My Bout With Malaria

Image

1987, my close-of-service in Peace Corps. After three years, my volunteering was complete. I went for a small celebration to the Hotel 2 Fevrier in Lomé with my girlfriend Armelle to see Martin Scorsese’s “The Mission.” As we filed out, I could tell some kind of achiness was lurking beneath my skin. I reminded myself that I had taken my weekly dose of chloroquine phosphate. Should be OK. Probably just a mini-flu that if I get to bed early I could nip in the bud.

We returned to our friend’s house in Lomé’s quiet Kodjoviakope neighborhood near the Ghana border. A fitful night of sleep, and when I tried to awake the next morning, it was clear my lethargy was due to a rapidly rising fever. The first rise was like a small roller coaster. I probably hit 102, remained there for a couple of hours, and then the fever dropped to normal, leaving me more tired.

Our friend, a kind and funny German doctor named Joachim, watched over me, uncertain what I might have. He initially suspected pneumonia. But I sensed he was just saying that to avoid using the “M” word. After all, I was done with Peace Corps, the US government no longer saw me as their responsibility, and Joachim knew my options were somewhat limited if I had malaria. But he remained vigilant to my signs. That evening, when the fever began to rise again, Joachim didn’t need a blood test. It was the classic arc of malaria: fevers that spike and fall in the course of several hours, leaving the body wrung out with fatigue. This time though, it was more like the kind of roller-coaster I never have had any desire to ride, the kind that will pull G-forces, the kind that metaphorically will smack you with a 106 fever. If measures are not taken, malaria can spread to the brain, and that’s something you definitely want to avoid: cerebral malaria kills.

Rounds 2 through 6 of the fever were killers. I remember little of those two days. What I recall is this:

The hallucinations were both beautiful and scary. I kept having a recurring fantasy about a machine that would fix anything. I kept thinking on and off through the fever about that “fix-it machine,” and as the notion crossed my mind, it would be followed by the most exotic colorful patterns that would turn dark and eerie.

At one point in the early morning on the downward slope of one of my fever spikes, I found myself on all fours, vomitting in the shower. Joachim appeared in my field of vision with a butterfly net. He used to catch geckos to give to his son in Germany when he travelled home. (Rumor had it that Joachim actually brought ganja back to Germany from Togo, buried in the litter of the gecko cage, but that was never confirmed). Joachim stood there with his net, bent over at the waist, and sollicitous of my situation, but not feeling he needed to get deeply involved at that point in my sickness, opting instead to just let me get it all out. “Ca va?” he inquired in the Togolese French that he normally spoke. “Ca va?” he repeated. I turned my head momentarily and nodded an unconvincing “yes.” And then returned to focusing on the drain.

When I had a moment in the low part of the fever curve to think, I asked Joachim what I had done wrong. I slept under a bed net. It wasn’t an insectiside-treated bed net like the kind Amy Costello reported on here. But I never slept without it. And I took my chloroquine regularly. Joachim’s explanation was simple: chloroquine resistant mosquitoes were migrating from Gabon north to the coast along the Gulf of Guinea.

The final thing I remember was the needle going into my butt. Joachim had gone to the pharmacy for Quinimax: 2 mls of yellow thick fluid the color of unhealthy urine. It was so viscuous that once injected, it sat there like a small dome on my buttock as it slowly joined my system.

The next fever spiked lower. And with the second injection, they stopped altogether. Joachim had a Togolese cook, a luxury in my eyes. The first solid meal I ate was one the cook prepped: liver and onions. It shouldn’t have tasted good right then. But it did. And I was grateful.

Notes from a Sunny Boston

Boston’s Mayor Tom Menino allowed free parking in the city center through today, Sunday. It’s part of a push to get people to not flinch, and come quickly back to the scarred downtown, and Boylston Street in particular, where two bombs blew apart the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and ruining many more lives. That shockwave continued through the manhunt and city-wide lockdown on Friday, April 19, and on into last week. This sunny and first truly warm spring weekend in Boston since then was, in a way, designed for healing. Or at least good weather to begin the healing process.

Image

Walking down Boylston Street, the scene opened with a surreal soundtrack. A man with an electric keyboard sat near the site of the second bomb, the Forum Restaurant. He played spacey and dirge-like synth music.  A sign on his cash-bucket said it was “smooth jazz.”

Image

A woman I met named Betty – from New York but a former Boston resident – was standing nearby. She was wearing her blue 2013 Adidas Marathon jacket. She had crossed the finish line about 45 minutes before the blasts, running on behalf of the Dana-Farber Challenge. A friend of hers on the team was stopped on the course after the bombs went off, and didn’t get to finish the race. So on Saturday this weekend, he ran it again, completing it this time to honor his pledges, with Betty as “road support.” She’s run 24 marathons. “It’s so surreal that any of this happened,” she said.

