Any Porto in the Storm

Our marathon day leaving the African continent began with an emotional goodbye in Niamey and a 3 a.m. flight to Casablanca, followed by a 6-hour layover in this airport that often serves as the gateway to Africa. Supremely modern in some respects – you can buy a $2 espresso and enjoy it with an equally overpriced croissant in bone-chilling air conditioning – you’re also just as likely to see a man clear his throat onto the floor on his way to pray, presumably unaware that marble’s not as absorbent as sand.

From Casablanca, we flew to Lisbon, partly because we’d enjoyed Portugal when we’d visited there six years ago, and partly because it was the cheapest ticket out of Africa. Originally, we’d planned to fly from Accra, Ghana, but an extra day here and another there to explore a beach in Senegal or a mountain town in Morocco meant that we didn’t have nearly as much time as we thought we would.

Still in the West African traveling mode, we steeled ourselves for the challenge of making the three-hour trek from Lisbon to Porto. In reality, the trip breezed by – we hopped a public bus from the airport to the beautiful train station in Lisbon, watched the country green and become more mountainous on the train to Porto, and a short metro ride and walk later, we were at Pensão Residencial LIS.

This guesthouse was sort of a random choice – we picked them because they let us send some stuff ahead and they kept it for the month we were traveling in Africa. But we lucked out. For 40 euros a night, our room was perfect and even came with a small bottle of the owner’s own 20-year-old port.

Traveling without guidebooks through much of France, Spain and Portugal has been a bit of a new experience for both of us. It meant we relied on hotel maps and tourist brochures a lot of times to find the sights. But it also meant talking to a lot more people, a skill Anne-Claire has a real genius for. Whether simply asking which bus to take or teasing the most enthusiastic restaurant recommendations out of a stranger on the street, we got to see up close just how proud most people are of the cities they live in, and provided a few surprises along the way.

We met a Malian who’s been in Portugal for 10 years. He has an African art shop in town, and when we greeted him in Bambara at a little street market in Gaia where he had a stall set up, I think he would have been less surprised by some sort of religious vision.

What was originally intended to be a one-night stopover on our way up to northern Spain turned into three nights of much needed rest in a city that charmed us with its location, its people and its laidback vibe. Folks from the northern part of the country like to think they’re a bit friendlier than those in the rest of Portugal, according to our guide at Graham’s Port Cellar in Gaia, one of two cellars we visited, with their prominent signs dotting the hillside across the Douro River canyon from Porto.

Our guide at Graham’s certainly was as friendly as advertised, and he spoke perfect English, thanks, he said, to the fact that Portugal gets original versions of American films with subtitles, rather than cuts with the voices dubbed over in another language as is common in France and Germany. It’s the second time I’ve heard that as an explanation for why someone spoke stellar English (the other was in Morocco), and I must say they both convinced me that it’s not a half-bad way to learn a language.

Port is one of my favorite drinks, so I enjoyed strolling the aisles in the cellars filled with massive barrels of the stuff, aging before being bottled and sold. In the same way that Champagne can only be called Champagne if it comes from that region of northern France, Port must come exclusively from grapes grown in the Douro Region of Portugal, west of the city of Porto. Otherwise, it’s supposed to be called fortified wine – fortified because before the typical conversion of sugars into alcohol by the yeast added to wine is complete, a very strong more-or-less flavorless brandy is added that kills the yeast. This step preserves some of the sugars originally present from the grapes and also pumps up the alcohol content to around 20 percent.

Tucked in the Graham family’s private selection are a couple bottles of port from 1868. That was a vintage year, which means the conditions were especially good in the Douro Valley. That’s no guarantee that it would be an excellent Port, but they tend to bottle 2 or 3 vintages every decade in the hopes of making a superlative batch. Prices for vintages are on balance quite a bit higher than the blended 10-, 20-, and 30-year varieties you can find at most stores. It was our guide’s last day before his vacation, and as he was in a good mood, he let us sample a vintage from our birth year in addition to the 3 other types of port we sampled after the tour.

The rest of our time in Porto, we enjoyed the sunshine, took a boat to see the six bridges that span the huge Douro River canyon within the city’s boundaries, and basically just basked in the ease of traveling in Europe again. Portugal’s the first country I ever visited in Europe, but it’s one I’ve spent far too little time in. Just like the first time we visited when we were volunteers, it provided us the respite we were looking for.

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Last Nights in Niamey

Anne-Claire with her Peace Corps supervisor Assalama and her family

Our final days in Niger were spent much as we spent our time in the capital during Peace Corps – visiting as many former staff members as we could, eating good food, running errands at the market and shops, and resting with friends during the heat of the day.

