Friday, February 29, 2008

Conversations I have had, Pt. 2

Scene: I share a direct line to my office with two other colleagues. Recently we all got fancy cordless phones. Mine has worked fine, but my colleague Ben was having trouble with his, so he called in two repair technicians to fix the problem. They tested the line in my office and it was fine; they determined the problem was with the actual phone. However, they pressed some button and the phone suddenly worked fine. They declared the problem solved and went away. Yesterday they reappeared.

Technician 1: Hi, we’re back to fix the phone.

Me: The phone has been working fine since you were last here. I just made a phone call a few minutes ago.

Technician 1: No, it’s still broken. You need to use the other one. (Referring to the fixed handset model I was using before.)

Technician 2: Yes, you see the computer is causing the problem.

Me: But there is no more problem. The phone works.

Technician 1: Yes, it’s the computer that’s causing the problem.

Me: How is the computer causing the problem?

Technician 1: Interference.

Me: But the phone works fine.

I turn the phone on speaker mode and dial my cell phone to show it works. The call is completed without problems.

Technician 1, to Technician 2: Well, I guess it works okay.

Technician 2: Yes, I guess they should just use their own telephones.

Technician 1: I suppose it’s okay. (Now to me) Okay, please sign this paper saying I fixed the phone again today.

I look at the paper. It is an invoice written by hand on a scrap of paper about 6”x6”.

Me: Well, I’m not the one who ordered your services, so I can’t sign it. Also, the phone was working just fine.

Technician 1: Yes, but you have to pay for our services today.

Me: You should probably see the person who called for your services. Who called you?

Technician 1: No one. We are just following up.

At this point I just send them to Ben down the hall.

Just another day at the office

Band of goats hanging out in our parking lot.

Bonus feature: Smoke from burning trash in empty lot next to school (out of range of picture). Said empty lot is rumored to be either: a) new compound for the Chinese workers who have been contracted to remodel the school next door; or b)storage space for all the materials the Chinese will use to remodel the school.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Suddenly, Texas Democrats matter!

Any article about Texas politics is bound to be interesting, but I especially like this one because it focuses on the role of women.

It talks about Sissy Farenthold, former member of the Texas House of Prepresentative. My senior year of high school, I won third place in an essay contest about reform of the United Nations. All three of us winners happened from the same high school and have the same teacher (the excellent Wendall Zartman), so we all went together to the dinner where we were awarded our scholarships (mine was $500).

As they presented us, they mentioned where we were planning on going to college. After the emcee mentioned that I would be going to Vassar, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A woman handed me a card with the name Sissy Farenthold and a phone number printed on it, with "Vassar Alumna" handwritten underneath it. "Call me if you need anything," she whispered.

I said thank you and went back to listening to the program. During the break, Mr Zartman rushed over to me and said, "Leslie, do you know who that was?!" Since the two years of Texas history I took in school ended somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, I didn't know who she was and that she was an important person to know. I took the card home and showed my parents. They encouraged me to call her up, but I was too afraid and didn't know what to say to her so I let it lie. Many years later I regret it.

Finally, there is this commentary in the NYT about the sudden importance of Texas Democrats. Here the author describes watching the New Hampshire contest:
Naturally, we were a little testy, staring at that all-white scenery, hearing state residents complain about too many town hall meetings, too much news coverage, too much attention from candidates. Enough of that. At least their votes counted. With March 4 a distant speck in the snowstorm, we knew our primary votes would never matter.

Glad to see she was wrong. But as a Texan living overseas, my vote still won't matter. I have yet to receive my early voting ballot. Oh well.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Land wrongs (not land rights)

At work this week we are having a team-building workshop. It's an interesting workshop, if nothing else because we have gotten the opportunity to get to know each other in a way that doesn't have anything to do with budget management or signing paperwork. In one get-to-know-you exercise, we had to talk about something in our past that has had influence in our present lives. I was really struck by the story of one colleague. I'll call him Carlos (not his real name).

Carlos has worked for us for about 10 years, rising through the ranks. He's about my age, around 32. He's about to get married and in preparation, last year he decided to buy some land to eventually build a house on.

