat you. have you ever had that dream? no? well, the album always feels simultaneously beautiful and dangerous, lovely and disturbing, like at any moment some dark, distorted guitar could swoop in and turn everything into chaos. the songwriting here is stronger than marry me, as is the production and range of the songs. this is a fantastic second outing from ms. clark which somehow avoided being a personal disappointment despite my probably ridiculous expectations after her impressive and memorable debut.

02 antlers, hospice

a few months ago, my first patient died. she was in her mid-50's, and had watched for several years with her family as the cancer that began in her colon slowly advanced, winning battles against surgeries and chemotherapy and claiming more and more territory as it spread to her lungs and liver and brain. when she came to the emergency department the first time i saw her, she was so weak she struggled to swallow, and she was in so much pain that simply articulating the need for more pain medication required an immense effort of concentration and will. despite her obviously terminal condition, her family resisted beginning hospice care, which would have meant not pursuing further curative treatments, but would have also meant nurses coming to her house and keeping her comfortable instead of weekly emergency visits to the hospital to try once again to manage her pain and progressing organ failure. over the 2 weeks she was at the hospital, i was puzzled by the family's refusals until i sat with a resident as she carefully explained to the patient's daughter and mother that she was dying, that there was nothing medicine could do to heal her, and that the best we could offer was to ease her passing. the patient's mother listened quietly, and after a long pause, asked why a surgery that had been performed shortly after diagnosis hadn't worked. and suddenly i understood that even though she had witnessed her daughter's irreversible decline, and perhaps knew on some level beneath her denial that the fight was over, she just wasn't ready to face that fact, to admit defeat. hospice, to her, was a surrender she couldn't accept. we talked further, and as the four of us cried together, they came to understand and accept her death. a few days later the struggle was over, and we cried together again, the patient resting peacefully at last, released.

for me, hospice's story of a man's relationship with a cancer patient carries in its alternatively terrified and grieving lyrics and heartbroken vocals the heavy feeling of the hallway outside that patient's door, the lightness of the release of death, and the darkness of the room's drawn windows the morning my patient died. because every listen must be from beginning to end, and because it's such an experience of sadness and devastation, i've never listened so little to an album i love so much. but every time i do, its honesty, emotion, and beauty more than restore what it takes.

01 dirty projectors, bitte orca

i haven't ridden them all, so i can't say for sure, but i'm willing to bet that there's more stunning, surprising, and exciting twists and turns in the first minute of this album than in any roller coaster ever built. the labyrinthine song structures, and the virtuosic performances thereof, are worth the listen merely to map new sonic territory in your brain: "this, too, is possible!". but this is more than just a proof of concept--there are great songs here, with incredible hooks, soaring melodies, and some really good lyrics. most reviews i've read talk about this album as a cerebral, test-tubey sort of affair, and i guess i get what they're getting at, but if this is a science project, it's happening in the middle of a 3-ring circus, right between 4 motorcycles riding in the globe cage and the man taming the tiger with the chair and whip, and directly underneath the tightrope walker juggling 6 flaming torches while riding a unicycle. yes. that is the science project this album sounds like. regardless of all of that, this album was by far the most consistent, interesting, enjoyable record i heard all year, and it has proven very durable in the face of incessantly repeated listens. and as a bonus, i got to see them live and left even more blown away by the mastery that went into each every song. my favorite album of a year full of really great albums.