Sunday, May 30

Two and a half months in Indonesia: The Weekly Kid: Seri Kasih

This would have been a more interesting picture had I taken it a week ago when I last visited Songan. I stayed about two hours in the village to observe a class and distribute the TEP money, and Seri Karish did not once take a pink scarf from her mouth. I guess she was sick or something.

So, if you are looking for a little way to make the world a better place now, please consider picking up a child's sponsorship. For no more than a dollar a day, you can pay for their education, their medicine or their daily needs. It makes a difference.

Thursday, May 27

Two and a half months in Indonesia: Traffic

I am not sure whether the traffic is worse in Bali or Kenya. To be sure, drivers in both nations proceed with an identical reckless abandon for their safety and those of others. Riding someone's bumper to get a headstart when trying to pass them and the two trucks ahead of them in a single go is common on these opposite ends of the Indian Ocean. It's even more exciting in Bali where the dominance of motorbikes mean one will pass a truck even though a motorbike is coming in because they can both safely fit in a single lane at the same time. Accidents were regular. I saw trucks on their sides on the roundabouts at least every two weeks, and in my one month in Bali, I've already seen one motorbike bite it on a turn and another graze a fellow rider.

So, to determine the relative safety of the roads in Bali and Kenya, one must look beyond the personalities of drivers to the roads themselves and their environs.

Road quality. Though all roads with the exception of the highway running from Nakuru to Nairobi are marked with potholes and rough enough that driving on the shoulder is a more comfortable alternative to the asphalt, I have to prefer those of Kenya to Bali. First, I am fairly certain there are single lanes on the American freeway wider than the two-lane road circling Bali. They like it narrow, and there is no shoulder, just a ditch. On the other side of the ditch the trees and homes and businesses are already pressing in. A free cow could be thrashing through the forest, and you would have no idea until hooves touched asphalt ten meters ahead of you because you couldn't see it through the flora a few seconds earlier. That may explain why the drivers are so fond of leaning on their horns and letting anyone know that they are coming through. The only times I remember it being clear on one side of the road are on the mountain switchbacks which just produce a whole other set of problems.

Safety equipment. It's generally ignored in both nations. I would estimate that somewhere around half of all motorbike riders and their passengers in Bali wear helmets, and the only times I remember people in matatus snapping shut their seatbelts were when we slowed at a police checkpoint. Indonesia does take this category, though, by virtue of its public transportation not forcing me into calming breath patterns. Any trip where the bottom of the matatu didn't fall out beneath my feet, a bare rod didn't tear my shirt or an overheated engine didn't melt my shoes was a good trip in Kenya.

So, in the absence of real research into the statistics of road fatalities and insurance claims, I claim it a tie. Actually, I think I'll give Kenya the slightest advantage. They don't have a roving motorbike gang who spray painted the anarchy symbol in pastel blues and purples on their white T-shirts and thus inspire other drivers to aim for them.

Wednesday, May 26

Two and a half months in Indonesia: Rice paddies

I feel bad for Kansas and Iowa and all those other states which effectively function as enormous corn and wheat fields. "America the Beautiful" may celebrate the amber waves of grain, but I understand spending the better part of a day driving along I-35 through a landscape decorated only with said waves and punctuated by the occasional period of a town and its exclamation point of a water tower can be rather difficult. That may be why people prefer they remain fly-over states.

Rice production in Bali, however, is absolutely celebrated to the point that its become part of the island's attraction. A voluntourist is staying at the center now, and she told us about her time in Ubud where she spent a few hours on a tour of the paddies. The guide told them all about the techniques and process and local superstition toward walking sunset. That's when the red lights appear. I just don't ever see the Nebraska State Tourism Board managing something like that.

Not that I blame Bali for taking advantage. The rice paddies are absolutely beautiful. It has something to do with the rest of the island's environment, I think. If you can see more than a hundred meters in any particular direction it means you're either on the ocean shore or nearing a mountain summit. It's almost claustrophobic how tight in the coconut palms and banana trees and other flora press in. But then you break through into a field of rice paddies and see the terraces climbing the mountain sides, it's something special.