Image

In a crowd of people gathered in front of the other bombing site, the Boston running-gear store Marathon Sports, I found Francisco Barochas. He had just arrived in Boston yesterday from his home not far from Monterey in northern Mexico.

Image

The bombings really upset him. He was in Mexico, following the race on TV when they happened. He comes to the US a lot, and his family thought briefly he had already travelled to Boston on April 15, might even have been at the finish line. His first full day in Boston, he had to see the site. Francisco told me that not long ago, a cousin of his became one of the many victims of Mexico’s drug war. In order to process the violence he said, “we go to church and pray for them, and visit family.”

Image

In front of Marathon Sports, I also met Chrissie Hutchinson-Jones and Chris Hutchinson-Jones. She had just moved to downtown Boston as a graduate student in 2001 when 9/11 happened. An immediate evacuation of the tall buildings in Boston after the planes hit their New York targets that morning created a car-less quiet in downtown Boston, the memory of which returned for her during the April 19 “shelter in place” order.  “The trauma we experienced reminds me of 9/11, but also that very strong sense of community and care for one another that we’ve experienced as well,” she said.

Image

On the other side of the Charles River in Cambridge today, another community: people had gathered on the shared front lawn of the Cambridge Public Library and the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the high school the Tsarnaev brothers graduated from. Some students had organized a group called CRLSstrong, and a couple hundred past and present students, teachers, and other Cantabrigians gathered “to reflect on the Boston Marathon attack and the subsequent tragic incidents that caused many deaths and injuries.” I arrived as things were beginning to wind down.

There had been a moment for comments from students, mostly embracing the cultural diversity of Cambridge, and how that has always seemed to make for a tolerant city.

I ran into a young woman I know from my Cambridgeport neighborhood who graduated from CRLS in 2006, the same class as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. She said she didn’t really know him. She was glad to see some old faces. “People are dealing with it in their own ways. But this is kind of like a class reunion!”

Image

Max, class of 2003, now works for a VH1 reality show in New York. He happened to be in town this weekend, so came to the school. He warned me he would be a cynical voice. Cambridge Rindge & Latin he explained “is an interesting, tolerant, accepting place. Yeah. But it’s not like a g**damn unicorn farm or anything. I mean people say, ‘There’s a Haitian club.’ Yeah, there’s a Haitian club. The Haitians mostly hung out with the Haitians, the black kids mostly hung out with the black kids, the white kids mostly hung out with the white kids. It’s just like any other high school,” he said. “These kids could have gone to any high school.”

I know of former CRLS students from Djhokhar Tsarnaev’s class who remain in shock and disbelief over the news of their classmate, and are in varying degrees of personal crises over the gap between the reality they have read and seen on live TV, and the person they thought they knew. But it seemed most people were grateful for the chance to connect – even with this horrible story as the glue – on this sunny afternoon.

Image

Grief

Grief

Look at the pain in this woman’s face. It is hard to imagine the tragedy and shame that created this grief.

Reuters photographer Mansi Thapliyal in New Delhi took this picture. And since I saw it a few days ago, I can’t get it – and all it signifies – out of my head.

The woman in the picture is Ram Bai, mother of Ram Singh. Ram Singh is the man who drove the bus on that night of madness in New Delhi in December, allegedly participating in the rape and murder of a 23 year-old woman who had just stepped out of a movie theater with her friend. He is the same one who was found hanging dead in his jail cell on March 11. That’s when this picture was taken.

It’s hard to know what her grief was in reaction to. The news of her son’s death? The accumulated shame and infamy that he brought on their slum of Ravidas, where she had to continue to live? Or, with his death, the finality for her of an unbelievably violent narrative that had at its center a person that she had brought into this world? We may never know. But her face somehow says it all.

These recent articles from Time and Reuters underscore the poverty that runs through this entire story.

La fiction pulpe de Gerard de Villiers

putschCOVERRobert Worth writes a compelling and entertaining portrait of French spy novelist Gerard de Villiers in this week’s New York Times Magazine. I was introduced to de Villiers’ SAS series when I lived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. No. 76 in the series is “Putsch à Ouagadougou,” and as Worth explains in his story, the book contains undeniable verisimilitude. “Putsch à Ouagadougou” was banned for many years in Burkina Faso when Capt. Thomas Sankara was president. The plot tells you why: SAS hero Malko Linge arrives in Ouagadougou to spearhead a coup d’état against a President Sankara. (I re-read large chunks of the book when I saw Worth’s article, and could not find the “camarade-president” to have a first name, but perhaps that just added to the believability of the story). At the time, like anyone else in Ouagadougou who wanted to read it, I had to ask for a contraband copy from one of the city’s many street-side booksellers who would lay their wares on a table. If you were polite, a copy of “Putsch à Ouagadougou” wrapped in a sheet of newspaper would be quietly taken out of a box below the table. That had nothing to do with the requisite sex-scenes every 25 pages or so, and everything to do with perceived propaganda against the Sankara regime.

