Friday, October 28, 2011

Don't Ya Wanna?

I wrote a short article for this month's Burkina Faso's Peace Corps newsletter, warning on the dangers of drinking soda:

I wish I had been tricked by a criminal mastermind; It would be less embarrassing if I was able to say “I couldn’t have done anything to stop it.” Unfortunately, what happened was completely preventable.

In case you didn’t hear the (completely true) rumor that I got drugged and robbed, let me explain. I was on my way to Ouaga for the 50th anniversary fair on a bus from Fada. An old man sat next to me, and we chatted for a little. When we were stopped at a checkpoint for a few minutes, he tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a Fanta. I wasn’t thirsty and thought he was just being nice, so I said no. He insisted and placed it into my hand. There was weird white fizzing and powder inside and the cap wasn’t screwed on. I asked the guy about it and he said it was just the chemicals inside. Which is a stupid explanation, but not as stupid as my response: drinking a little of the Fanta to be polite.

I woke up a few hours later in a bus station in Ouaga, lacking not only the ability to think and walk straight, but also my wallet. I don’t recall much of the next day, but I’m extremely grateful to the PCVs and Med Unit staff that came to my aid.

I’m fine now, and although it seems like the moral of this story is: “John has no street smarts”, I thought it was worth telling for a few reasons. First off, since Burkina seems really safe most of the time, it’s easy to get complacent. Like everywhere in the world, bad things can happen if you aren’t careful. Secondly, it’s ok to be impolite - especially if the situation is sketchy. I should have forcefully said “no!” but instead I let myself get led into a trap.

We all learned it as kids, but apparently I wasn’t paying close attention: “Don’t take candy (or Fanta) from strangers!”

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Read it and weep!

Sand. Sand. Sandwich.
Sandwich and a half.
Moo. Moo. Moo-cow.
Man, you make me laugh.

For me, a big part of being a Peace Corps volunteer is passing milestones. 1 week in country. 1 month in country. 3 months without pooping one’s pants. And so on. However, there comes a magical time in every volunteer’s service where a paradigm shift occurs; instead of counting up, we count down. I used to always know exactly how many months I’d been in the country. Now, I know exactly how many I have left. That isn’t to say that I’m ready to leave or something, but time is just viewed through a different lens.

Sample conversation from a year ago:

Other volunteer: I’m having a really rough time right now adjusting to Burkina and I’m surprised I miss my family this much.
Me: That’s nice. I haven’t had Chipotle in 5 months and 4 days!

Sample conversation from now:

Other volunteer: I feel like I have so little time to finish all the projects I’ve started; it’s very daunting. I’m also really unsure on what I want to do with the rest of my life after Peace Corps.
Me: That’s nice. I’m going to have Chipotle in 10 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days.

Yes, things have really changed.

So, what else is new? Well, I really don’t remember the last time I posted a blog. If I had to make a guess, I’d say it was around the end of July. As such, I should probably describe August.

August was 31 days this year and came before September. I was kept busy the whole month in Ouagadougou at the American Language Center, which is a center run by the US Embassy to promote learning English. There were 7 volunteers working as teacher/camp counselors for an English summer school session.

Most of our job was handling the fun side of things. For example: We taught English songs to the kids, and each week they performed the songs as a sing-a-long/lip sync competition. One week we made them reach back into ancient history and perform Michael Jackson songs. It was great. Other activities included: watching American movies, performing skits in English, making life plans, and writing poems.

I should say that teaching in Ouaga was very different than teaching in my home village of [illegible]. The kids were certainly more well to do. Some of them had netbooks they brought into class, and teachers had to remind students to silence their cellphones. This is a far cry from village, where I have to ask people to silence their donkeys.

Man, do I hate donkeys. Their gosh-flarming hee-haws are so gosh darn loud and… actually, I think I already mentioned this in a previous post. But yeah, F donkeys.

Getting to know Ouaga over the month was cool too. Mostly for the food… Volunteers in Burkina have a very complicated and somewhat sophisticated method for naming the better restaurants in Ouaga. I’ll try to explain it here: The [ethnicity] Restaurant. So, the highlights of the month were going to The Ethiopian Restaurant, The Indian Restaurant, and The Chinese Restaurant. Breaking convention slightly, there is also The New Ice Cream Place, which is almost like being at a 31 flavors. Almost.