It's the utter sameness of the mass farms that gets to those driving by, I think. It's the sense that so far as you can see behind you and so far as you can see ahead, there is no difference, the sense that you can fall asleep for two hours and wake up feeling that you have moved no farther ahead because the landscape is the same. This is not the case with rice paddies. They take their shape according to the contour of the mountain and every edge is defined by a line of long grass just wide enough for a single person to walk along to the next paddy down. Scrub trees dot these lines. At the occasional intersection a crude hut stands on stilts to give the farmers a break in the shade. Taut line are pulled across paddies with sheets of plastic and torn cloth tied on and blowing in the wind to keep away birds. So far as I can tell, there is no set season for planting and harvest. I have seen workers wading through the mud with hoes or pushing on cows with plows. I have seen them planting seedlings. I have seen them cutting and beating the long growth. I have seen the stubble patches and the fires lit on them. I have seen all of these stages from a single vantage point on a single day.

I hope this picture does something to capture their magnificence.

Sunday, May 16

Two and a half months in Indonesia: The Weekly Kid: Pikolih

Kid lives in Songan. It took all morning to drive their last on motorbike, and then we went straight up a mountain. That's hardcore. And uncomfortable.

As always, if you have a little extra money, maybe as a graduation gift or some such thing, please consider using it for a sponsorship and making a full education possible for someone else.

Friday, May 14

Considering Lorraine Heath's "A Duke Of Her Own" and Phillipa Ashley's "Decent Exposure"

A certain pattern can be discerned in my reading choices this past year. The gracious may call it a passion for the highest of the arts. The less gracious would aim more closely toward snobbery. The first six months were filling in gaps in my experience with the canon. A few hundred pages of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, about an equal amount of Borges and O'Connor, significantly less Mann. The last six months were trying to catch up on the contemporary scene. Names like Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum and Rebecca Curtis may not be as well known, but I found them by picking through the winners and runners-up of the past few years of some shorty-story collection contest.

The collected short fiction of Hemingway finally broke me. Somewhere around page 300 I couldn't take another scene of people drinking and being miserable. I needed a break. That break turned out to be Lorraine Heath's A Duke Of Her Own and Phillipa Ashley's Decent Exposure. They are grocery store soft-core porn at their pinnacle. Duke has the bare-chested, dark-haired beefcake exploding his blonde woman into ecstasy as she holds him from behind. Exposure has a blonde of Bratz-proportions, only replacing the melon head with a pin head, prancing across the cover with a calendar showcasing a bare-chested, dark-haired beefcake.

The similarities don't end with the covers. They open with fiercely independent women embarking on new projects and careers when their old lives don't live up to their expectations. Lady Louisa Wentworth becomes a chaperone to eligible society women. Emma Tremayne pitches a nude calendar to raise funds for the local mountain rescue team's new headquarters. Ironically, they could have had a much better title by having Emma pitch a bake sale. Anyone for Buttered Muffin? These bold life choices bring them in contact with men of clipped sentences and withheld backgrounds. Duke Hawkhurst is pledged to another woman but is redeemed by being a duke. Will Tennant left a woman at the altar but is redeemed but wanting to turn some lakeside real estate not into a resort but playground. From the beginning their public irritation with one another can be nothing but repressed lust. Heath and Ashley explain. "She did not stand out in a crowd, but she did manage to stand up to him, and he found that more intriguing than any physical characteristics she might possess." "Emma had to concede, even though it went against all her principles, that at six feet three, dark-haired and disgustingly handsome in a rugged, rough-edged kind of way, Will Tennant was the only one she'd have paid good money to see naked."

There are some misunderstandings, there are some revelations, there are some sex. Poorly written sex. "Raised up on an elbow, he leisurely allowed his heated gaze to roam over her flushed body like a gentle caress. She wanted to pull him down, ask him not to torture her so." Curse those gentle caresses. Curse them to the eternal inferno. "Accepted now, the brisk tenderness that was Will. Like now, as he freed her of the tight restraint of her bodice." I'm not entirely convinced women are writing these scenes. They read an awful lot more like a man singing the song of himself.

Then there are some more misunderstandings, some tears, some more revelations and finally a promise of eternal love.

