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Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground

Let me paint a picture for you:

I wake up around six o’clock in the morning.  I’m in my room, on my lit pico, and snuggled in my sleeping bag (which is designed to keep someone comfortable down to 32 degrees).  I don’t want to get up because not only am I very comfortable, but I know that I’m going to get a rude awakening when I open that door to my courtyard.  However, I must start the day.  My neighbors will be eating their bouille soon and I want to get in on that.  So I kick off my sleeping bag, summon all my strength, roll under my mosquito net (which isn’t exactly necessary this time of year but I like it anyway), and walk to the door…

The metal door creaks as I open it and…Ah!  It’s so cold!  I get goosebumps immediately as I step outside in my shorts and ultra-hipster WRBC tank top (thank’s Nora).  The harmattan, finishing its journey from the Sahara nearly knocks me over into my garden.  My toes feel as if I’m wearing flip flops in November, and my ultimate mission is to just go to my latrine, pee, and get back inside so that I can bundle up with a scarf and hoodie (thanks Mom), make some tea or coffee, and shovel some peanut butter into my mouth before going to my neighbors.

The temperature, you ask?  Oh probably no less than 60 degrees at that point.

I’ll be the first to admit it:  I’m cold.  Those volunteer blogs I read before coming here last June were not kidding around; a sweater or hoodie is certainly key this time of year.  During the day, it would be safe to say that the mercury hits the low or mid 90’s.  And that’s perfectly reasonable.  No layering necessary.  However at night, some people here have measured the temperature at around 55 degrees.  Can you believe that!  I grew up in the Northeast (Philaelphia’s not exactly the coldest city but cold enough), spent four years going to college in Maine (ah!  cold!), and spent another two years living in Boston–a city famous for its ever-changing yet constantly shitty weather.

One of the more striking examples of my changing biology was an evening I spent sitting outside.  My parents called and we were talking about–among other things–the weather.  They asked if I was cold.  I was wearing my hoodie and exclaimed that, yes, I did feel a bit chilly but it was the evening so that was to be expected.  Upon their inspection of weather.com, they found that it was actually 82 degrees where I was.

However, this weather is great.  Not only does it feel great to be bundled up in the morning and at night, but sometimes when the cold wind blows, it can trigger pleasant wintertime memories of home.  In fact, one morning, my neighbors and I were eating breakfast and talking about how cold it got in the US.  I brought out my New England picture book and showed them photos of harbors frozen over in the winter.  They were blown away but I’m not quite sure they fully comprehended how much colder it needed to be for that to happen for they were already bundled up in winter coats and sitting around a fire.  In fact, I’m not too sure I comprehend it either anymore.

But the hot season is approaching.  At the height of the day, it definitely does feel a bit hotter with the sun beating just slightly harder on my skin.  I’m trying to enjoy the cold as much as possible for I’m told that the hot season from March to May is just shy of hell-on-Earth.

And to close, how does one say that he or she is cold in Jula?  Well, to say that I am cold, I say:  Nene bi ne la.  If I want to ask if someone is cold, I say:  Nene bi ele wa?  In case you didn’t pick up on the common denominator there, “nene” means cold.

Lastly, I have uploaded more pictures.  I’ve finished uploading into the album “First Months at Site” so check it out to see what’s new.  In that you’ll see some pictures of what everything looks like when the harmattan blows into town.  In addition, there is an album of my Christmas I spent in village.  I actually do have more pictures but they’re on my camera and you’ll have to wait to see them.  Sorry!

Work is going well, I have been making a good deal of soap with the womens groups and we are putting together money for our moringa project which will begin in earnest very soon along with an extensive reforestation initiative.  I hope all is well back home, and wish everyone a happy continuation of winter.  Stay tuned for more updates on my work!


Christmas on Pluto

I suppose I have a “tradition” each Christmas.  We don’t do it every year but most years that I can remember, my brother and I have watched the Sesame Street Christmas special from the early 1990s—on VHS no less.  Since I am not in the US (or near a TV or VHS for that matter) I have decided to summarize this fantastic episode as I remember it:

It begins as any decent Christmas-themed special begins:  on Christmas Eve day with the gang at the local ice skating rink.  It seems fun enough, there’s music playing, possible singing, yet the details escape me at this time.  Everyone’s there:  Big Bird, Cookie Monster, The Count, Elmo, Grover, Oscar, Bert, Ernie, possibly Snuffy, and I believe a random mix of ethnically-diverse people.  Cookie Monster—being the natural-born troublemaker that he is—suggests a rousing game of “crack the whip.”  Well, he doesn’t so much as suggest it as he yells it:  “LET’S PLAY SNAP THE WHIP!”  The whole bunch thinks this is a great idea.  How could they not?  However, poor Oscar, who is not quite as deft at skating as the rest (possibly having something to do with the fact that he sports a trash can as his clothing/housing), finds himself on the end of the line.  Hilarity ensues as Oscar is flung from the line and down several flights of stairs onto the street below.  Naturally feeling slighted by these events, Oscar quietly vows revenge…

