Malheur: an unfortunate misnomer

Imagine something like the southwest with large weathered bluffs rising from gentle valleys or plateaus, deep draws and basins and gorges, followed by the footsteps of glaciers that chiseled their way through this landscape like cutting into a rind of cheese and leaving cross-sections of gold, and orange and red and white rock, a geological fire that makes the burning sun seem cool in comparison. Yet, in the southeast of Oregon, more delicate than the harsh drought of Arizona, or New Mexico. There are still bluffs and gorges, plateaus and rivers that have filed down hills to create great gaps in the lines of hills, almost like the missing tooth in a scraggly smile.
In John Day, named for the river that passes through, an old oceanic crust (probably rather confused), left behind by uncompromising tectonics, has been thrust upward creating a set of hills of compressed sea mud and sand, perfect places to find fossils. Sepentinite a strange and uncommon mineral is found amongst these hills, where rivers have eaten deep chasm-like canyons, one can see serpentinite, a glossy, almost soapy-shiny-looking rock of forest and light green (like camouflage) with white paint strokes rubbles out of a hillside of mixed juniper and grasses. The light hay-colored grasses add a beautiful contrast to the dark colored mudstone (an apt name) like a warm, glowing, gold sea with floating rafts of dark blue basalt and glittering green sepentinite. As we moved along those canyons, the geologic vistas changed from mudstone and sepentinite to black blue basalt garnished with a pillow of white ash, occasionally emerging from the hillsides like frosted chocolate cake. The dominant environments here is ponderosa pine forests with dark orange bark streaked with tan and brown and it glows in the morning. The forests are more like parks in this area, well-spaced with few shrubs, but large spaces of grass. This quickly titrates off as one descends from the mountainous regions into a plateau of sage. Smooth, but for a few rolling hills, sage dominants this landscape with a small coiled curly look (like the hair of Togolese children). Rimming the sides are hills that slope upward only to crest like waves at the top with basalt columns, temples to immense lava flows that raged like Armageddon covering thousands of miles in fire and death and the seeds of a nutrient rich soil that millions of years later would give rise to fertile farmland and the sagebrush steppe.
Finally, following these shifting mosaics of the desert landscapes, one reaches Malheur. From ground generally more accustomed to the depredations of heat until the land itself becomes webbed in cracks, we encountered soft, boggy soil. Seeped in water from underground aquifers, snowmelt, wet clouds that hit the mountainous hills before us and we forced to shed some water weight in order to surmount them, the land has become a paradise for birds.
Greater sand hill cranes, Canadian and snow geese, swans, shoveler ducks (forced to exist under a misnomer when they actually look like spilled painter palates), buffleheads (small black ducks with large white heads), and even innocuous coots with their lumpy black bodies punctuated by a small orange bill. There is a profusion of birdlife, wings constantly flower open and lift small bodies and large ones, black bodies and white ones, into the air, soaring over the enigma of lakes in the desert.
This is a rugged land. Brown hills imposing with their desolation dominate a landscape that once held semi-nomadic tribes of Indians, the Wada’tika, or Wada eaters named for the seed they ingested seasonally. Now, their ruins have been plundered for publishing and scientific articles were written upon the pockmarked land, the trace only trace of their villages are depressions filled with wild rye and the rushing winds. The signs of native peoples are subtle, slight depressions that held tepees or huts, and the petroglyphs that meld into the rocks until one moves close enough to see strange symbols and pictures. We found images of lizards, owls, one of a pregnant woman with pendulous breasts, others of antelope or sheep, messages and communications that we can only guess at. Even in such an inhospitable landscape people survived and thrived and left their traces.
Walking in deep canyons the promise of discovering these hidden mysteries is tantalizing. Every turn one scans the red and yellow washed walls of the basalt cliffs and columns for a sign. Still, in the sunlight, the lichen speckled walls of the canyon remind me of children playing in paint, an unthreatening warm feeling, rather different from their appearance at a distance.
Walking through these intimidating hills we saw coyotes, pronghorn antelope in Heart mountain wildlife refuge (antelope are anachronistic because they evolved with the two species of American cheetah, now there is nothing that can catch them as adults), mule deer with rich tan coats and shy white bottoms, marmots who look fat no matter what time of year and jackrabbits with long self-conscious ears. Last night even, there were deer that roamed outside of the little cabin we had rented and we watched them methodically graze only a few feet from our windows.
But, back to the hills. In the hills, once one begins walking on the ground one discovers the flowers that were previously unseen, the wild heather, the desert parsley, the prairie buttercup. I love that. It’s like the closer and closer one gets to the hills the more beautiful and beautiful they become. It’s exactly how I approach my human relationships. Outside appearances may belie an overwhelming amalgam of minute beauty, carpeting the drab or ordinary exterior.
Looking out from our window I can see now the marshes and lakes that adorn this area each so incongruous, as if somehow a concentrated clutch of miracles spilled out under the sun. Before the lakes there are yellow fields of grass broken by paint strokes of blue-green sage, red dogwood and wild rose, and orange willow and brush. Finally at the edge the sage and juniper climb up the hill, the sage creating a wispy almost sea-like green fog wrapping around the base of the juniper trees whose small stature (for a pine-like tree) makes the sagebrush seem larger.
In a way the golden sands of the grasses seems to stretch until it collides with the dark brown jagged legs of the hills, the grass is soft, round and warm looking, where the hills are sharp and jut out aggressively. Yet, as one approaches the hills without comparing them to grasslands, or the forests, one realizes that they are beautiful, they are warm, and they have an indefatigable allure.

