Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Samoa Loses December 30th

Samoan Date Line, December 29,2011

Samoan Date Line, December 31,2011

Samoa is skipping December 30th in order to gain one day and one hour. What was to be today suddenly becomes tomorrow, as far as the United States and American Samoa are concerned. This is a result of redrawing of the International Date Line to go to the east of Samoa, in between it and American Samoa 60 miles away.

It was always a tradition for Peace Corps Volunteers to gather at the western most tip of Samoa at the Village of Falealupo on the island of Savaii to be the last to celebrate the New Year and to look across the waters to see tomorrow. Now they will have to go to the Eastern most point of Samoa, which I take to be either Namua Island or the Village of Muliatele to be the first to celebrate the New Year. One thing is for sure, they will celebrate, only a day sooner.

If all this seems confusing, welcome to the customs of Samoa, a very convoluted place.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Muslims in America

December 21, 2011
At five o'clock this evening, my bus stopped to pick up students from the local high school. They had stayed late to have sports team pictures taken before the winter recess. The bus sounded like an excited flock of geese as they boarded. Most were Muslims. They slowly surveyed the bus as they determined how they were to divide up and where to sit. The seat next to me was vacant and the last to be taken by a slight Somali girl, complete with head scarf, the seat in front by her heavier Somali scarfed girlfriend and an Afro-American boy whom they both seemed to like.

As the bus travelled toward downtown, they jabbered, joked, and poked each other talking about their friends while grasping their smart phones. The boy was asked if he smoked. To understand the question more clearly, he gave the motion of having a toke. The girls were surprised and said they didn't know he smoked. He said he had been smoking for two years, mostly at home when his mother was away, otherwise she would kill him. He would then go outside to walk off the effects before she returned home.

The girls reaction was more of wanting to know more, rather than judgement. "Aren't you afraid of being caught by the police?", one asked. "No" said the boy. There was a moment of silence as they pondered his answer and what they had just experienced. As the bus neared the transfer station, their talk quickly changed to their connections and how late they would be getting home.

What made me laugh was the universality of the scene. It could have occurred with any group of American young teenagers anywhere, growing up. It made me feel good to know that America's future was going to be in their good dark-skinned hands.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Joy of Shopping

December 14, 2011
One of the famous retailers said that shopping is entertainment. Indeed, it can be entertaining much in the fashion of Las Vegas, where you know you are being had. Shopping can be likened to a game where you seek out that special deal and beat the house. The odds are against you in the long run, but one winner can keep you coming back for more.

The rules of the game are changing. Now everything is on sale. If it red sign doesn't say the price is reduced by at least 30%, you feel riped off. When everything is discounted, how do you find the real deals? My strategy is to find those items which are not discounted, difficult but not impossible.
I can't tell you how good it feels to double check with the cashier that my item was not discounted!

Retailing has gone beyond entertainment to now include dining and exercise in its pantheon of ways to get you into the store. Recently I went to an IKEA store accidentally before it opened. You get free coffee, a real incentive for geezers. In fact I think IKEA, COSTCO, and other big box stores are now the dining experience of choice for a large segment of our country.

The third leg of the Joy of Shopping is exercise. Where else but a mall or a big box store can you feel it in your legs that you have had a workout? The exertion of walking those long aisles in search of that yet to be revealed item can't be duplicated any place else. You are exausted, and hungry. Thank goodness the food counter in near the entrance/exit doors.

People in other parts of the world often misread us. They think we are just a money-hungry, consumption-oriented society that misses the whole point of Christmas. We are more than that, we are a multi-tasking, money-hungry, consumption-oriented society with lots of hyphenated words.

Then there is Samoa where Christmas is a religious holiday, albeit commercialism is beginning to appear. "Gift-giving" happens at the end of the school year in November when the top students recieve a Holy Bible, writing pads, and pencils. "White Sunday" in early October is when all children usually get gifts. This a day to recognize the importance of children and when children for the one day assume adult privilages.

So is it Better to Give than to Recieve? Who really cares during the quest for a gift and a deal, and the rush of the Joy of Shopping?