What’s up in the near future?

Well, school starts up the first week of October. Before that, I’ve got to get my butt back to Ouaga to perform my much hyped Moringa Song for the Peace Corp’s 50th anniversary fair. Hopefully a related video will be released this month so you can learn more about moringa while simultaneously basking in my awesome glow. I may even make a blog post to promote it.

But until then, this is your favorite Peace Corps volunteer (who will be eating a chipotle burrito in 10 short months!) signing off.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Future

This blog post is about my future, but not in the boring way. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you my hopes and dreams for life back in the states (Even though you might find the part where I lightsaber duel the Xenomorph queen interesting). No, instead I will tell you what will, without a doubt, happen to me based on scientific research. Yep, I got my fortune read.

I know what you’re thinking: “Fortune telling is nonsense. Next you’ll be telling me you believe in fairies, the Loch Ness monster, and climate change!” And I hear you, because I’m a skeptic as well. But this isn’t gypsy/crystal-ball/basement-of-the-Alamo style fortune telling, it’s based on science… and the sands of time.

My region of Burkina Faso is known for its sand readers. The basic theory is that people are born out of the earth/sand, and we return to the sand, so within the sand lies both past and future. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But not just anyone can read the sands – it takes a gift AND years of training to be able to read the sands and interpret their meanings. However, most people would agree that seeing into the future is a pretty sweet superhero power, so it’s worth the effort.

I was well aware of this region’s reputation for sand reading prowess when I found out what my site was, but I just hadn’t gotten around to it – until last weekend. Joey, who lives in a town nearby, has made friends with a sand reader so when I went up last weekend to visit, we decided to get our sands read.

I should mention that this particular reader had a streak of accurate predictions going. A group of Peace Corps trainees had seen him recently, and, without going into to much detail, he shook some people up. So, while I went in with healthy skepticism…it’s hard not to have a 1% doubt at the back of your mind. Especially at night in the middle of nowhere.

So here’s how it goes: First, the reader has to make sure the sands are talking today. Certain days the sands say nothing, and sometimes they say quite a lot. Luckily, the sands were talking when we arrived. Once that is settled, the fellow has you place your hand in the sand and then ask a question in your heart. Once you’re done, he starts drawing patterns into the same sand and counting things off. It apparently has some math behind it….but who knows? Anyhow, at some point he looks up and asks you what you want to ask the sand. He will then let you know what the sand says, and follow up by drawing more little diagrams and then elaborating on what the sands see. He is very clear that it is the sand talking, not him. Afterwards, you can ask him more questions on the same topic OR other topics, in which case he’ll start the process over.

Alright, so enough fooling around. What’s my future? Well, first off, I promised another volunteer that I would ask how our relationship would turn out. Previously, the sands have let volunteers know if they are being cheated on, who they are going to marry, etc. so I feel like the guy has some experience talking about relationships. At any rate – we apparently have a very good relationship and all is well. Pretty much nothing can stop our relationship! Unless, that is, we get married. As soon as we get married we will fight and yell and hate each other. For me, this sort of feels like a cop out prediction since I’ve never met a single married person who was even remotely happy with the situation – of course I won’t be happy either (Like my severed finger, this is a joke…so please don’t send me emails).

If you thought that prediction was horrifying, wait until you hear the second. Basically, I asked what sort of career I would have back in the states. So, after a few questions, he told me: DON’T BE A MUSICIAN. If I try to do music, I won’t make much money and I won’t be able to travel the world. My parents would be much happier if I end up being a teacher, and I’ll make more money. I’m not angry at the sands for this prediction, but they didn’t even listen to my demo tapes! I mean….come on…

So, its with a heavy heart that I have to formally announce the bankruptcy and closure of The Singing Nerd Ltd. Inc Corps effective immediately. I was only in this for the money, but if I’m not getting paid, F this!