Of course, that all is not even to begin to touch on the similarity that stands behind Duke and Exposure, propping them up and making their very existence possible. I am, of course, speaking of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. The characters, the story arc, there is not an original idea in the whole. Hawkhurst even has a younger sister of whom he is terribly fond. Why even bother complaining about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? People have been scamming on Austen for decades if not since the very publication of Northanger Abbey.

Sometime ago I proposed that higher education should make an effort to teach its students why the canon is the canon by placing it against garbage contemporary literature. This view has not changed. Duke and Exposure have only inspired my return to Hemingway.

Wednesday, May 12

Two and a half months in Indonesia: Generosity

I cannot remember a time I ever dealt well with overt generosity, the giving of unexpected gifts and offer of a few dollars or a meal or whatever. It's not that the offer made me feel small or inferior or any of that. It's that I always took it too easily. One in three times, maybe, an attempt at a declination before accepting the repeated offer. A few minutes, a few hours later I would feel guilty because I couldn't reciprocate. They have treated me kindly. I have not treated them as kindly.

Which does not make Indonesia the ideal place for me. These are some generous people. I walk by our cleaner's two-room home to ask a single question on the way to buy groceries, and he offers me fresh fruit. I wait any longer, and he brings out a full loaf of bread and single-serving cups of water. One of our teachers in a mountain villages stops by his home to pick up some supplies before we meet the students. I get full lunch and a month's worth of fresh chilies from their garden in that time. Even the people who don't know me. If I'm waiting to meet to meet someone for the first time but they just happen to be out for the moment but will will soon be returning, out come the friend bananas and tea and coffee. They don't even give me a chance to say no. They just appear with cups and plates in hand.

The reciprocity guilt goes double here because even on a stipend I make way more money than them and have way fewer expenses when I live at the center, and it freaks me out when they hand me a whole loaf of bread and any similarly sized mound of food. I pull of a bite or two when the one I'm waiting for arrives. Three minutes late we have our stuff figured out. Am I expected to finish the whole thing? No one's watching me.

So I get tricky. Last few times locals have visited the center I've offered them tea and coffee and popcorn. Only once have I seen it all finished, even in a little glass. I have my answer.

Sunday, May 9

Five year anniversary

Demetra says that she wouldn't be able to recognize herself from the person she was this time last year. We were graduating from Gonzaga then. It was before Bali, before Pokot, before Nakuru, before an awful lot. I agree but would push it even farther. I wouldn't know myself one year to the next going well back to high school. I started college. I lived in Munich for five months and traveled a not inconsiderable portion of Europe alone. I served at the House of Charity for one and a half years. Priorities shifted. Interests and tastes changed. New experiences were had. And that's really why I'm glad I started Spice of Life just a month before graduating from Lake of the Woods High School and kept it reasonably well maintained since then. It's allowed me to keep tabs on my life, on my growth.

So I'm glad to announce the five year anniversary of Spice of Life. In celebration I offer this list of my favorite posts from the past two years, the last time I looked back over this oeuvre.

Learning Argentine Tango: Astor Piazzolla's "Tango: Zero Hour"

I don't only dance the Argentine Tango. I like a little Salsa. I like a little Cha Cha. I like a little West Coast Swing. I never listen to those songs outside the dance floor, though. Tango I do listen to. Gotan Project, Hugo Diaz, Osvaldo Pugliese, Benito Calvez, Astor Piazzolla I listen to. Their compositions, their performances floor me. To move with them is something else.


I like to think that I chose to become a vegetarian for the right reasons. I like to think that so much that I shared with the greater public in a fairly permanent forum. I still agree with those reasons though they seem a bit sillier after my time in Kenya and seeing that butcheries were fairly common. To be more in line with the solidarity thought, maybe it would be more appropriate to move toward a highly limited meat stance instead of a no meat stance.

Considering "Outliers: The Story of Success"

Know what's more fun than writing about things you enjoy? Writing about things you abhor. Know how to make yourself superior? By taking down someone that so many others seem to think so well that they send every single one of his stupid, stupid books onto the best seller lists. It's such a cathartic hatred.