Walking to the Library

December 13, 2011
Ever since I was a young boy in Detroit, I remember the joy of walking to the library. Before the library was built on Six Mile Road, it was the Bookmobile parked two days a week on Tracy Avenue off of Puritan. Inside on its shelves were adventures and stories I couldn't wait to take home and read. You could only take two books at a time, which only increased my desire to quickly return to that truck parked at the side of the curb.

It is amazing how some books have a telling affect on you. One of those Bookmobile stories I remember is "Misty of Chincoteague". The story still brings tears to my eyes, such is the power of books.

Years and many books have pasted since those Detroit days, but the thrill of walking to the library, taking an unknown book off the shelf, and feeling its weight on the way back has never left me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Turkey Tails

December 7, 2011
Ever wonder what happens to those parts of slaughtered animals go, even those orts considered unfit for pet food? You may be interested in the tale of tails.

The Samoan government in an attempt to curb obesity banned the sale of imported turkey tails while at the same time applying for entrance to the World Trade Organization (WTO). In order to have Samoa reopen its market for U.S. turkey tails, the U.S. government held back its approval of Samoa's WTO application. Samoa submitted to U.S. pressure and turkey tails can once again be legally sold in Samoa.

You may argue that Samoans have a choice in the food they can eat, let alone afford. For the average Samoan, your choice of meats in the store usually is canned mackerel, SPAM, canned corned beef, chicken hindquarters, trotters (pigs feet), pigs tails and ears, mutton flaps, or lamb necks. All imported and dumped by "health conscience countries". Yummy!

Below are two articles for those who may have some interest as to what happens in the world under the term "globalization".



Thursday, December 1, 2011

Skating into the 70's

November 28, 2011

Today is the 70th anniversary of my birth. Other than heralding in the beginning of another possible decade of life, the date lacks the significance of the 5th when you can start school, the 16th when you can get a driver's license, the 18th when you become an adult, the 21st when you can legally buy alcohol, and the 65th when you are officially considered old and when you used to be able to retire and collect your meager pension.

There is something to celebrate about birthdays ending in a zero. You hear from those who have not forgotten you are still alive, or want to know if you are still alive. Their greetings may come in the form of a personalized note, a birthday card which gives a zero birthday an air of importance, Facebook, electronic greeting card, text, phone call, and some show up at your doorstep. Whatever their means to mark the occasion, it makes you feel good.

Yet dates, years, and birthdays soon pass into the ocean of time, unless you do something memorable. The year may be forgotten, but not the event. For me, it is to celebrate my birthday at the local roller rink along with the other 5 year olds, an event even the rink owner and tiny celebrants could not believe was happening. There is something to be said about "zipping" around the rink trying to keep time to "health club" music as you avoid those fallen little shits in your path, and putting the fact behind you that on your 12th birthday you broke your arm with a church group doing the same thing with wheels on your feet. Certain birthdays you and others don't soon forget.

With my son, Nicholas III

The few, the proud, and the brave

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Bus World

November 8, 2011

What makes travel exciting is that you chose to put yourself in a strange and different place. You see and experience a new world, sometimes more uncomfortable or seemingly more exotic than the place you call home. Of course for those who call your destination home, you are the strange and exotic person. For them, your discoveries are their everyday drudgery.

I am discovering a new world to explore. It is as strange and as foreign to me as any of the several places on this earth I have been fortunate to visit. It is the world that exists on the public bus.

Now for many of my ilk and my children, taking the metro in Beijing is more exciting and certainly not as frightening as taking the bus downtown. The choice is clear. Your shiny, protected, comfortable bubble wins out every time. But imagine what may happen if you chose to take the bus. What adventures may be in store for you? Here is my entry for today.

The rush hour bus is nearly full when I get on and search for a place to sit. There is a backpack next to a young chocolat-skinned seemingly immigrant girl sitting next to the window. I ask her if she would would move it so I could sit down. She does. As the bus empties, she crawls over me to sit on a jump seat in front of me with her backpack on her lap.

