Friday, October 30

Considering "Libertango"

I don't remember the first time I heard Astor Piazzolla's “Libertango.” Most likely it was on AccuRadio's Tango station, but it just blended into the background. Once they started playing it at Simply Dance milongas in a set with “El Tango de Roxanne” and definitely after I saw its music video produced for The Tango Dancer, or some such thing, the song confidently strode to position itself among my favorites of all time. Before I go any further, I make full disclosure that music is not my thing. I like a lot of it a lot, but I really lack the training to wholly appreciate it. I mix up harmony and melody and can say nothing about the influence of any one artist or composer upon another. Just so you know what to expect from the rest of this interlude from squeeing over Piazzolla and “Libertango.”

The opening is just marvelous. The piano makes a frantic rush. It's headlong. You can hear it stumbling over its own feet. Violin and bandoneon appear briefly but never to bring order until the violin breaks in and takes control after a minute of barely contained chaos. For a time, this incredible passion and energy has found an outlet, but it collapses into that chaotic energy once again at the end. It's a rush. You feel out of breath merely listening to it. Piazzolla may not have written the most danceable tangos, but who could resist this one?

All of which, understandably, would make me rather eager to hear other takes on this little masterpiece. I count the Yo-Yo Ma cover from his Piazzolla: Soul of Tango and Rodrigo Y Gabriela's take in Live: Manchester and Dublin among my collection. Unfortunately, neither really measures up to the original. Ma falls the farthest from the original. His may be the most famous in America due to its appearance in the aforementioned The Tango Dancer, or some such film, and by virtue of the fact he is Yo-Yo Ma, one of the few cellist the average American could name off-hand, but his “Libertango” is inert. It's as though he thought Piazzolla's composition was too fun and needed to be more boring. The frantic energy is reined in, replaced with a bandoneon that may as well be a metronome. By the time he is finished taking out the good bits, “Libertango” may as well be played at one of the balls those Bennett girls were so fond of. This may be unfair since the other versions I have of “Libertango” are live and not studio recorded, but I paid good money for this.

Rodrigo Y Gabriela manage the not difficult task of besting Yo-Yo Ma in covering this song, but they still are not within striking distance of the original. Strange as it is to say, especially for this duo, “Libertango” is too nice at the beginning. Their guitars very nicely share the stage with the visiting violinist. That's just not right here. “Libertango” is a struggle between instruments. The fight to take control of the song. They are definitely not sharing. It's only at the end that the Mexicans remember this and begin to perform a worthy successor to Piazzolla's original.

It pains me to write these things. Ma's Bach:The Cello Suites is a staggering work of heartbreaking genius and artistry and it absolutely tears me up that I won't be able to hear 11:11 until next year, but somehow they all managed to miss what made “Libertango” so great without really introducing a wholly alternative vision of it. I guess the part-to-whole fallacy is real.

Wednesday, October 28

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Kaplege

I have pictures of Kaplege that do a superior job of demonstrating her frantic insanity, but none of them involve her with arms full of corn and pieces of stalk sticking out of her mouth. Tough choice.

Kaplege is actually fully sponsored for Orphan, TEP and Medical, but if you would like to help out a kid a lot like her, click here.

Thursday, October 22

Considering The Brothers Karamazov

Call me a philistine, but I have never “got” Dostoevsky or understood his exalted place in the canon. I did almost certainly read Crime and Punishment when I was too young (i.e. 17) and I did lack a patient teacher to guide me through, but the elephantine tome mostly irritated me. Excluding the very fine first part leading up to the titular crime and the inspector's interviews with Raskolnikov which were attempts to produce a punishment, Crime was, for me, nothing more than some annoying guy changing his mind about whether to confess or not. He does it a lot. Sometimes several times within a single page, and that gets old when the book pushes 700 pages. Still, when Demetra brought along Dostoevsky's final work, The Brothers Karamazov, to Nakuru, I figured I ought to give him another shot. It was either that or read David Foster Wallace again. A month later, I can pretty safely say that I won't be reading The Idiot until the memories of Brothers fade.