Buying land here is a very tricky, complicated process. To avoid any scams, he decided to buy the land through the municipal land office. He went with them to look at the property, signed all the necessary paperwork and gave them all the money. (Around $30,000.) A few weeks after buying the land, he went to check it out and start plotting out where he was going to build the house. To his surprise, he saw a construction crew there, laying cement. He asked what they were doing, and he discovered that the municipality had sold the land to someone else.

He went to the municipality to find out what had happened. It turns out that someone in the municipality had forgotten to file a piece of minor paperwork, so they put the property back on the market and sold it. Carlos was obviously upset, so he demanded to speak to the person's superior and get some answers. Apparently this was totally unreasonable, so they put him in jail. For 4 days.

Carlos's brother is a police officer, so he was able to influence a little and get Carlos out after the four days. After shelling out all that money for land (money which just disappeared) he couldn't afford to hire a lawyer. Luckily, he was able to find a public advocate who decided to take up his case.

The municipality refused to acknowledge the mistake and tried to put the blame on him. He asked for his money back and they refused to give it to him. Finally, the municipality offered to find him a similar plot of land and give it to him.

The story is pretty outrageous. But what impressed me the most was Carlos's reaction. Rather than be bitter about everything, he managed to put a positive spin on it. "Now maybe they will change their behavior, because word has gotten out about what happened. They won't be able to do it to others anymore"

Conversations I have had

Sometimes I'll be chatting with a friend from the States about about a conversation I've had here in Angola, and the friend will stop me and say, "WHAT?!' These are just some of those conversations that, to me, have become normal, but outside of Angola are bizarre.

Scene: Me walking to my boss' house on a Saturday for a day of work. Passing by an empty lot where a lot of poor families live.
Street kids: Amiga! Amiga!
Me: Amigos! Amigos!
Kids look at each other, shocked that I spoke to them.
One kid: Give me 50 Kwanza, amiga! (US$0.75)
Me: No, sorry. Nothing on me.
Same kid: But amiga, I'm hungry!
Me: I'm hungry too!
Kid: But you're so much fatter than we are!

Scene: An Angolan friend and I, talking.
Me: You know there is a new Chinese restaurant in Benguela. We should go.
Friend: Yeah, but you have to be careful, because if you eat too much Chinese food you could end up like this! (Make politically-incorrect Chinese eyes using his hands.)

Scene: At a party where the song "We Are the World" is playing
Me: Wow, I can't believe everyone knows this song. Do they know the story behind it?
Angolan Friend: Yeah, they made it to stop the famine in Ethiopia.
Angolan Friend: We got really excited when this song came out, because we thought after saving Ethiopia they would come, stop the war and save us. They never came.
(Background: This friend was forced to join the army right out of high school and fought in the war.)

Scene: Me coming into work after a late night of working. My colleague, Ben, knocks on my door.
Ben: Princess! Good morning. Is everything alright?
Me: Oh, I'm a little tired, but okay.
Ben: I can tell tell. Even from far away.
Me: Yes, I have a lot of work.
Ben: Even from far away you look very bad.
Me: Uh, thanks.
Ben: Really, really bad!

Friday, February 15, 2008

The instant Nescafe jar is a perfect touch...

Like just about every other Valentine’s Day I’ve had, this year’s was depressing. I absolutely recognize the commercial aspect of this invented holiday, but in general I feel pretty lonely in Angola so it just gets heightened on a day dedicated to love, even if it ain’t so genuine. It didn’t help that radio stations were playing cheesy love songs all day- there’s only so much Micahel Bolton I can handle.

There must have been a mood going around the office, because Elisabeth, our HR director, came by my office with these flowers. I wondered if I was giving off the sad vibe until I saw she had done the same for everyone in the office.

So it wasn’t such a bad day after all.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Basil Mania!

This is just ONE of my basil plants! You can also see a germanium hiding behind it all.