The young African-American man in the seat behind me is on his cellphone trying to tell people at an insurance company his new Minneapolis address. He has recently moved from Springfield, Illinois. He has to make three calls before he gets to a person who can make the changes so he can be reimbursed for medical expenses incurred in Springfield. He slowly spells his name, making fun of the fact that his parents named him Galvin, rather than Calvin, a source of much confusion as to who he is. He goes on to spell his street, but when it comes to spelling Minneapolis, both parties are stumped. He asks another older passenger if there is an abbreviation. The passenger says, MPLS. I am sure no one outside of Minneapolis and probably only a few who live here have ever heard of that abbreviation. The young man then calls a friend and tells him, he soon should get a check and pay him the owed money. I hope he gets his check. Thank goodness he gives the zip code.

There is a well-dressed Middle Eastern couple asking other passengers if this is the stop for Fairview Hospital (There are several throughout the metro area). They don't know. The stop is at the center of the University of Minnesota campus. As the bus disgorges most of its passengers, the confused couple rushes off the bus with the crowd and ends up standing alone on the sidewalk not knowing where they are. They remind me of similar incidents during my travels as I find myself standing alone, not knowing where I am or who to turn for directions.

As I walk out of the office building in St Paul, I see the bus I want pull away. An elderly out-of-town couple stops me in their car to ask for directions to the University of Minnesota Hospital. They are miles from the hospital and have been lost for over an hour. Their MapQuest printout is only for the neighborhood around the hospital. I say I am happy to show them the way and hop in their car. Just before they are to turn off to the hospital, I hop out of the car, just in time to catch the same bus I missed miles back.

The bus driver asks those who pass their wallets over the bus electronic fare meter without hearing its responding beep to show him their pre-paid bus card. Puzzled, he explains the electronic meter is broken and he wants to see the card, those riders not being charged. Each person hurriedly fumbles to show their card while others wait impatiently in line wondering about the delay. A girl with cornrows similar to the style and dressed like the girls in Senegal, sits down behind me. Just before departing, the young bus driver turns in his seat to the rear of the bus and light-heartedly calls out, "You showed me your company ID card instead of your bus card. I now know where you work". I have no idea she understood what he said, whether it is the driver's attempt at a joke, or more. She makes not a sound. He closes the door and off we go.

A tall, big man with Eastern European features struggles to get on with two heavy plastic bags dangling around his neck, pulling a suitcase, and carrying a stuffed garment bag and some other clothes, including a new pair of large, shiny black, three inch elevator shoes. He unwraps himself of his load as he searches his pockets for the fare. He continues standing next to what appears to be his worldly possessions. At his stop, he puts the plastic bags around his neck, gathers his luggage, and leaves. The young petite Asian girl next to me looks at him and then at me. We laugh about why would a 6'4" man need elevator shoes. I remark to her that he probably has quite a story to tell. But after the girl gets off the bus, I wonder about her story.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


November 1, 2011
The Great Pumpkin must have been looking out for me. Due to an illness to my Halloween roller skating partner, Nicholas' girlfriend Heidi, I spent the night safely at home, only to be visited by The Little Pumpkin Seed, my grandson Rainn.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Grandma Mary

October 20, 2011

Being a grandparent is great! Mary and Rainn.

Soup Bones

October 19, 2011

Readjusting after an intense experience like Peace Corps is the pits. One would think that this being my second time, it would be easier, but it’s not. You may think the feeling is due to returning to the “Same-O, Same-O’, but the “Same-O, Same-O” isn’t the same anymore

I like soup. The weather is getting chilly… soup time. To make good soup, you need a soup bone. I have been to four supermarkets filled with every meat cut you might think to serve, but nary a soup bone. Most of the meat comes to the store, either prepackaged or butchered in some Iowa or Nebraska meat processing plant. Modern supermarket butchers now are stock boys with funny paper hats. There are marrow bones for dogs, but no soup bones for humans.

This is what I mean by the difficulty of readjusting. When you are away, everything is new and exciting. When you return, all is new, except you.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Into Africa

September 8-21, 2011


Why, you ask, The Gambia in West Africa during the rainy season or what Africans call the “Starving Season? It is a hot, humid, dirty, mosquito infested place inhabited by natives and Peace Corps Volunteers. When you combine one former Peace Corps Volunteer Samoa from Duluth, Minnesota who has a lot of frequent flyer miles which are about to expire with another former Peace Corps Volunteer Samoa, now serving in The Gambia, with still another former Peace Corps Volunteer Samoa whose husband just got back from Samoa, you have the ingredients for adventure. Senegal enters the picture because not only does it surround The Gambia on three sides, but has a real city, Dakar, which can be reached by air from the United States.