That I didn't like Brothers is not to say that I didn't respect it. I do. It's an incredibly ambitious work. Its themes of good and evil and love and family and God and all the rest are more than relevant, and Dostoevsky's intelligent, sensitive treatment of them is original and has lost no urgency in the century since the book's publication. His portrayal of the devil as a “poor relative” is brilliant. Some of the stories contained within, like that of Zossima's conversion, are wonderful. It's just that these parts are not the whole. In between them are a lot of extended, boring monologues. Brothers would have been so much better without those. In fact, if Dostoevsky just dropped the narrative entirely and turned those best parts into short stories and essays, he would rise so much in my estimation. Ivan and Zossima's chapters of speeches are basically those already. Instead, he just has to keep writing and writing. And writing. And then throwing a few more words on the paper for good measure, just in case.

In the back of this Barnes & Noble Classics edition are a selection of quotes regarding Brothers, and one is from Nietzsche. It goes something like “Dostoevsky [is] the only psychologist, incidentally, from whom I had something to learn; he ranks among the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life.” I have a friend who agrees with this. I do not understand that at all. The allure of psychology, to me at least, has always been about has always been its mysteries and those parts which are beyond explanation. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, cannot help himself but to explain everything he mentions. Characters explain their motivations in depth and with complete honesty. Every character, no matter how minor, has a full background that does far more than drop hints as to the reasons for their present actions and feelings. Good grief, the writer can't even keep a secret for more than a chapter. I understand that he needs something to keep the readers engaged and eager for the next issue when the book is being published serially, but when the accused Dmitri reveals that one thing he promises to never reveal after just a chapter, it gets stupid immediately. In turn, the characters are boring. How could they be otherwise when everything about them is laid out, all neat and tidy, on the table? The whole psychology angle would also make a lot more sense to me if the characters actually acted like people and did things. Instead, they spend most of their time talking about themselves and their ideas. I guess this was before the concept of “Show, don't tell” was developed.

I want to like Brothers. I want to be cultured enough to honestly enjoy one of the medium's masters, but it is not happening on my ownsome. If you violently disagree and believe that I've lost the forest for the trees, please let me know. It's one of the less fun parts of being away from university. There aren't a terrible lot of people within walking distance to have this discussion with. Thank goodness then for the Internet.

Tuesday, October 20

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Nairobi adventures

Nairobi is not a tourist town. Which is rather unfortunate because that is where Demetra and I escape to when we need to really be away from work and the center and the kids. You see, you can't just lock the bedroom door and ignore people when they come knocking because they don't stop. Either they refuse to believe that we really aren't there and keep knocking, or they look through the considerable crack between the door and frame to prove it. They can be tenacious in this regard. Coming back from Nairobi last time we found an eye-sized hole poked through our plywood wall to give the children a wider view of our room and pretty definitive proof that we were not just not answering.

But I was talking about Nairobi and how it is not a prime tourist destination. Kenya itself may attract a significant number of tourists to Africa and they may land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, but they only stay in Nairobi long enough to board their safari buses. The city is too young, only founded in the mid-nineteenth century, to make walking through the different eras of development a joy like that of wandering through Paris or Istanbul. There isn't much for easily accessible culture either as museums and theaters and the like are in short supply. Really, the majority of cultural events are held by the Goethe Institut and Alliance Française, which are great for what they are and offer but when you are looking for something uniquely Kenyan, they leave you more than a little wanting. And I'm leaving the best for last. The capital's nickname is Nairobbery. Upon hearing that I walked the streets alone while Demetra spent the mornings working on her applications to med school, one of my fellow directors, the one who used to live there, sat straight up and asked, “Seriously? That's dangerous. You shouldn't do that.” This woman worked in one of the largest slums in world and was still scared of Nairobi's streets.

Not that she was entirely wrong in this belief. My mission on Saturday morning was to find City Stadium, home of Kenya's national team. Before leaving our hotel, I checked a city map and memorized the names of the major roads I would have to walk along. I know it's not the best plan, but it's worked for me in the past, and I'm too cheap to just buy my own. Anyway, it started well. I found Tom Mboya Street and the second no problem. Then my shoes come undone. It happens. I kick my foot up against a short fence and start tying. This man drops his ballpoint pen just a foot or two from me and goes to bend and reach out and pick it up so slowly that I finish the first foot and the second by the time he straightens back up. At this point, I kid you not, I think Are you kidding me? Couldn't you be just a little less obvious about this?