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in the midst of traveling

I have left daoulas and I’m on my way to Toulouse. While I could have taken a train, they are both expensive and plagued by consistent strikes here in France. Instead what I am currently doing as I write this, and what I did yesterday was take advantage of the carpooling system in France, i.e. covoiturage. This system is much less expensive than trains (it can be ½ the price) and additionally one has the chance to meet and talk with new exciting individuals.
Yesterday I was in a car with three people and during our discussion which ranged from accents, to production of nuclear power (allegedly Frances sells their nuclear waste to Sweden), to French schools and universities, the difficulties of finding a job and then perceptions about americans.
These include:
Large people and large portions
A country characterized by excess
Assumption that others will speak English and therefore make no attempt to learn French
Optimistic and enthusiastic
An uncreative education system that focuses more on rote memorization than creative analysis and thought.
A bizarre political system that involves individuals inciting the populace and visiting specific towns and locations to give ‘convincing’ speeches.
Strange beliefs and practices (these include things like, our approach to the outside world, foreign policy, the presence of religion in daily life, the previous lack of any comprehensive medical insurance)
And a lot of others.
Sadly, the vast majority were kind of negative, yet everyone readily agreed these were simply generalizations. A lot of Americans have similarly negative perceptions of the French, which is why I think I need to describe just how kind nearly everyone I’ve met has been to me.
Yesterday I arrived in Nantes to do couchsurfing and I was staying at the house of a professor of financial management (and yes the house was as one would expect, reflective of good financial management). I arrived that day a little early after having a really nice lunch with a friend I met during the covoiturage earlier, who against all my expectations told me that they thought English accents were quite attractive. Probably just being nice, because my accent is this gargoyle of a Togolese and American accent combined. People consistently have to ask me ‘where are you from’? In this slightly worried, ‘this accent is so bizarre could he actually be a space alien?’ kind of voice… . Not entirely, but it is really confusing for some, and conversely others find it ‘cute’. So anyways, I arrived at the professors house after having lunch in a very nice park and he wasn’t home, but he had all these buttons on his gate ostensibly for notifying him that someone was there, so there I was trying these buttons, probably looking confused because ringing someone’s intercom was something I haven’t had to do or even think about in over 2 years. And this kind older, but still spritely woman comes up to me, offers me essentially every kind of assistance imaginable in that situation tells me she will walk all the way to her house so she can get her cell phone come back and we can call the professor, but by the time she came back the professor had arrived and then after I thanked her for her kindness gushed profusely about how pleased she was with my French. Just a really nice, affectionate person and I feel like I meet these people every other day. Anyways, this professor, who is also a really good person lets out three other apartments in the building nearly for free to impoverished students, and offered my fine wine, cranberry liqueur and dinner and snacks, and all I had actually wanted or expected was a couch. He was also a very interesting guy, very much about the common humanity that everyone shares and that generalizations about countries and generalizations can only ever fail because due to the diversity of human personality we will always find likeminded or likeable people in nearly every country or culture. Then this morning, the professor’s friend who was sharing the same apartment with me kindly walked me all the way to the bus stop to make sure I got the correct transport to my station of departure. People have been very thoughtful.
So after I get to Toulouse I supposedly have to take a train, the only problem is that there’s a strike today…. Slightly inconvenient. Well, I’ll see what happens, I can always call Astrid and Bruno, they have vowed to ensure the success of my travels, which is, as one would expect, really quite kind.
One other thing, gas prices in france are ridiculous, premium is close to $7 a gallon
Yet, the one thing I do not like about france is all the smoking. Generally it is a more permissive culture for smoking (although smoking is illegal in most public places) Of the 8 people I’ve spent time with, between yesterday and this morning only one of them didn’t smoke. And generally, I have no problem with people smoking if they choose, the issue is more the fact I have to breathe it in as well. Sitting in houses or cramped, small European vehicles doesn’t leave a lot of leeway for escaping the plumes of carcinogens frolicking through the air. Of course, it’s all very efficacious, the nicotine that they don’t breathe in, I do, but between antimalarials, antiparasitics (for schistosomiasis) and coffee, I would prefer fewer drugs in my system.