Warning: This blog does not necessary follow in any logical or chronological order. In other words, it reflects real life.

The Participants

Hanna Siemering: Hostess, current Gambian Peace Corps Volunteer (2011-2013) as a Public Health instructor at Gambia’s university, former Samoan PCV (2007-2010), retired veterinarian, sailor with seaside property in Maryland and plans for a house.
John Kleive: Former Samoan PCV (2007-2010), welding instructor in Samoa (2010-2011), retired school teacher, welding supply representative, and welder who lives on a boat at a Superior, Wisconsin marina during summers, a house in the Ely woods, and seeks warmer weather on his Harley during the winter months.

Sandy Nelson: John’s friend, world traveler, hospice worker, assisting John’s daughter during her prolonged illness, and lives off the main road in Northern Wisconsin.

Mary Shuraleff: Former Samoan PCV (2007-2008) and my supportive wife.

Nick Shuraleff: Enough said about him.


This West African country is French speaking and Muslim. Dakar, its capitol, is at the Western most tip of Africa with about 1.5 million people. The city seems to be in a half-built, rubble-filled, suspended state awaiting more foreign aid. There is really nothing beautiful about the place, except the stylish women. If Dakar is known for anything, it is the nightclubs which open at midnight and whose original music is really great. Other than that, the only noise is from the short beep from 1.5 million passing taxis and the Call to Prayers.

My favorite place in Dakar is probably the least favorite site in all of Senegal, The African Renaissance Monument, which dominates the skyline and shoreline of the city. Unveiled April 3, 2010 amidst the slums and garbage helps of land near the airport, it is the tallest statue in the world with an estimated life expectancy of 1,200 years. Invented and designed by Senegal’s president, it cost the country no money, but an exchange of land, to the North Koreans who funded and built the monolith. From what I could gather, President Maitre Abdolaye Wade is the only person enamored with the financial deal, stating revenues from admissions could generate billions (I was the only fee-paying tourist during my visit.

The statue represents Africa emerging from the extinct volcano of slavery and foreign domination, reconquering its place in the world. Few Africans identify themselves with the figures or the family portrayed. The child points to the Northwest which is towards North Korea, if you overlook all of North America. Muslims wonder whether the God-like representation conflict with Islamic beliefs and may be used as a deity. I love the views and sheer gall of the monument.
As a side note, the first model of the statue, by a very well-known, but unnamed, Hungarian sculpture, did not correspond to the president’s vision and became a gift for President Bush during his visit to Senegal two days later.

Symbol of African Renaissance
Monument as seen from nearby slums
View of Dakar from the monument's head.
A five ton baby head

Goree Island is the tourist must. Just a short ferry ride from the main harbor it can be likened to The French Quarter with artists, restaurants, museums, weird characters, and a little violent history thrown in for spice. There is never a dull moment as vendors constantly pester and vie for your attention, making a cold beer that much more refreshing. A 30 minute ferry ride with vendors already pecking at your carcass.

Dakar skyline behind Mary and Hanna
School children at the 1776 Dutch building, "House of Slaves"
World War One French coastal gun
John Kleive trying to escape from female vendors.

Hotel du Phare in the Ouakam area of Dakar is our hotel and used to be a favorite place for Peace Corps visiting the city. It is small European-style hotel at the end of a runway at Dakar airport, making it ideal for embarkation and debarkation. Since a couple of months ago when the old Frenchman died and his son with his young French wife took over running the business, rates have increased. The hotel does have quaintness about it, being off the main road on a sandy side, rubble filled side-street. An air-conditioned room, large generator, edible French cooking, cold beer, and attractive help make you aware you are not in Kansas anymore.

Street to Hotel du Phare

With Fatima, hotel clerk.
Senegalese women are said to spend a fortune on their appearance.