I start walking, and like I expected, he follows. I'm not worried about being mugged at this point. The streets are just too crowded. I'm not particularly concerned about pickpocketing either since I can still feel my wallet in my pocket. But I do not want this guy following me to a place I've never been to before. I push through thick crowds to put some distance between us. He walks faster. I walk near walls and cars to scrape him off when he pulls up to walk abreast of me. He walks right behind me. I make sudden stops when he's too close and goes past. He waits until I pass him again. I walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk so others knock into him. He pushes through. I run across a four-lane highway to scare him off. He follows even when I make eye contact to let him know I know what he's doing. I double back when I'm convinced that I missed my turn and lose him for a few moments, but when you stand three inches taller than the average Kenyan and have an explosion of red-blond hair, it doesn't take long for anyone to find you again. I may as well have a bounty of my head for how persistent he is.

I miss the the street to City Stadium again and decide to go take an alternative route that's approximately three times longer than the way I hope to go. It's not the best plan, but I don't want to keep walking the same three Nairobi city blocks looking for this street because it's going to look odd to anyone paying attention to me. It's a very stupid reason especially when it turns out this alternative route goes through Nairobi's industrial section and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds slim to isolated groups. Still, this guy does nothing, says nothing and makes no move to pull a knife or try to pick my pocket. I occasionally glance over at him. Everytime I find him reading something different. Once it's a loose page of The Daily Nation. Another time it's a child's lost school notebook. The edge of immediate fear dissolves, and I'm near convinced the guy is harmless, just mentally ill and means me no ill. By this point I know I'm walking generally in the right direction toward City Stadium but the right road still eludes me. I find a cake shop and ask the woman sweeping outside for directions. My companion looks up from the torn sheet of cardboard he's inspecting to repeat the question. She gives him a look but points me in right direction, the same way I was walking on. I thank her and we continue on, asking directions one or two more times until we find it. Mission accomplished after ninety minutes. Now I'm thirsty. I go into the Ukwala Supermarket and he follows me right inside, past the drink cooler and through the check-out. I manage to find the road I was originally looking for and follow it back to my hotel, making the return in a much brisker thirty minutes. My companion stops to pee along the road and greet some friends but sticks with me the rest of the way. Once we make it back to the district my hotel is in, I make some half-hearted attempts to lose him in some stores but ultimately just walk back in. He's only stopped at the security checkpoint on the second floor. He tells the guard he's with me, and I disagree. The guard believes me and sends my companion of the past two hours and ten-odd kilometers to the police. An atypical start to the day. The rest is more pedestrian and mostly involves eating or visiting Parliament and the Judiciary.

This wandering and those that preceded it have begun to form the foundations for plans for future visits to Nairobi. The aforementioned City Stadium is on this least for Kenya's final World Cup Qualifying match against Nigeria or the CECAFA football tournament. Carnivore is on the list as well. The restaurant's name may not be the most persuasive to this vegetarian, but I'm willing to ignore that for a night for a place which has twice been voted among the world's fifty best restaurants. Then there's the village market and Nairobi National Museum with its cheaper rates once my application for a resident alien card is processed. And when I get to the point where I can't stand the city anymore either, there's still Nairobi National Park. That ought to be enough to keep me busy for the next nine months or so.

Monday, October 19

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Kiptoo

Kiptoo's name is one of the first I learned. Mostly because he had a hernia that was really obvious when he was receiving his evening shower, but he had surgery this August to correct it and is totally recovered since then. Speaking of which, that's the sort of thing Medical sponsorships pay for. If you have the extra cash, please consider sponsoring one of our children and making sure they receive the care they need.

Wednesday, October 14

A Year (or Two) in Kenay: Further thoughts on bribes

It occurs to me that I forgot to mention something important in my earlier post on bribes. I would like to take this chance now to mention it because I find it unlikely anyone would realize this from the rather aggressive tone in took in that piece.

I don't think the people taking bribes are necessarily evil or bad in anyway. Yes, I am frustrated with and angry at them. When the request for the second bribe came in, politely described as fees necessary to cover the team's lunch and transportation and an allowance because they had to leave work for the afternoon to visit the center and make the recommendation, I had to take breaks by myself to avoid punching the contact straight in his lying mouth. But, if you put my back against the wall, I think the Children's Office and all of its members, both official and unofficial, with a finger in the pie want us to be a registered children's home, if for no other reason than that they would then have to figure out what to do with the hundred-odd children who suddenly found themselves without regular meals or beds if we were closed.