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Voyaging to Toulouse

Arrived at my next wwoofing site. It’s situated in the midst of the Pyrenees, on a clear day I can see them stretch out into the distance, endless mountains and hills. The house appears to be a converted barn, large drafty rooms, floors that are bare board and a dearth of windows. While, the appearance leaves something to be desired, the placement is incredibly scenic. Farms curving around hills, forests girdling the tops of mountains like green living diadems, houses that are built from the stones that make up the same hills that they rest on, there is so much character to everything here. Maybe it’s partly due to the extended period of people reshaping of the environment.
What I found more interesting was the process of arrival to the Pyrenees. I left Nantes in a covoiture going to Toulouse. It was a large ford camping car and seemed to sway and rattle like an alcoholic plagued by tuberculosis. But I made a friend, Elouan, a Breton and Francais. We talked a lot about the gradual absorption of small farmer’s in France; right now it’s somewhere around 7% of the population are farmers, while in the 1940s it was close to 41%. While this trend is nowhere as steep as America’s, it shows no slowing. Large farmers here receive subsidies and small farmers do not. Additionally, the proportion of subsidies increase with the quantity of food produced, thus making industrial production an actual policy of the French state. In some villages there are days of ‘the white road’; times when milk producers simply pull the stoppers out of the holding tanks to drain of the excess milk and the roads run white looking like some misbegotten old testament plague. We also discussed the mistreatment and misrepresentation of Islam in French culture and the misperceptions that the media engenders about the world. We also discussed the American political system and talked about our strengths and weaknesses.
I also found out that Elouan works with both horses and autistic children. In fact, he was on his way to work with a special school for such kids when I met him in the car. We figured out that we needed to take the same route to get to our respective destinations. I had planned to take a train, but the day before the SNCF, the national train organization decided to go on strike. Convenient. Thus, any hope, any possibility that I could arrive at my current wwoofing site by train was consumed by the specter or ‘greater justice for French train workers’. So Elouan introduce me to ‘autostop’; hitchhiking. This is actually relatively common in France. And legal. The only problem was that by the time we arrived in Toulouse it was already evening. And by the time we arrived at the road towards our respective destination in was 6pm and night had come.
We tried and tried for nearly 2 hrs, walking to different sites, but we lacked a marker and had to make our sign in pen, which you can imagine was only effective for people containing some kind of raptor DNA. Yet, again I was impressed with the kindness of strangers. 3 different people stopped by to see if we needed lodging for the night, including an obviously wealthy gentleman in a Lincoln. I just can imagine the same thing happening in a city of over 1 million people in the states.
Finally, we gave up and stayed with Elouan friend and her roommates by one of the college’s. It was really fun and we talked about politics and traveling and I played some guitar and taught a French girl how to play part of blackbird by the Beatles. The girls were really nice and gave us a pasta dinner with a sauce of local mushrooms and, of course, wine. They even invited me to come back and visit since I was only a 40 minute train away. While talking to one of the girls I was surprised at how much she knew about US history. Actually, in general it is surprising how much people in France know about certain aspects of US history and current politics. Equally of course, there are many things, seemingly obvious, that they don’t know. It probably has something to do with the superpower status of the US, but also the generally more international attitude found in Europeans.
Anyways, Elouan and I managed to find a train today, merci Dieu, and woke up at 5am this morning to head out. I did promise him that I would during one of my days off visit and help him present some sketches to the kids. Also the people he’s working with have worked in Togo. So we’ll see how much time I get off and how it’ll work out. Also, I will not have much internet so future blog posts may be few and far between.