We left Anne-Claire’s town with several kids in tow who’d never been to Niamey before. Ali Baba, who’s older brother Soumaila had died just a few months earlier, gawked at the huge cement factory on the bus ride into town. “Niamey has everything!” he told Anne-Claire. We stopped first at the family of the gendarme chief who Anne-Claire had befriended when he was posted in Birni. Apart from his bear-like appearance and the no-nonsense mustache he wore, Yacouba (or the ‘CB’ as most people called him, short for Chef de Bureau) was an atypical soldier, extracting respect from the people of Birni with a fair hand and a kind spirit, rather than the abuse of his position.

The CB’s family in Niamey

Since we’d left Niger, the CB has served in a desert town north of Agadez to deal with the violence and banditry that’s been on the rise since our departure, and he even did a tour in Abdijan, Cote d’Ivoire, before recently falling ill. Now, he’s more or less bedridden. He has heart trouble and can’t walk more than a few steps, and his body’s just a shadow of the burly uniformed man in the pictures that hang on his walls.

His wife Issa was tickled to see Anne-Claire, and we spent a couple hours talking with them and two of their grown nieces in their bedroom. Though it wasn’t unusual for all of us (men and women) to be sitting together – the CB had a unique relationship with his wife, one in which he treated his wife as an equal – the sadness of the scene wasn’t lost on anyone. The CB reclined uncomfortably on the bed in little more than a diaper, restlessly moving his legs and shifting his body to ease his labored breathing. We tried to help him set up Skype on their laptop, but an electricity cut cause a blip in the Internet service, so we weren’t able to get online.

Lunch with Kelley and his wife Ashley in Niamey

We said goodbye after they fed us (though they didn’t partake in the midday meal because Ramadan had begun a day earlier), promising that next time we came, we’d all take a trip up to the desert together, when God-willing the CB and his country had found more solid footing.

The threat of violence from Al Qaeda has kept the northern two-thirds of the country off limits to all but those groups that can afford to travel with military convoys. While we were in Niamey, we ran into a former volunteer who we’d served with. Nearly nine years later, Kelley still hasn’t left Niger for much longer than a month at a time, first extending his service for a third year, then finding himself a series of interesting jobs, and finally getting married.

“It’s not the same country it was when we were volunteers,” he told me, after I tried to express my disbelief that Niger could ever be considered unsafe. While Nigeriens still aren’t a violent people, outsiders moving in from porous North African and Nigerian borders have tried to turn Niger’s moderate brand of Islam into something more extreme. Though they’ve had little success, it seems to me that in a country that only makes the news for famines once every couple of years, a few violent flare-ups might be enough to cast an unfortunate pall over an otherwise peaceful country.

Ramitou and Mohammed just before we left Niamey

Like most things in Niger, the process of seeing people took far longer than we’d anticipated. Though it was always a pleasure to share a few hours of conversation, this also meant we didn’t see everyone we’d wanted to see.

As we said goodbye to Ramitou, and as Issaka and his family once again drove to the airport to drop us off for our flight, I reflected on my time there as a volunteer. On this trip, we visited volunteers in other countries, and it was impossible not to see the commonalities, regardless of where someone serves. The locals you meet along the way make the two (or more) years the life-changing experience that it is, and there is no better way to begin to understand a culture.

Anne-Claire with Issaka, Ramatou (Issaka’s wife), and a sleepy Khadidja

But I’ve also realized that it was the volunteers Anne-Claire and I served with and the Peace Corps staff we had in Niger made our time there so formidable. My training group in particular was filled with intelligent, idealistic people, and though the frustrations of two years in Niger pummeled a lot of the quixoticism out of most of us, they benefited (in my view) from letting the experience shape them, rather than trying to shape the experience around their own expectations of what their service should be.

And our Peace Corps staff – well, I’ve come to realize that they are often the best a country has to offer – creative, energetic problem solvers all of them. I left my service five years ago convinced that the only lasting solutions to problems in development will come from within the country, not from aid agencies or NGOs or foreign governments. Those groups have roles to play to be sure – perhaps the best role might be to put folks like those who work for Peace Corps in a position to really affect change.

Not Mohammed’s Favorite Time of Day

I like to look for commonalities among cultures when we’re traveling. Once you start looking, they’re everywhere – the way the allure of designer labels transcends socioeconomic classes, or how mother-in-law–daughter-in-law relationships always seem to be strained.

Here’s a quick video of another universality demonstrated quite well by Mohammed (Ramitou’s son). Kids everywhere hate having to bathe.

Life and Death Statistics, Part 2

Just like our Peace Corps service, being in Niger was once again filled with higher highs and lower lows than we’re used to at home. Though we enjoyed seeing Seyni’s family – and for me in particular, Safia’s father Mati, a gardener I remembered from the Peace Corps training site whose whisker-like scarification deepens the kindness already present on his face – saying goodbye to them emotionally exhausted us. But again, like Peace Corps, the low didn’t last long, and soon we were back in the village.