The problem is that they just see no problem in taking a little something for themselves while they're ensuring the children are cared for. After all, I am doing something good by protecting children whose parents abandoned or couldn't support them. Don't I deserve a little more for my good work? And it's not really taking anything away from the children when these wazungu run the center. They always have plenty of money. I assume those are the thoughts that allow the contact to keep a straight face when he says they need another 10,000 shillings. Because otherwise he and allow those he represents are just evil and are totally willing to take the food from children's mouths to buy themselves a new jacket.

Tuesday, October 13

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: Chepanga

Chepanga is not so cute as she once was. Yes, she still smiles a lot and has this incredible energy, but her two front teeth have grown back in. It makes a difference.

The Nakuru center received seven new sponsorships for both children and classes this month. Let's try and do better still this coming month.

Sunday, October 11

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The first three months

I'm not quite sure on what day to celebrate this three-month anniversary. I left the States on one day, arrived in Kenya the next and drove into Nakuru the day after that. Fortunately, a busy work schedule has solved this very minor dilemma for me by pushing the date of this post back until the three-month anniversary of my first full day in Nakuru.

In any case, happy three-month anniversary to me. I think it is high time for an accounting of that time.

A lot has happened since I wandered into IHF's Nakuru center bleary eyed, sleep deprived and severely jet lagged. Some of it's been good, some of it less good and all of it different. I've visited a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contracted malaria, been followed for hours through the streets of Nairobi, had food poisoning, stood watch over a captured cattle rustler, paid bribes, taught computer classes to children who have trouble with the concept of the laptop's tracking pad, applied for my resident alien card, watched a Kenya Premier League football match, hired two new directors, said goodbye to the director who trained me, managed my first international volunteer, taken some of the best pictures of my life, and had two breakdowns, not necessarily in that order. It's been a busy time, and the time, accordingly, has flown by. I find it very hard to believe that I have already very nearly spent the equivalent of a school term here and take this as a good sign. Were I miserable, I would expect the time to just crawl on its hands and knees and take far-too-frequent rest stops.

I've learned a lot, too. My Kiswahili has improved from hakuna to kidogo, and I now know the names and faces of about three-quarters of the children here. That's not bad.

They say call no man happy until he is dead. I would say call no IHF director's term of service successful until all the children have grown and gone on to become productive members of society and good people. Still, I am tempted to make a positive judgment of my time here. In the first place, no kids have died under my watch. That's a good start. In the second place, I'm happy. The hours may get long and the Children's Office may be a corrupt, but being able to make the kids smile does a lot to balance those and all the other problems out. I know that I will miss Kenya and Nakuru and the kids. That must mean a lot.

I have high hopes for the coming nine months. We are well settled in now, and the wanderlust has begun to set in. We have plans for day trips in more of Kenya's many national parks and long breaks in Mombasa, Uganda and Tanzania. We're getting it started off right with the arrival of Carol Sasaki, founder and very active president of IHF, in Nakuru tomorrow. Whee.

Thursday, October 8

Considering Tobias Wolff

I apologize in advance for the squee nature of this post. If I were given the ability to write like anyone, it would be Tobias Wolff. (Or C.S. Lewis, but seeing as how this post is about a particular contemporary American rather than a certain mid-twentieth-century Englishman, we'll ignore that for the present moment.) It's kind of hard not to jump up and down on my toes and extol the man's virtues at a rapid rate and in a high-pitched voice when he's attained that echelon of my respect.

I'm sure you would agree were you to read one of his short stories. The things are works of a true master. I have only had the pleasure of reading two of his short story collections, The Night in Question and In the Garden of North American Martyrs, and neither of his memoirs, but that is enough. Freak, “Bullet in the Brain” and “Powder,” two stories which are only 12 pages combined in my edition of The Night, would be enough alone to put him high on my list of all-time favorites alongside Oscar Wilde, Kurt Vonnegut and the aforementioned Lewis.

His stories are precise, but that word may be too weak. They enter you, and you don't even notice. Ever hear of the Subtle Knife? The blade so sharp it found the space between atoms? Wolff's prose is like that. It captures complex moods and characters in simple lines and a minimum of words.

“He would hit that note, and once he got her listening there was no telling what might happen, because all he really needed was words, and of words, Wiley knew, there was no end.”

That's from “The Life of the Body.” It's not my favorite, though it did pick up a Pushcart Prize in 1991, but what a beautiful line.