Considering "Fix" and "Kirschblüten - Hanami"

Thank everyone for the Spokane International Film Festival. No debate, the two best movies I saw in theaters in 2009.

More flash fiction

What? Someone enjoyed Christopher F. Heinrich's scribblings in fiction enough that they invited him to compete in an eight-person tournament? Oh yes. Just ignore the part where he went out in the first round.

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Bribes

It's less fun to write about things you hate when they are actively screwing over you and those you care for. I managed to avoid deportation, though. That's good.

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Fourth journey into Pokot

It's nice to think that it's simple. You give someone a few ladles full at a soup kitchen. You give someone else some scoops of maize flour and a quarter of a cabbage. They go through the line and say thank you. It's not always that way. You get through it.

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: White

Turns out racism sucks, even when a large portion of it involves getting sucked up to. Who'd have thought?

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Rugby

Turns out I enjoy rugby. Who'd have thought?

Nine and a half months in Kenya: Departure

Nine and a half months of the most different, challenging months in your life cannot help but matter to and change you. I fail but try to capture some of that here.

Please, if you have any favorite posts of your own, mention them and link to them in the comments. I'm always interested to hear what you has interested you and provoked the most thought and response.

Two and a half months in Indonesia: The Weekly Kid: Dewi


Actually, like most every Indonesian I've met so far, she has three names, and I'm really not sure which one is appropriate to call her by. One might be a surname, one might be a formal name, one might be a casual name, I have no idea. We're going to stick with Dewi for now.

Maybe you only just realized that it was Mother's Day and would like to get her something more meaningful and original than chocolates and flowers. Please give sponsorship more than a thought. It's a gift that lasts throughout the year as she will receive a picture and letter from the kid every month that the sponsorship lasts.

Thursday, May 6

"Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story"

A Nigerian author whom I'd never before heard of, talks (link courtesy of Katie's mom) about the importance of understanding that a person, a people, a nation, a continent, cannot be understood entirely through a single perspective. It's a simple message but an important one. We grow lazy too easily and forget that there are rich as well as poor, sick as well as healthy, good as well as bad in Africa and somehow fail to realize that Sudan is not Chad is not Morocco is not Kenya is not South Africa. Americans, I feel, should be particularly sensitive to this when we realize so clearly that New York is not Florida is not Texas is not California is not Alaska, but we make the mistake, too.

Now, we just need to read some more stories. Of the top 25 selling books within the 'African' category of 'World Literature' on, there are thirteen different writers. Five are Nigerian, four are South African, one is Kenyan, one is German, one is Australian and one is American.

Wednesday, May 5

Two and a half months in Indonesia: Waves

Three days now I have not once gone swimming in the Pacific since my arrival. I like to think there are good reasons for this. The first time an unexpected call from a friend in Germany went long. The third time we got back from Bangli village at sunset. The second time it was raining. In retrospect, that does not sound such a legitimate reason. What? Was I worried that I would get wet?

I made up for it all today. It was threatening rain again, and the wind was going as hard as I have seen on the island. The shore was higher than I had yet seen, and the waves were beating in. I paused on the shore to consider. The waves were large. They were cresting regularly. I didn't know the force crashing in. I didn't know the force pulling back. It could be dangerous.

Then I saw some local squat in maybe a foot of water for a quick bath. If a local could do that much, I could manage to go in all the way. I went back to the house to change.

I know I've swum in waves like these before. My memory may be exaggerating their size, but those coming in when the school band made its trip to Florida were worthy of note. My memory did not exaggerate their thrill. We rode The Incredible Hulk and all those on the trip. They didn't compare in the least to the Atlantic Ocean, and they don't compare either to the Pacific Ocean. To watch a wave twice your height coming in, to feel the water pull away until what once covered your knees is now only at your ankles, to stagger up and have just time for a swallow before the next comes in, those are exciting.

Rush forward a few feet to catch it before it crests and be gently pushed along. Take a few steps back and feel it crash down on you. Turn your shoulder into it and plant your feet to try and withstand it. If the wave doesn't, the current pulling back from the shore does knock you. The small waves I jump just to say I can. The large ones I dive under and through. For a blink I feel that I have cheated the water this time, and then it all comes down on the small of my back.