The Gambia

The Gambia is the smallest, Muslim, one of the poorest and most densely populated country in Africa. It is known as being a British outpost trying to curb the sale of Africans by Africans to Europeans in early 1800’s. Now its beach side resorts are a destination for Europeans. Sex tourism flourishes, but with a different twist. Men, known as “Bumsters” (gigolos), show their virility on the beaches during the day as they seek business with middle-aged white women looking for a change of pace. Night is when the female prostitutes emerge. Even an old man with his wife is fair game.

Subsistence is the life people lead. Some grow rice and peanuts, while others struggle to feed their families with menial service jobs. All including the government seek handouts from others. The Indians and Chinese are the latest to seek the favor of The Gambia.

Gambians are a smiling, colorful, skinny, and gregarious lot. What they may lack in wealth they more than make up for in attitude. Being English speaking helps as they express their view of life and the outside world to whomever cares to sit down and drink tea (aataya) with them. Maybe their subdued behavior is somehow related to the many roadblocks one encounters on the highway and the walled compounds in which they reside. Law and order does prevail here. Joking is part of their nature with the greatest responses being about the number of wives you have or hope to get.

The food, well there really isn’t much to talk about. The stables are rice, peanuts, and cassava with a little bit of fish or beef thrown in for protein, if available. Unlike Samoa where everyone seems to be eating at all times, they hardly eat at all. I am glad we had a chance to eat the local fare, but the cuisine certainly is no reason to fly across the ocean for it. Hanna Siemering, our hostess, who planned it all, in her Gambian house

Peace Corps in The Gambia

The offices

Peace Corps Headquarters, Gambia

I was forbidden to take a picture of this guarded, gated building housing Peace Corps offices. However inside the building, the computer room, offices, and staff seemed the same as in Samoa, dealing with the same Peace Corps related problems. It also served as the best place to exchange dollars into local currency.

The main street by Peace Corps office.

The Volunteers
Staying in the large, guarded, gated, hostel-like Peace Corps "transit house" for four nights is a great place to rub elbows with others. The Peace Corps now charges a small fee for staying there with a four-night limit. With one of the bedrooms air-conditioned and crowded, and a hired caretaker makes this place the best deal in town. The volunteers are an assortment of people coming in for scheduled meetings, medical and psychological issues, leaving early, and their village to eat a hamburger or pizza.

Of course, the volunteers want to compare degrees of Peace Corps suffering. They are surprised to learn suffering also occurs in Samoa, "The Jewel of the Pacific". My take is that Samoan Peace Corps suffer more psychologically, while Gambia may have the edge physically. One thing is Samoa has The Gambia beat for beauty, hands down!

There are about 80 Peace Corps in The Gambia and the Peace Corps seems to be better recognized by Gambians for their efforts in education, health, and agriculture, as well as being from the United States, than in Samoa. I may be mistaken about this, since Gambians are more talkative and open, speak better English, and get more exposure to America than Samoans. They rotate into country twice a year.

Kelsey, a married Peace Corps serving with her husband. Both have assigned jobs.

Dave is a Peace Corps who has extended for a third year and works in an NGO apiary. Beekeeping and honey are important products in The Gambia. His enthusiasm is hard to conceal, as we tour his domain and learn about the life of bees. He tells us of the beautiful spitting cobra he saw two days before which blinded a dog. The bees seem tamer. I am more than a little jealous of his success with bees after my failed beekeeping experience in Samoa.A Gambian lunch with British ex-patriots Jan, Mick, and their son who live in the bush at the apiary. The meal is domada, a peanut based sauce with cassava over rice. (Rice is served with every meal).

Daily Life

The Regional Hospital, Birkama

Clinics and programs such as this are one of the reasons why infant mortality and death during childbirth are dropping. Mothers dress up and bring their babies to be weighed and vaccinated monthly. They are responsible for their own record card. Breast feeding is common and efforts to reduce malnutrition seem to be making headway. The women are encouraged to give birth in the hospital or at home with a trained mid-wife who can call for medical assistance if needed.

Malaria affects 80% of the population. Much of the problem is due to increases in rice growing and ranching, both of which produce spawning grounds for mosquitoes.