It only helps that there is such a developed moral dimension to Wolff's stories. I don't demand a nice, tidy lesson from my reading, but I do believe there is a difference between right and wrong and that this difference matters. Wolff does as well. His characters are forced to confront their fundamental self images, whether they are good or bad, brave or cowardly, loyal. They know that their choices reflect on them, and they care even if their decision is to abandon whatever is noble for lust or revenge. They know what they are losing, and their actions have consequences for themselves and those they never met. Consider the following from “Smorgasbord,” the first Wolff story I ever read.

“We're supposed to smile at the passions of the young and at what we recall of our own passions, as if they were no more than a series of sweet frauds we'd fooled ourselves with and then wised up to. Not only the passion of boys and girls for each other but the others, too—passion for justice, for doing right, for turning the world around. All these come in their time under our wintry smiles. Yet there was nothing foolish about what we felt. Nothing merely young. I just wasn't up to it. I let the light go out.”

Or this from “Two Boys and a Girl,” a story that demonstrates the false front of sarcasm better than anything else I have ever read.

There were reasons, and they were good reasons, but Gilbert could make no use of them. He knew that he would do what he was going to do... Reasons always came with a purpose, to give the appearance of a struggle between principle and desire. But there'd been no struggle. Principle had power only until you found what you had to have.”

Wolff may leave the narrative entirely to make these points, but it doesn't change the fact that he's right.

Were my back against a wall and some hater forced me at knifepoint to admit a weakness of Wolff, (and even that may not be enough. It would probably require a crowd of haters, or I would sooner make a desperate attempt to overpower them or scramble up the wall's bare face than answer that question.) it would be that his stories are too perfect. I know how stupid that sounds, but it's true. His stories are refined, burnished and polished to the nth degree. Not a single word is wasted. Not a single word is left out. Everything contributes to the whole, and nothing detracts from it. But his stories are about largely unexceptional people in situations that, while unique and unusual, are not terribly far-fetched. The choices they face are not so different from those we do, but our lives are rough and messy and incomplete and all the rest. To read a story that we could too easily picture ourselves in but is so smooth and clean and complete almost rings false. Almost. Like I said, the man is a master and does not allow us to dwell on this. There is just too much to be impressed by.

Wolff is old enough to have fought in Vietnam. I hope an awful lot that the man has a few more decades in him and gets a few more collections out before his death. I hope that you have the opportunity to this too.

Wednesday, October 7

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Bribes

A couple of weeks ago my grandparents warned me against being too cavalier in my descriptions of the Kenyan government's corruption. They are going to be so disappointed in me for this post. Their hearts are in the right place, and normally I would agree with them. People don't need me to reinforce how corrupt the government is when they can read a new investigative report every week in The Daily Nation or in annual indexes of screwed-up African governments, but these people have demanded exorbitant sums from a children's home. That kind of annoys me. And the district children's officer slapped around an orphan who walked from the Mau to Nakuru because he heard there were good homes here. I wasn't present for that, but I was told the reason was to discourage other orphans from coming to and overwhelming the city. He then put the kid into a cell until enough orphans were collected to make a drive back to the Mau worth it. That kind of really annoys me. For now, the abstract.

Bribes suck.

These two words may seem self evident and entirely natural in their relation to one another, but I'm not so sure. I think bribes have more than a hint of romanticism in the Western world. In American movies, the bribe is always smooth and performed solely by men in tailored suits. Bribes are the tucking of a roll of bills into the concierge's breast pocket. They are the line, “Could Mr. Franklin persuade you otherwise?” They are Captain Jack Sparrow dropping coins and suggesting the official forget the name. Cool, non? I think it's the sense of doing something dangerous, just a little illegal, that gives bribes this flair. Kind of like underage drinking.

Then again, all of those bribes are for preferential treatment, a little bonus for someone not to do their job to the fullest degree, but this is East Africa. I would single Kenya out, but apparently half of all surveyed East Africans have been forced to pay for government work that is legally free. Here they demand bribes just to do their jobs.

Here's how it works, at least in our case. If the official is stressing how they are protecting you, how they are doing you a favor because you have enemies in other parts of the government that would eagerly screw you over, but is still hanging back from making any promises, you ask if they would like some tea. Then you discuss your fee and a payment schedule. This may also occur through an intermediary. The official may demand that you hire an outside contractor to help you complete the paperwork. If you refuse to hire them, the official refuses to speak with you because they can't be bothered by your every little question. The point here is plausible deniability. Then the bribe is just part of the contractor's fees because they legally can ask for money to do their job, unlike those in the government.