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Daoulas avvant le depart

One of the amazing things about France is the quantity and quality of small agricultural producers. Unlike the United States, France has not made the transition to overwhelming industrial production of food. One of the side effects of a decentralised food production system is that a large diversity of foods can be grown in relative small areas, avoiding the homogeneity of large producers. So in Brittany alone, one can get carrots, squashes, onions, potatoes, apples, artichokes, pears, lettuce, beans, herbs, beer, cheese, sea food and so many others. In fact, the greatest lack is wine. Grapes and wine are not produced in Brittany which means it has to be exported from the south of France. Regardless, I was stunned at the almost entire local diet one could have here. For example:

Yesterday I had a lunch of buckwheat crepes (Breton Crepes), local goat cheese, local ham, mussels cook in butter and shallots (all local), salad of beets, greens, and potatoes (all local except the balsamic vinaigrette), cider and bread. Everything was local except the vinaigrette. Because the French have a tradition of having market days, farmers have the opportunity to sell their produce every week (often more than once due the market days in other nearby towns). There’s just an exceptional local diversity, local butchers, local bakeries, and generally everything is pretty good quality. We went to a butchers 3 days ago and got the most delicious beef pate (Like meatloaf, but smoother, spreadable over a piece of bread). It was all so very very delicious.

Additionally, yesterday I went out to hunt for sea snails. Supposedly they’re very edible and very delicious. They are cooking as I write this and smell wonderful.

Anyways, some interesting things I learned about the milieu.

Most of French cheese is industrially created and for some varieties there are only 2-3 individuals who still produce the cheese in the traditional and correct process (in otherwords, produce the ‘real’ variety of cheese). In fact, industrial products are becoming more and more common as people buy pizzas to reheat and prefer predictable fruits and vegetables.

A great example of this is in pig production in France. Many individuals raise pigs in Brittany, often only 10-20 animals at a time, but there are some operations as well. While all pigs produce copious amounts of pig shit, smaller operations are better equipped to deal with the quantities that are produced; easily transferable to use as manure on crops. Yet, for huge commercial operations, the quantities of manure produced often exceed the possible uses (additionally, like most industrial methods), pigs are tightly packed and sanitation and humane consideration are often 2nd or 3rd rate priorities. When rain arrives as it frequently does here, some of this manure, containing nitrates, is washed into nearby watersheds. So, the French government has in place certain regulations of how much nitrate can be found in a water-system. A few years ago it was around 20mg per 1 liter. When nitrate abundance exceeded these limits the French government simply raised the legal proportion to 50 mg.

politics don’t change much no matter where you go.

So, I have one day left in Daoulas. Tomorrow, I’m off to Toulouse and then into the mountains for three weeks. It’s been absolutely wonderful with Astrid and Bruno. They’ve been so welcoming, I feel like it’s home already. I know that the French are supposed to be cold and unfriendly towards americans, but like every stereotype it has it’s examples, but more accurately, the French are human beings like everyone else. 98% of the French I have met here have been welcoming, inviting, interested in what I did in Africa and generally really kind people. There is a cultural presence of being somewhat detached (I discussed this with Astrid and Bruno) and that could give the impression of arrogance (if one is already expecting it), but it often is found more in the cities. Because many Americans do only visit the cities (higher percentages of people who speak English and all of the tourist attractions) our perception might be skewed, as if tourists to America only visited New York city. France is diverse, certainly not a multilingual nation and in fact contains at least 5 different recognized languages with roots in Germanic, Celtic, Spanish and other individual languages and language groups. Overall this has been an amazing experience WWOOFing for the first time. I will be sad to go.