Penning a history of the Fulani

The library that Anne-Claire helped build is still in great shape. A man sitting at one of the tables was working on a history of the Fulans (or Peul as they’re known elsewhere) in the Birni area. In a region full of scrappy people, the Fulans are among the scrappiest, spending weeks or months in the bush as the seek pastureland for their livestock. As more and more of the arable land is snatched up for farming, their nomadic way of life has become increasingly untenable, and that’s led to conflict between farmers and herders. It’s encouraging to see someone making the effort to leave a legacy that could increase our understanding of the struggle, especially in this near-universally verbal society.

In preparation for our arrival, Djibo, Anne-Claire’s former counterpart, who is now in a political position at the sous prefecture in Birni, had found us a room on the edge of the town, complete with air conditioning and a Western-style toilet. We thanked him for his thoughtfulness but decided that it would be better to be at his house where we could spend more time visiting with his family. Unfortunately, in this your-guest-is-your-god culture, that meant that Djibo dismantled his own king-sized bed and put it outside for us to sleep on, while he and his wife took a smaller bed in one of the back rooms of their house.

The next day, we visited a family on the outskirts of the town. Much of Birni has electricity, but Jamila’s family lives as if they were in the bush. Her husband spends a fair bit of his income on beer and tobacco, and he has another wife in addition to Jamila to support.

Jamila, still smiling

Four months ago, Jamila’s teenage son Soumaila died suddenly. As with Seyni and Mohammed (Ramatou’s husband), they didn’t know why exactly. In this fatalistic culture, the search for answers doesn’t often go beyond the acceptance that such things are just God’s will.

Since then, Jamila had been hit by a car. She had an operation to put a steel rod in her thigh to stabilize the bone, but only local anesthetic was available for the surgery. “Have patience,” she says, shrugging, the smile returning to her face as she focused on the present and the return of her friend (Anne-Claire) after five years.

Fortunately, most of the families we visited had happier stories to tell. One particularly large family had a boy who wasn’t able to walk when Anne-Claire lived in Birni. The family and everyone else just sort of expected him to die.

But when we visited his family, they pointed to him with pride – a modern-day Lazarus bouncing around as healthy as any other kid. The trademark passive acceptance of fatalism may run deep here, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate a blessing or even a miracle when they see one.

Three people, cutting across economic and professional lines, have died since we’ve been gone. That may not seem like a lot, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not. What’s more unsettling for me is the randomness with which tragedy can strike here. To hammer home that point, a Fulan was hit and killed by a bush taxi as he was walking along the road to market the morning we left Birni. He’d been hit once before and had to have part of his foot amputated.

Malaria, undiagnosed cancer, a nasty bout of what we’d call food poisoning, heart disease – all could have played a role in the deaths of the three people we knew, but the real causes aren’t known. And none of them came from the poorest of the poor families. I struggle to draw any conclusions – only that, in the States, any of these deaths would be met with “He was too young to die,” or “That shouldn’t have happened.”

Here in Niger – well, I’m left feeling the same way. All three were well beyond the dangerous first five years of life, which only 2 out of 3 children survive. None should have died. Their deaths should be unacceptable.

That to me may be the biggest hurdle to development in a place like Niger. It’s only when folks get fed up with the way things are that real change can begin to happen. Until that time, we can build clinics and libraries and wells, but real change will stay outside our grasp. In fact, you might even say those elements impede progress by “acting as a pressure valve” as Anne-Claire puts it, keeping life just bearable enough that the risks associated with fundamental change seem too great.

Of course, the behaviors that need to change to alter this course are ours – that is, those of the aid-giving West – rather than those of the masses in the developing world. Until we find a better way to help, aside from lobbing money at countries and carpet bombing the countryside with development projects that we *hope* (a bit fatalistically ourselves, if you think about it) will do good, things aren’t going to get better, and they may even get worse. Will that happen anytime soon?

Shrug. Have patience.

An afternoon at the zoo

The Niamey zoo on the whole is a pretty sad place. Unfortunately, Mohammed (Ramitou’s son) screamed in terror every time we went near one the cages. To be fair, you can get dangerously close to nearly all the animals, from the scab-eared jackals to the enormous striped hyenas, so his fear probably isn’t totally unjustified.

The hippo exhibit’s not bad, and we got to watch this one come out of the water for a snack. Kelley, a former volunteer, had been working on a better lion habitat for the now-grown cubs he helped raise during his service. But unfortunately, the money ran out before it was finished, so it sits, waiting perhaps for a better economic climate.