I have a bruise on my right shoulder and cuts where the wave drove me into the sandy bottom. I should have more. I was lucky. This ocean can do better.

Tuesday, May 4

Two and a half months in Indonesia: The rain

It rains a lot in Bali. Or I could just be a wimp. I'd have to check on that with my friends from Seattle or who spent a term at Oxford or who have lived on a coast. It was raining the day I arrived. It proceeded to rain at least once a day for the rest of the week. Then it took a turn for the sunny for the next. We've come back around to the rain for the past three days.

We get the whole range of rain's textures and depths in Bali. There is the drizzle where you hardly even realize it's raining until it comes to your attention that your shirt is a bit darker in color and a bit heavier than when you left the house. The sweat from a good 5k gets you more wet than a drizzle. There is the drip where the water manages to band together for a few good drops that, again, aren't enough to get you really wet but are enough to make it look like you struggle with getting the water from the cup into your mouth. There are the sheets. The rain comes down with a density and speed that you know even the potent combination of umbrella and raincoat are not sufficient to keep the wet out. I even saw lighting during today's sheets. No thunder, but there most certainly was a flash.

Sheets are not uncommon, and they do a pretty effective job of holding up all traffic while coming down as most people here ride motorbikes. They've adapted. When the rain starts coming in and a poncho isn't enough, they head for the nearest house. Doesn't matter if they know who it is. They just go and are welcomed. I went to a village about an hour outside the center to take care of some work for sponsorships. About halfway through the drips started. Not a minute after I took the last picture it turned into sheets. They let us hang out in their house for the next hour or so. It happened in Jakarta, too. I had gone into the neighborhood with the kids and other volunteers to deliver some fliers for the next month worth of classes when the sheets came. Kids got us into some house. I don't think they knew them at all because no one was talking, but they brought us tea while we waited another hour or two.

It's different. I can't imagine it ever happening in the United States. Even if you weren't getting around by car and totally ensconced against the rain, your first choice would probably be to duck into a bookstore or gas station or whatever. Doesn't really work here. Not nearly so bad as Kenya, but most stores here are little more than holes in the wall. Not a terrible lot of shelves and racks to browse before the owners start getting frustrated, but they would probably have no problem with me in their house. It's different.

Monday, May 3

Two and a half months in Indonesia: The Weekly Kid: Ramadhan

I know nothing about the kid except that he really likes Naruto. The letter to his sponsor is covered with Naruto fighting the kid in blue and that swirly ninja symbol. Still, he and others like him deserve a sponsor. If you have a little extra money, maybe as a graduation gift, please consider using it to pick up a sponsorship.

Sunday, May 2

Considering "An Anthology of East African Short Stories"

One of my regrets following my five months in Munich was that I never really indulged in the culture. Okay, I did make it to all of the Pinakotheken (der Moderne thrice) and went to the opera (thrice), but the only music I listened to was the stuff Molly enjoyed enough at the pubs to find on YouTube, and I only went into bookstores long enough to buy texts for classes and Schiller for my grandparents. I didn't even take the literature class offered by Junior Year in Munich. Terrible, I know. I wanted to come back from Germany and be able to speak mildly intelligently about its culture and current. Had anyone asked me, the best I could have managed would have been, "The Englischer Garten was nice." It's a disappointment that I have never totally successfully purged from myself.

Coming in, I knew I would have more than twice that time in Kenya. I did not intend on making that mistake once again. Didn't really matter. Kenyan culture in the snobbish, highbrow sense, doesn't really exist. It doesn't even much exist in the pop sense. It's understandable, I guess. When money for discretionary spending is not exactly plentiful, and when your market is flooded with knock-offs and copies from the Western world and doing just fine, that isn't much of an incentive to start creating original work.

Sure, there is some Kenyan music. Mostly atrocious rap and gospel that makes me wince when I'm not doubled over in pain from it. There is benga, derived from Luo instruments and melodies. That's a Kenyan original. Strain yourself to the limit and imagine dumbed-down reggae. Benga is not exactly my favorite.