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Yesterday I arrived at the house of Bruno and Astrid. I won’t deny it, it was a relief to leave Pars. The transmogrification of my life from rural to urban, just was too sudden. Arriving in a small, rural French town, Daoulas, right by the Ocean felt like my travel had finally started.
The coastal environment of france does not look terribly different from that of the West. Ferns and evergreens compose the foliage, supplemented by brush. One has an overwhelming impression of life, thriving in the rainy conditions. In fact, if I really tried hard, as the bus took me from Brest to Daoulas, I could have imagined I was back home.
But, once you arrive in the small French towns, any illusions you may have had of western Washington will dissipate. French towns in Brittany leave an unbelievably quaint impression. Grey stone houses with slate roofs that turn blue-black in the rain, lawns of flowers and well-tended grasses, moss-covered stone walls, bakeries and at least two bars where people weren’t drinking beer, but sipping wine.
Daoulas, especially, is so compact. The center of town has nearly everything, post office, general store, administrative, and then 20 sec away, the ocean, beautifully quiet streets that look like they came out of the 1900s. It was so small, that arriving there, not knowing where my host house was, I simply asked some random guy and he directed me to a place only 2 minutes from where I was. Walking through the town, almost no traffic, no frantic hurry, I felt the tightness, the pressure, of Paris begin to leave. I watched people arrive at the old church, I climbed past a park with a fountain from the 1800s, and found myself on a small street. Houses weren’t big, but compact. Opening up the door to Bruno’s and Astrid, finding myself in a place that had love and was loved, dog running around the dinner table, small child plying in her crib, this is what I look for in travel. The opportunity to intimately know someone else’s life, to immerse in a new culture has always been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.
So, brief 2nd day addition.
Last night I went to a Breton language study group. Really interesting. We learned some interesting words in Breton (Tut: people, Saout: cows, Civis: Strawberry, Tribi: I eat, Vo: there is/are). Then we had an amazing potluck meal of bread, cheese, local salami, slow-cooked beef from the Breton teacher’s farm and of course, delicious wine. I also learned that Daoulas has existed before Washington was even a state. It’s really humbling being in a place with such deep-rooted history. The US seems almost like a child in comparison.
So the next blog with include what I’ve learned about france (the industrialization of their cheeses (Sacre bleu!), nitrate pollution, and rotting plants that release enough hydrogen sulfide to kill wild boars (which have killed their fair share of the French aristocracy). Also more about Daoulas and the culture of the Bretons!

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Gardens of Paris

Today I went out without looking at my map. Simply followed the Seine to see where it would take me and I found myself at the natural gardens of Paris. A part of the zoological and botanical society, thee garden was composed of many beautiful lines of flowers, lovingly landscaped in those rectangular rows the French are fond of. The edges of the lines of gardens were bordered by trees and this led to the main building, which of course was majestically old. Also found in the gardens were numerous mini-ecosystems of alpine species from around the world, plains, bog, and even tropical example in gigantic greenhouses. I did not visit the last variety because of the cost. I realized as I walked through the gardens that this was the most relaxing comforting thing I had done yet. I always feel comfortable in nature because really no matter where, the fundamental rules are the same. The whispers of the single progenitor of life are carried in all living things. More than the Louvre, more than Notre Dame, the gardens reached far deeper within me. I thin k it also has to do with the fact that Notre Dame has become a tourist destination first and Church 2nd or 3rd. The Louvre contains many amazing pieces of art, but the vast majority are removed from their context like finding a glacier in the Kalahari. Babylonian palace carvings simply look out of place in the Louvre, where 3000 years ago as the Middle East was convulsed by empires and wars, the tribes inhabiting France had barely started on agriculture. How that would have galled 🙂 the Babylonians to know that their monolithic civilization would one day be found in the halls of those dirty barbarians. Heed that warning America. Someday we might find the head of the statue of liberty in the grand museum of New South Africa… Paris is amazing. Every corner on every other street history lies in wait. Even the schools that many of the children go to are incredibly old, some even have gargoyles! Well, time for dinner and some delicious dessert.