For what it's worth, it's a streamlined process. There is only the one contact who distributes the bribe to every pig with a wrench in the system. There is no worrying about every single person making their own request. Not that it stops them from coming back for more. When the official asks that you go on without him and talks about nothing of importance, it's a big hint the last payment wasn't enough. That's when things get really difficult, but you pay it anyway because it's the only way to get more important things done.

Now I understand why the line to report acts of corruption wrapped around the block in Nairobi.

Maybe I just screwed myself and will be facing a deportation order by this evening, but I like to think for the moment that the audience of Spice of Life is exactly as small as I think. Of course, it is very possible this won't make a difference. I was mad and far less than diplomatic when speaking for two hours with the contact yesterday. If he wanted to, he could probably get my visa revoked. My only hope in this case is that he doesn't know my whole name, though I can't imagine there are too many Heinrichs in Kenya at the moment.

Sunday, October 4

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Weekly Kid: William and Ben

The one on the left is William. He's been at the center an even shorter time than I. His parents abandoned him, and the Children's Office placed him here. They promised it would only be temporary until they found a permanent home, but the next time the officer visited, he told us to go ahead with the paperwork to legally place him here. I'm kind of glad, though. The other children have accepted William, and he's awfully sweet.

The one on the right is Ben. I could probably scrap The Weekly Kid feature altogether and replace it with The Weekly Ben. The kid is absolutely adorable and good humored. He runs every where and can't speak but to shout. On rare occasions, I have seen him quiet but never crying, much less in a bad mood.

As always, if you have some extra money, please considering using it to sponsor one of the children. It will make them smile just like this.

Saturday, October 3

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Eating at the center

Meals at the center are not terribly exciting, as the weekly menu is fixed and dishes are on a tight rotation, but they are honestly Kenyan. When restaurants proudly declare their foods “authentically African,” these are the dishes they serve.

Breakfast is either tea, porridge or mandazi. For all the money I have sunk into loose leaf teas imported from every continent, I like to think that I have some right to call myself a connoisseur and would thus like to make some critically appropriate remark on the quality and taste of our morning brew, but that is frankly impossible. The Kenyans like their tea sweet. Really sweet. So sweet that it wouldn't take much more to make the drink the base for rock candy. This, in turn, is balanced the next day by a cup of porridge. It's called uji and is sour. I hear it is made from a blend of maize flour and millet. Imagine the taste as possible. Mandazi is the height of breakfast meals. It is a triangle of dough deep fried until puffed. Even though we have since begun buying it from cafés and street sellers whenever we feel peckish, Demetra and I still eagerly anticipate mandazi days. We even begin reminding each other how long until the next Tuesday and Saturday afternoon because there is no mandazi like straight-from-the-fry-oil fresh mandazi. Bananas and sweet potatoes make the occasional assist for a little more substance in the early morning.

Lunch rotates between three dishes: rice and beans, chapati and beans, and githeri. The first is exactly what it sounds like. Rice is cooked. Kidney beans are cooked. They are then combined. This is wonderful. I don't know if some spice packet is added when I'm not looking, but Demetra and I make a point of not missing lunch at the center these days unless absolutely necessary. Chapati and beans is similarly self descriptive. Chapati is cooked. Kidney beans are cooked. They are then combined. Chapati may take a bit more description though. Imagine white wheat flour combined with water and salt. Now imagine rolling said dough into a circle about five inches in diameter. Finally, imagine frying said circle until hot but not crispy. Chapati is fry bread, and the only menu item I suspect to not be authentically Kenyan. My guess is Indian. It is excellent though. It's a true pity that we have it only Fridays, but the cooks may appreciate that as it is so time intensive to prepare. Despite having the most exotic name, githeri is actually our least favorite lunch. Not because it's bad but because it's entirely bland. It's a thick stew of kidney beans and maize kernels, like corn kernels but about three times the size, and entirely without taste. Githeri has started moving up in my estimation since I bought chili sauce at the supermarket. Peptang Chili Sauce with Garlic makes everything better. Except tea. And porridge. And mandazi. A lot of things actually. But the general thrust of the statement still stands. Peptang Chili Sauce with Garlic does improve the flavor of a number of dishes, githeri among them.