P.S. The sands told Joey he had to sacrifice the front quarter of a goat because he read the book “Life of Pi.” It’s a long story, but I’m glad I didn’t mention that I had read it as well. I really dodged a bullet.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


So apparently it’s not clear, but occasionally I make jokes within my blog posts, so take everything with a grain of salt. If some of you were taken in by my last entry, you are in good company; My mother called me up the same day, crying hysterically, asking what happened to my finger. My finger is fine.

But speaking of near death experiences, here are some of my more perilous moments from the past couple weeks:

I decided to buy a large water jug to supplement my current water supply capacity. The water jugs are resold after being used to carry vegetable oil so I needed to wash it out before using. The recommended method for doing this is sloshing warm water mixed with laundry detergent inside. So I heated up some water, added in the powder, and vigorously sloshed. However, apparently the cap wasn’t on tight enough because it flew off and suddenly I had SCALDING SOAP WATER ALL OVER MY FACE. Sophomore year chemistry class lessons quickly came back to me and I rinsed my eye out properly and survived, no damage done. Incidentally, for some reason I thought the proper time to do the jug cleaning was right after taking a bucket bath…. so I was in a towel, which fell off in the confusion. No one was in the courtyard at the time, so all things considered, things ended up well. Little did I know that danger was lurking right around the corner, in the form of…

…a snake! The gods of irony were mocking me this week, because I had just been saying to another volunteer that the location of my house is perfect and keeps me secluded from wild animals like snakes. The morning after I made that astute observation, what should I find on my doorstep but a 10 foot long snake! And by 10 feet, I mean 1 foot. He was a pitiful little guy, and one smack of a stick on the ground nearby sent him slithering far away, never to return (I hope). But the grim reaper was not done with John. Not by a long shot.

It was late at night on a dark and stormy evening, and all reasonable people were already asleep. I, on the other hand, was busy surfing the web, and… gee that thunder sounds close, but OH MY GOD I’VE BEEN SHOCKED. My best guess is that lightning hit a power line or something nearby, created a surge, and traveled into my laptop which happened to be lying on my stomach which gave me a big ole shock. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Is the laptop OK!?” Yes, its fine. This baby is getting close to 6 years old, but it takes a licking and keeps on clicking. Also, I will now be using battery power during storms. But near-death by electrocution was but a prelude to the ultimate terror…

…the moths from hell! Actually, this wasn’t dangerous at all, but I wanted to tell the story. I may have mentioned already that after a particularly big rain, swarms of moth thingies fly out the following night. There are millions and millions of them and they love light, so any outdoor light gets swarmed. And since people love roasting these moths, we were hard at work one night, catching them. Normally, the catching method is: dump water on cement ground, swat moths down with broom, moths wings get soaked and can’t fly, collect at your leisure. However, being the innovator that I am, I saw a problem that didn’t need fixing and came up with a solution: The super soaker. My super soaker, in spray mode, could reduce the watering and swatting steps into one awesome step. So I loaded up and started spraying. It was a ton of fun, and although it didn’t work at all, I convinced the kids there to say it did. So the next day as we were eating our salted fried moths, I asked them “Isn’t it cool that we caught these all with a water gun?” After rolling their eyes, they all agreed.

And that, my friends, is how I cheated death. I’d post some more stuff, but its time to go drunken rock climbing. See you soon, baboons.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


and that’s how I lost my left ringfinger.

In other, less disfiguring news, I went to Ghana on vacation! For those of you, like myself, who slept through Mrs. McAndrews geography lessons in 6th grade, Ghana is located due south of Burkina Faso, has a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, and uses English as a national language. Naturally, I had to go. And naturally, I let someone else do all the planning work while I reaped the benefits!

Our group consisted of me, Celenia, Valerie, Shannon, and Dani, and we later joined up with Lindsay and Lauren. As you may have noticed, those are all girl names. The Singing Nerd is quite popular among Peace Corps Volunteers, if you know what I mean. (To be clear, I mean that they think I’m an average travelling companion).

So we set out to Ghana, where the grass is greener, the food is better, and where you can’t talk about people right in front of them….because they speak English too. Actually, it was quite difficult switching from French mode to English mode. I kept saying “oui” and “merci” and “Maintenant, le toilette n’est pas propre!” But once we got the hang of it, it was quite relaxing.