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Togo to France. Lost in Transmutations

So, I’m still having trouble writing about the termination of my time in togo, but I will start my blog with an update from… Paris!

So, yesterday I arrived in Paris, complete with sandals and the only pair of jeans I’ve owned for the last and the sense of home one created. Of course before leaving I had some interesting mini-adventures.

First, upon arriving to the airport I was in the process of giving Reise a hug goodbye when I was told by a guard that we needed to take our ‘show’ elsewhere. So, typical of some Togolese, who look towards others who modeled power often see those individuals who just abuse it whenever they can, so they do too. The guard, who probably enjoyed the opportunity to tell off the usually more socially ‘powerful’ white individuals (this is more an assumptive set than anything, relating to perceived wealth) did not expect me to totally ignore him. In togo, demonstrations of affection are considered usually inappropriate, but in lome you often see individuals holding hands and even occasionally a kiss. Watching him persist and be entirely ignored, slowly reach the comprehension that these individuals didn’t blindly respect authority and if he wanted me to reduce to a handshake I should’ve better seen some legal basis. Yet, being harassed for hugging was by far the least felonious action that would follow me that night. I got into the airport, 2 am, and I wouldn’t sleep for the next 17 hours ( 38 hours awake in total), but I had extremely helpful and friendly individuals from that point on. Weirdly, I kept getting ask to show my passport, 7-9 different people demanded. I would turn a corner a bored looking individual would ask ‘passport s’il vous plait’ I would show and we would chat for a few minutes and then I would go on my way. Pretty soon, I realized, I was just being stopped because people wanted to talk, nothing to do but sit around in an airport that has maybe 1-2 outgoing flights a day (keep in mind this is the capital of togo). Even when my guitar went through scanning, the agents asked me to open it for them, and thinking that they found it rather suspicious I did. When one agent began to test the strings and the other agent began pestering me to play for them, I began to feel rather weird. This was fast becoming a very strange airport experience. Well, I squeezed away from the musically deprived custom agents and continued on to my gate. I was sitting down, when another customs agent comes and sits by me. He asks me what I did, where I was going, ask for my contact info, so I gave him my email that doesn’t work and ask for his. His sat for a few minutes absorbing my address into his head and then asked me if I was in business. Curious, I said yes. He asked me then if we could do business together. If I had things that I needed sent through, if he could send me things from togo. Very quickly it became clear that he was inviting me to smuggle with him. I don’t enjoy customs, but the the occasions where I have 4 pounds of cocaine and need to sneak it by are incredibly rare. Yet, it certainly would have been handy to have before I boarded, I had at least 12 people ask me to take them to the united states and they were perfectly content to rest in my baggage. I could have started selling duffel bag space at premium prices! Well, I thanked the agent for his interest and then asked him to send my an email. I was assured before I left that our ‘partnership’ was extremely common… Somehow, I really don’t doubt it.

Then on the plane flight to Ghana I had the lucky chance to sit by the Ghanaian soccer team for accra. They had just finished qualifying in rabat and their coach was very curious about Togo. Unfortunately, I was exhausted so I really don’t remember what I or he said.

So france…

Well, france is great. It’s been entirely gray since I’ve arrived. I’ve had some difficulty getting hotel rooms, my French is better understood usually than I thought it would be. I saw the basilica of Sacred heart, the Eiffel tower and the Asian, American, African art museum today. I snacked on delicious bakery goods, there is fresh croissants and pain au chocolat within 2-3 minutes of my hotel in any direction. The food, the sights, the public transportation is all so amazing. Everything is incredibly different, I feel rather shocked almost as if I can’t believe that I truly am out of Africa, I keep on thinking I’ll wake up to heavy, enfolding tropical heat and when I was in the garden of the art museum, modeled after African and Asian influences, the head high grass bordering some paths could have very easily been the same that borders paths in my village. To see something so evocative, yet in such an incongruous place, made me feel unexpected sad. I’ve left everything I knew, and now I’m in the land of the colonizers, in a city obsessed with past, 3200 kilometers away from a country that can only see the future.

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