One frustrating thing about Lobito is the lack of spices and herbs available in the stores and markets. I’ve amassed a decent collection of spices from my trips to South Africa and the US. (You don’t know how much you need chili powder until you don’t have it!) Cilantro is available at certain times of the year, so I’ve taken to buying it in bulk when it’s available and putting it in the freezer. It works out pretty well, especially for soups.

When I was at home in September I decided to buy some herb seeds and grow fresh herbs at home. Apart from a Chia pet I had in college, I’ve never really grown anything. Feeling very smart, I got some dirt from my friend Mark and dumped about ½ the packet of basil seeds into the small pot. Within a few days they sprouted and I got very excited.

This all happened when my friend Mark and his girlfriend Dominga were staying with me for a bit. Mark used to run our agriculture projects, so I was eager to show off my new box-gardening skills. He looked at it and said, “So, how many of those did you put in there? How far apart did you space the seeds?” My enthusiasm gave way to panic as I realized I probably should have read the instructions before planting.

He explained that I would have to transplant the shoots into new pots, since the plant would kill each other if left them as they were. So I went out and bought even more pots. Mark was kind enough to give me more of his compost dirt. (Dirt is unbelievably hard to come by here.) Soon I had 6 pots of basil sprouting. Now the situation is somewhat out of control. I have more basil than I know what to do with! I’ve given one pot away to Bernie and Christina to lighten the load.

The great thing about Mark’s dirt is that it had all these other seeds in it. So now, besides basil, I have some germaniums and even tomato plants. I can’t wait to have tomatoes with basil from my own kitchen!

So, any other ideas of how I can use all this basil? I’m open to any suggestions that don’t involve fancy ingredients like parmesan. (Yes, I thought of pesto but there is no parmesan around, and all the recipes I’ve seen call for it.)

E para os que falam português, como é que se diz “basil”? Não faço idéia.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Oh, the saga of visas

This has nothing to do with this post, but it's a nice picture, isn't it? This is Willie's favorite spot to sit now.

Next week two of our colleagues from our regional office in Zambia are supposed to come and give us a training on project monitoring and evaluation. I should say, were supposed to, since it has since been canceled. Why? Visa problems, of course!

This training has been in the works for several months now. Our colleagues submitted their applications in early December and began the wait. Now, keep in mind that these are lowly, single-entry 30 day visas, not these crazy 2 year ones you get in the States, or even, God forbid, a work visa!!!

One of the guys leading the training used to work here in Angola and happened to befriend someone who used to work at the Angolan embassy in Zambia. This was great because he could help (by "help" I really mean help, not helpwink*wink*) in getting travel visas, usually just making sure they were at the top of the pile. Well, unfortunately they replaced the ambassador in Zambia, meaning that all old employees were transfered and the new ambassador installed ones that are probably his cousins.

The trainers were supposed to arrive in Luanda today (Friday). As early as two weeks ago, the staff were promising our colleagues that their visas were almost ready, just keep coming back. On Monday we all began to worry. On Wednesday, our colleague (the one who had worked in Angola) went to the embassy and was told that their passports were lost. Oops! Come back again the next day.

The next day he went back. This time the same guy was there, only stinking drunk. He said, "They're still lost! Come back tomorrow!" ("Tomorrow" meaning Friday, the day they were supposed to leave for Luanda.) My colleague stuck his head in the little window, pointed in the corner and said, "Are those two American passports right there ours?" Sure enough, they were. Except no work had been done on them at all since dropping them off in December. Ooops! It was too late at this point for anything to be done and the training was cancelled.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Another year...

On January 15 I turned 31. This was the second birthday I had in Angola and admitted was much better than the first. A few friends treated me to cake and drinks at a local bar. Best of all were the special cakes that Weni and Kadja made for me.



If I haven't been posting much, it's because of new internet restrictions at work. I rely on work almost exclusively for internet access. In the past it wasn't a problem but some of my colleagues have taken to downloading movies and, um, "graphic" materials, so Admin had to put a stop to it. Unfortunately that also put a stop to just about everything else, so I have either come in on the weekends, when the restrictions are lifted, or try from home with my very slow dial-up connection. (For the record, I do posting after I'm done for the day and it does violate any policies.) That and I've been very busy with work lately!