What wasn’t relaxing was the busride. The trip from Ouaga to Kumasi is supposed to be like 13 hours, but thanks to broken axles, overly long lunch breaks, and road banditry, we arrived there in about 20 hours. After that, it was only about 6 hours more to get to the beach. And the trip back up was even worse!

But you didn’t come here to hear me whine about travel, so on to the fun stuff. The first place we stayed on the Beach was a fun town called Busua. It’s got a really young, laidback vibe, and there are lots of Rastafarians around. (Speaking of which: when we first got there, one of the hotel workers was showing us around and talking about food options when he said “Also, I have really good meat!” And naturally, I was like “Oh! I love meat!” There was then a long pause, and then he said “I have really good WEED!” awkward….) We had lobster, swordfish, barracuda, shark, and burritos bigger than Chipotle’s! We rented a boogie board, went on long walks on the beach, and had a splendid time in general.

After Busua, we headed down the WORST ROAD EVER to a secluded eco resort called The Green Turtle. Solar powered huts, self composting toilets, bike and hiking tours – truly a treehugger’s paradise. In case you’re wondering, self composting toilet is a fancy phrase for outhouse. Food was great, it was very secluded, and the waves there were ridiculously dangerous. Even in knee-deep water, you were basically rolling the dice with your life. But I’m a man who loves to gamble. Also, we rode bikes out to a lighthouse that the closest point on land to latitude 0, longitude 0. The lack of a spinning black hole vortex was disappointing, but it was still a beautiful lookout point.

After Green Turtle, we headed to Cape Coast, where we took a tour of a former British slave fort. The building had a lot of history, and made me feel awkward about being white. Right about now, you’re probably wondering where all the pictures are of these travels, but I didn’t take any so use your imagination. Other people did and I have copies, but….I cant upload them because of copyright issues.

OK, so that was the trip!

In other news, I’ve been in Africa for over a year as of June 9th, so here’s the extremely late song/video to celebrate that. (Also, be prepared to have a headache afterwards)

Until next time, I’m your nine fingered volunteer, signing off!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Quick Update

I know you’re all surprised to see me so soon, but now that school’s done, I have more time to blog. Naturally I’m lying; I had plenty of time to blog…but now I don’t have any excuses not to.

FOOD UPDATE: Now, I realize my whole last blog was about food, but I need to add something. A new restaurant opened up in town and it is faaaaaaaancy. A French couple bought it and it’s got quite a menu, including: Green Beans, Peas, Chicken (grilled or sautéed), Lamb Shish-kabob, Salad, French Fries. Prices are quite reasonable too. Basically, you have even less reason to feel sorry for me now, since I have good food options. However, I’m not going to go every day, since I don’t want people to think I’m too good to eat at home or something. No sir.

Also, when you see “Green Beans” listed as a menu item and think to yourself, “That’s no meal!” you should know it’s cooked with onions and garlic in a tomato sauce and comes with bread. It’s really good, and until now I had to ride 100km to get it. 105km, actually, but I don’t sweat the details.

This brings me to a small pet peeve of mine, and something I try to avoid. When a lot of volunteers communicate with home via blog/phone/whatever, its hard not to use Peace Corps slang and/or French phrases to explain stuff. But since the intended audience is not volunteers or French speakers, its worth making sure to edit out this stuff.

I could say:

“I was eating haricots verts with some fellow PCVs who were discussing who would be PCVFPs and PCVFs for stage, when all of a sudden my APCD called to remind me I needed to fill out my VRF and that all volunteers need to call the TAC phone. Later, the PCMO called me to remind me about doxy, but I told him pas de probleme – I’m not a doxy man.”

But that would be silly.

SCHOOL UPDATE: No more school till October. I taught for a year in French, to class sizes of 100+. If I were a vain man and was aware of my bad-ass-ometer stats, I would certainly be at a lifetime high. Here are the kids from one of my classes who showed up the day after I gave out grades:

Ok. So that’s it. Goodbye.