Diabetes is also on the increase and is becoming a major health concern. Just why escapes me for these are the thinnest people I have ever seen!

Weighing babies
Vaccinations given by Gambian Public Health employee

Village markets are a hub of activity with organized stalls, buses, taxis, smells, and flies all adding to the shopping experience. Like Samoa, small family-owned stores keep popping up along the roadside to supply everyday needs. The better stores, restaurants, and supermarkets are owned and run by Arabs, mostly Lebanese.
Please forgive the absence of craft-shop photos. I just couldn't do it.

Market in Birkama

African picture books invariably have pictures of the colorful fishing boats. The local boats fish a few miles off shore with nets and all return about five o'clock to sell their catch. Boys with tubs swim out to the boats before they beach, wanting to have their tub filled with fish. They then take the tub to the market to be sorted and weighed. From afar it seems like a chaotic scramble, much like a New York street may seem to them. Somehow it all works out.

Scene at Bakau

Brewing Aataya
More than a very sweet tea, brewing and drinking Aataya is a ritual done mostly by men. The process is purposely slow, for being with your friends should not be rushed.

Elijah, who lives on Hanna's compound, making aataya. Note: red small teapot on charcoal stove, blue water pitcher, small stand with two glasses, all essential to the elaborate poring to produce a foamy, strong drink. The tea grounds are re-brewed two more times.

Flora and Fauna
If you want to see wildlife, don't go to The Gambia. The forests have long been cut for pasture and cultivation; the wildlife eaten. However, there are a few Reserves and National Parks to bring back some of the lost plants and animals.

Abuko Nature Reserve

Under the strangling fig
Flower with two types of blossoms

Bijilo Forest "Monkey" Park

Green monkey with baby

Gambia River National Park
Getting to and visiting this park is worth the effort located in the middle of the country. The major attraction are the chimpanzees collected originally as unwanted pets and located on islands in the river where they thrive and are studied (Chimps can't swim).
Children watching us depart from Kuntaur, hoping to get empty plastic water bottles for toys.
Girl in pink, a real bully.
Our transportation to and at the parkBackwater scene
Approaching our lodgeRiver scene from lodgeLodge dining and resting area
Safari tent for sleeping. Beds are great. Outdoor showers, simply heaven. Pit toilets for star gazing. Best sleeping ever.Mary with her ever-present Samoan fan.
We feel the Samoan fan moves more air with less effort than Gambian styles, a tribute to the Samoan way of lfe.
See the Chimps
See the hippos
Find the Green Mamba snake

The Good Life
Please don't think The Gambia is all mosquitoes, flies, sand, heat, humidity and vendors. There are beautiful beaches and hotels too.

Leybato Beach Resort

Good food, reasonable prices. Short walk from Peace Corps transfer house.
Beautiful beach with a Bumster for everyone.
(I did pushups with one of them on the beach to deflate his bravado and increase mine)

Coco Ocean Resort
This five star hotel is where those traveling on a government or NGO expense account stay. Since this is the off season, rates are lower, at least before the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation bought out the place for a Cashew Convention. Alas as Hanna, Mary, and I sit dejected in the lobby unable to negotiate a lower and affordable rate, a kindly man hears as we bemoan our financial situation, our new dislike for cashew nuts, and the thought of spending another night at the Peace Corps transit house. He asks if we are Peace Corps. He makes us a deal we can't refuse in a villa we never could have dreamed and drives us to the villa with its own restricted swimming pool. He is the owner, as employees look on in disbelief as what he is doing. We even have enough money to eat in the hotel restaurants!

Built like a Moroccan Palace, Coco Ocean from the sea.

Ah, this is the way Peace Corps should be
Our veranda
So many spa treatments to chose.
Mary had a chocolate scrub. Hanna, hair and nails.
They spent hours deciding.

Our room

The Compleato
I just have to have one. The compleato (complete) is worn by Muslim men to cover the entire body. I must admit the tailor did question my choice of fabric, but then again he did not know his work is also my new Halloween costume to be worn with roller skates, a blue bike helmet, and a 1952 "Ike and Dick" campaign button.