Dinner is either ugali and cabbage or ugali and kale. Ugali is something like mashed potatoes in color but more like sweet bread in consistency. Those things are solid. Unfortunately, the maize flour that comprises it is completely bland. The only flavor comes from the vegetables which are cut thin and fried and served on the side. My preference used to be for cabbage as the kale was a bit bitter, but that has turned around with the arrival of the Peptang. It complements the kale so well. Kenyans absolutely love the ugali though. One of my fellow directors claims it has addictive properties, and one of the older girls has said she starts shaking if she doesn't have any for longer than a day.

I don't know if I'll be bringing these recipes back with me to the States, except maybe for the mandazi and chapati, but they've been different. I'm glad I've had the opportunity.

Now, I do eat out with some frequency, and the menus at the restaurants are more complete than that of the center, but that is a topic for another post.

Friday, October 2


I found this article through the deserving-of-far-more-hits-and-accolades Arts & Letters Daily. I like it. It treats small town America, the backdrop of my entire childhood and teenage years, with a degree of honesty and compassion that is all too rare when, as the writers note, most are all to willing to dismiss it as Red America or something akin to Lake Woebegone.

While I lack the training or background to say much anything of substance about Carr and Kefala's analysis of rural decline and their attendant solutions, their discussion of how the children of small towns are either pushed to leave for four-year colleges or move into full-time jobs immediately following graduation, if until then even, is spot on in my experience. At Lake of the Woods School you knew exactly who would be leaving for their bachelor's degrees and who would be going to community colleges and who would be working at the resorts for the rest of their lives. The ones who took algebra in the eighth grade were going places. Those who took Consumer Math weren't.

In the words of the article, I was an “achiever” and in the most dramatic possible way. The only thing less interesting than attending a Minnesotan university, in my high school mind, was attending a North Dakotan university, most of which were closer to my hometown than the best Minnesotan schools. I applied only to Gonzaga, Marquette and Ithaca, respectively located in Washington State, Wisconsin and New York, and ultimately chose Gonzaga, the school two time zones and over two day's hard driving away. It would have been difficult to get much farther away, and except for the Christmas break, I stayed away. In the past four years, I've probably spent more time in Germany, Kenya and even Indonesia than I have cumulatively in Minnesota. The last time I was in Baudette for any considerable length was the summer after freshman year when I came back to work at the local state park.

It's not that I hated growing up in Baudette, town of 1,000 and seat of Lake of the Woods County, only county in Minnesota without a stop light and proud of it. In a lot of ways, it was a good place to live. I learned patience from the hours of driving to cross-country, track and Knowledge Bowl meets. I could walk twenty minutes and see the Milky Way and Northern Lights on a clear night. I made good friends. Granted, there were problems, like a paucity of outlets for those with more esoteric interests, but no place if perfect. Beside, I like to think that the tight community kept me grounded and prevented my nerdier interests (*cough* Star Wars RPG *cough*) from completely overwhelming me.

Does that mean then that I hope to return and raise my own family there? Now that's an interesting question. The short answer is no. While has made Baudette's lack of a bookstore moot and the Internet in general has made it far less remote and isolated, I've gone to operas in Munich, visited photography galleries in Spokane and seen professional football in Nakuru. I like these things a lot, and say what you will about the Pequana Playhouse, Baudette will never have them. That's kind of a downer.

In my experience, the critical turn is this: in the cities the culture and amusement are provided for you. There are bands and venues and maybe even orchestras. There are artists in every medium. There are restaurants that claim flavors from every hemisphere and cinema with subtitles. If you want it, if you have the slightest, most passing interest in it, you can have it. In small towns, though, it's all up to you. There are high school sports and community theater. You're never just a member of the audience. You're engaged if you're involved at all, but you pay for it in diversity. The people share a common ancestry, but worse still, the same people are behind everything. Parades and fairs and every other special event begin to resemble one another because they are chaired and organized by the self-selected few every time.

By no means is Baudette a terrible place, but it is a very small place, and the world is a freaking huge place. I've wanted to see what else there is, and I have not yet begun to be bored by it. Give me a few more years, maybe a decade or two, and I may discover that Baudette is indeed one of the better places in the world and return, but that is a long way in the future still.