P.S. Haricots verts = Green beans
P.P.S. I check my bad-ass stats all the time. So sue me.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Food that I eat

People often ask me, “Princess Leia says in ROTJ she has always known that Luke was her brother….so why, in Episode V, did she give him a passionate kiss on the lips?” Yeah, that’s kind of messed up. Almost as messed up as this segue.

Food here in Burkina is a lot better than I was expecting. I was warned of bland food, and the same meal everyday. In fact, in my interview to get into Peace Corps, I was asked if I could handle eating the same thing every day, and I replied that I ate ramen every meal of college, so it wouldn’t be a problem. PRO TIP: If you make a joke during an interview, you may avoid actually having to answer a question. (This will not work on the criminal record question).

Anyhow, because I was placed in a medium sized town that has market every day and because my Peace Corps salary makes me quite wealthy, I actually can enjoy a decent variety of foods. So I’m going to talk about my meals. I may have covered some of this before, but I’m going to go into more detail now, so STFU (Mom, that’s a French expression).

I go to the same breakfast place every day, almost. There is a nice guy who’s got a little stand within a stone’s throw* of my house, and he’s got my order down. An omelet sandwich with café au lait (550CFA, or roughly $1) is my expensive meal of the day. The only problem is that my town has no bakery so bread gets brought every third day from the big city nearby – so by day 3 its not super fresh. Oh well. If I don’t have time for an omelet sandwich, I grab a frozen yogurt – regular yogurt that is kept in a vendor’s freezer. It’s really good. 200CFA – 40 cents.

*I couldn’t throw a stone from my house to the place, but I think some of the kids who live around my house could.

Typically, I eat out for lunch, since teaching in the morning makes me hungry. There are 2 or 3 “restaurants” in town, with pretty similar menus: Rice with tomato sauce, rice with peanut sauce, rice with beans and oil, or chicken “soup”. I am a peanut sauce fiend, so 90% of the time, that’s what I order. 300CFA – 60 cents. The chicken “soup” is really just a quarter chicken with broth poured over it, so not Campbell’s. That’ll run you 500CFA - $1. Occasionally there is also spaghetti to be had for lunch, priced at 400CFA. Spaghetti and rice dishes come with hunks of meat, which can vary qualitywise. Finally, there are stands near the market, where one can buy rice and beans, noodles, or a combo of the two (my favorite). 200CFA -40 cents will fill me up easy.

At all stands and restaurants, hot pepper is available to spice up the dish, which I always take advantage of, provided my bottom is not acting like a leaky faucet.

So, here’s where the variety comes in: Usually for dinner I cook for myself, using market ingredients + care package.

In my market, almost always, I can get: Rice, beans, tomatoes, hot peppers, onions, garlic, noodles, tomato paste, bread, beef/chicken broth cubes, green peppers, Cucumber, eggplant, canned meat, couscous, flour, sugar, vinegar, peanuts, peanut butter, eggs, oil, laughing cow cheese. And probably other stuff I’m forgetting.

Seasonally, I can get: Potatoes, Yams, Sweet Potatoes, Watermelon, Mangoes, Carrots, Lettuce, and other stuff I’m forgetting.

I also pick spices/canned food/ other stuff when in bigger cities.

Here’s a list of stuff I’ve made
Spaghetti, Chili, Cincinnati Chili, Fries, Mac and cheese, Peanut Curry and rice, Curry and rice, (homemade) Tacos with salsa+chorizo+cheese+beans, Eggplant (meatball) sub, Baked Beans, Pasta Salad, Onion Rings, Fried Rice, Pizza (baked the bread), French Onion Soup, Ramen Noodles, Sandwiches, and other stuff I’m forgetting.

I think my chili is good. And my curries do alright. I’m improving.

Extra Restaurant options at night (in addition to lunch options): Grilled pork, Amazing Grilled Chicken (2000CFA - $4!!!), and when in season, salad for 300CFA - $0.60 with hardboiled eggs, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, carrot, and a salt/pepper/oil/vinegar/mayo dressing.

Also, we have the best fish in the country since we live by the big fishing lake. But I hate fish so F that.

All this food talk is making me sleepy, so until next time, this is John the Draft Dodger signing off!