Moving on to later that day, Ernie and Bert are in the process of finding the perfect gifts for one another—a bit last minute but we don’t need to dwell on that.  O’Henry would be proud for Ernie painfully parts with his rubber ducky to buy Bert something relating to paper clips.  Bert also parts with something paper clip-related (what’s his deal with paper clips anyway?) to buy Ernie a soap dish for—that’s right—his rubber ducky.  The central player in this Gift of the Maggi saga is Mr. Rooper, or Cooper, or something like that.  Although it was visibly difficult for him, the mere fact that he knowingly let these two life partners part with their most prized possessions in order to buy the counterpart object for the other is rather cold given the spirit of the holiday season.  I don’t believe his apathy has ever been seriously explored but it is rather atrocious.

Meanwhile, Elmo interviews children about Santa in the same vein as Kids Say the Darndest Things.  It’s not too interesting because the kids are very young so they don’t really have any thoughts other than the fact that Santa comes and they get presents.  All the while, Snuffy is busy being useless.

In one of the funniest—if not the most peculiar—bits, Cookie Monster attempts to contact the North Pole.  His concern is, naturally, cookies.  How will he get them?  What varieties?  And how MANY, DAMNIT?!  He tries writing a letter; however, for some reason the paper and pencil remind him of cookies.  Within a New York minute, he has eaten them.  Next comes the typewriter.  He devours it and makes quite a spectacle out of it.  The way I see it, it wasn’t in his best interest to write on Christmas Eve anyway.  With the postal service the way it is around Christmas time, there’s no way Santa would have been able to honor his requests within such short notice.  Thus, being the truly analytical thinker that he is, he decides to call.  Unfortunately, the receiver reminds him of “ROUND COOKIES!” and he tears it apart only to hear sleigh bells and Santa’s deep, resounding voice answer from inside his blue furry stomach…

At this time, Oscar decides to exact his revenge.  He finds Big Bird (who was always too accepting and gullible for his own good) and informs him of a legitimate issue.  He tells Big Bird that Santa’s got a lot of chimneys to go down.  Not only does that sound like a tall order in one night but the chimneys on Sesame Street are quite small.  If Santa’s supposedly a big, jolly guy, how could he possibly fit down a chimney with the same circumference as a grapefruit?  Big Bird is flummoxed…

Meanwhile, Snuffy continues to be useless.

The episode reaches its climax as Big Bird almost freezes solid on top of the roof of some house.  It wasn’t his house; they’re very trusting over there on Sesame Street.  He falls asleep and Santa walks right by.  We never see Santa but are allowed to understand his presence.  Thankfully, Oscar’s trickery is detected by the same crew of ethnically-diverse people from the ice skating rink and Big Bird is brought inside.  They then sing Feliz Navidad with that guy who wrote it.  Bert and Ernie discover the roots of their interconnected follies.  Although I’m not entirely sure how that plot line ends, I assume that everything works out for them.  Cookie Monster gets cookies, and Oscar even gets something, I believe.  The moral of the story:  Merry Christmas!

Christmas for me was rather interesting.  My community is entirely Muslim so not only was the holiday not recognized, but the funeral for my neighbor actually fell on that day as well.  This might sound odd, but the funeral itself was rather quite a large party—more of a celebration of life rather than strict mourning.  I had resigned myself to the fact that my Christmas was going to be bizarre no matter what I did so it was actually a great day in my eyes.  I spent Christmas Eve night in a village about 45 km north of Koumbara with some other volunteers but due to the fact that I was expected back in village for the funeral on the morning of the 25th, I had to travel very early.  I left at 6 AM with three packages strapped to the back of my bike.  After three hours on bush paths, a flat tire that I patched with a piece of rubber from my bike, I made it back home just in time to wash and hit the mosque!  All the while, I had the Nutcracker on my iPod to keep me company.  Back in Koumbara I was able to spend a lot of quality time with those in my community whom I don’t see very often as well as spend some quality time with my neighbors and counterpart.  Overall, I’d say a very good, very memorable Christmas.

Other than that, I’d like to wish everyone a slightly belated happy holidays but a very on-time happy new year!  I’d like to thank my parents and my family in Greece (ευχαριστώ!) for their wonderful packages that I was able to open on Christmas day.  Stay tuned for another post on how my work at site is progressing!


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Jason Tsichlis

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January 2012