Thus the burden fell to literature to carry the torch of the Kenyan highbrow. I only picked up An Anthology of East African Short Stories, collected and edited by Valeria Kibera, on one of my last trips into Nairobi, and I didn't finish reading it until the week before I left. Now I know why Kenyan and East African literature is pretty well unknown in the States. It's not very good. Pretty terrible most of the time, in fact.

Consider this line from Jonathan Kariara's "Karoki." "He was a ridiculous little man, and Wahome, and the world, had a right to laught [sic] at him. A fit of laughter caught him, his neck muscles welled up with laughter and he spluttered as he saw himself for what he was." Clichés and bizarre imagery are, sadly, not unique to this story. Bernard Mgui Wagacha writes in "Who Am I?" "Now to be compared to my mother in cowardice is a serious insult to me. I rush at that spittle and rub it off furiously - and thus throw down the gauntlet."

Neither is the dedicated march to the theme and urgent need to bring everyone else along and make sure that they do not deviate from the course. Leonard Kibera wants you to be clear that executions invite mobs of spectators at a loss of their own humanity. "We, the brave men, seemed to drop our heads down in chorus and pressed together. With shame? Even that I cannot tell. But I found myself moving away - backing out? - towards home, tail between my legs." The feeling of hand holding is only drawn further out the editor herself as follows every story with a series of exercises that question the symbolism of certain acts and characters and prompts you to imagine yourself in the narrator's position.

It's really quite unfortunate because there is some great potential in these stories. Take the first paragraph of "Karoki."

"He was losing his teeth. His two front ones had grown alarmingly long of late, narrowing down almost to a point where they emerged from the pale gum. Now one had dropped off; the other, still standing, distorted the face slightly to the left. Looking at him you felt as if he had received a vicious slap to across the left cheek, a terrible slap which had made him wince, contracting his facial muscles to one side, and that somehow the face had not relaxed from the blow."

Not to say there are no good stories at all. One of the best of the anthology is Sadrudin Kassam's "Kingi," where the young narrator is drawn into the home of a pied piper. Interestingly, Kassam and his narrator are ethnically Indian. It's a story of the outsider's fascination with his home and its people, his parents' fear of it, and the man's obscure intentions.

Straight up, though, the best stories in the collection are by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Not surprisingly, he is also the only Kenyan whose writing is known and published in the West. In a sense, his stories in this collection are stereotypes of what one would expect from Kenyan writers. "The Return" is about a young man returning to his tribal village, freed from a detention camp during Mau Mau. "A Mercedes Funeral" is a microcosm of the possibilities available to Kenya following independence and how it all was squandered and eventually forgotten. They are very Kenyan stories in the sense that writing about the fall of the Berlin Wall is very German and about Escobar is very Colombian. If you have any passing knowledge of these nations, you know of them.

It makes me uncomfortable in a way. I absolutely respect Thiong'o's skill with words. He knows how to pace a story as the narrator of "A Mercedes Funeral" pauses his story to order another round. He can weave words together. He can understate things and slow burn them. I also acknowledge that detention during Mau Mau and the trajectory of Kenya following Kenya are immensely important to Thiong'o, and that national events like these have a place in literature. War and Peace contains the Napoleonic Wars. What bothers me is that he is the most famous Kenyan author, if not all of East Africa, that may be in due in so small part to the fact that he writes about things you would expect an African to write. It's like the West is desperate to prove that they can appreciate a real African writer and that they're totally open minded toward his African stories. It's like having a token black friend and always reminding your other friends that he can speak in ebonics and is really black. Would Thiong'o be as famous if he had preferred to write domestic dramas? I fear not. As this quote I pulled from Wikipedia which had pulled it in turn from The East African Standard says, "... it is very difficult for writers like Meja Mwangi, Francis D. Imbuga and Jared Angira to enjoy Ngugi's prominence, because the paths they have chosen are smaller. They do not directly draw from history."

It's unfortunate that these three and maybe another two or three are the only stories I have any interest in returning to later out of some eighteen. I picked up two novels before I left: Thiong'o's Petals of Blood and Mwangi's The Cockroach Dance. Maybe Kenyans are better at the long form. I can only hope.