One of the remarkable things that Worth highlights in his profile of the author, and which is also true of “Putsch à Ouagadougou,” is de Villiers’ attention to detail. I thought he had a research team that travels to these far-flung places around the globe to gather phone books, maps, photographs, anything that would make the narrative as realistic as possible. But in fact, de Villiers does the research himself, spending a couple of weeks in these places, and then returning to Paris to write.

Here’s a short list of a few of the accuracies de Villiers nails in “Putsch à Ouagadougou.”

There is a Hotel Silmande, and it is the ritziest of the hotels in Ouagadougou.
There is also a Hotel Indépendance. It exists, and so did the electrical short — described accurately by de Villiers — in the underwater light at the hotel pool that on certain days made people jump right out of the water.
A certain Colonel Joseph Ouedraengo who will take the place of President Sankara when he is toppled is exiled in Ivory Coast. OK, such a person did not exist, but if you were opposed to Sankara in the 80s, you were likely in Ivory Coast, or France.
The real life Thomas Sankara had a bodyguard who was mixed race whose name was Gilbert Guengeré. De Villiers also describes in his book a mixed-race bodyguard who was like someone out of Haiti’s Tonton-Macoutes. This one’s name is Bangaré.
And true to form, de Villiers gets the local beer correct (Flag), as well as various bars and nightclubs which existed at the time.

If you needed a manual on how to stage a coup in Burkina Faso, this book would have served quite well. Sadly, the coup against Thomas Sankara — when it happened on Oct. 15, 1987 — needed no instructions. It happened simply, staged by the man who knew Sankara best, the army captain who was always by his side, Blaise Compaore. He’s the one who organized the 1983 coup that put Sankara in power. And he remains in power in Burkina Faso today.

It's research.

It’s research.

My Last Days of Disco

54

My flirtation with the Bee Gees came not around their early AM hits like “Massachusetts.”  I was one of millions to cotton on to the new Bee Gees when “Saturday Night Fever” — the best two-hour promo reel ever for a musical style — took the world by storm.  That was 1977, and “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive” jumped out as disco warhorses.  In the months and years that followed, my musical tastes became informed by an ever-eclectic mix of sounds:  70s Rolling Stones, early R&B and soul, jazz, and the glamourous funk of disco.  When I graduated from high school in 1979, there were two songs that had come to define disco for me:  “Le Freak” by Chic and “Ring My Bell,” by Anita Ward.

After graduation, my buddy George and I headed up from North Carolina to New York for a week on vacation.  Disco was the soundtrack because the city was in full disco-lockdown.  Wherever you went, it seemed like Anita Ward’s bell hook was streaming out of boomboxes, cars and taxis, and shops of all sorts.  The other thing that was on our minds was Studio 54.  We had clubs in Raleigh, but nothing like the palace we had heard about in the lyrics to “Le Freak.”  But George and I were southern preppies at the time, and because of our social rank, didn’t believe we had much of a chance of getting in.

Still, we headed down in our khakis, polo shirts, L.L. Bean moccasins.  I recall throwing on a beat-up blue seersucker jacket just to appear slightly up-market.  George and I got in the scrum on the sidewalk in front of 54, pressing as close to the velvet rope as possible.  I don’t know if it was owners Steve Rubell or Ian Schrager or someone else, but there was the “casting guy” in back of the rope scanning the crowd for the right people to let in.  We had been there a couple of minutes, half-heartedly waving our hands like everyone else trying to catch the gatekeeper’s attention.  But he spotted us first, and then pointed.  “You preppies over there, come on.”

And that was it.  We were in.  And it was a blast.

Fleeting, free-floating recollections:  the dancers on stage in hot pants; a crescent moon that descended above the heads of the dancers, a giant spoon lowering to just below its nose, giving the moon a bump, and the moon’s eyes opening wide; hearing every great disco anthem ever made up to that point; the towel boys in the bathroom wearing only silver lame Speedos and high-tops; the Park Avenue women in white dresses looking as blasé Bianca Jagger, but ready to dance with anyone.

I don’t recall what time we stumbled out of there.  We went back for a second dose the next night, and revelled in it again.  When my aunt heard that we got in, she figured she’d come with us for a third visit.  But as a threesome, we did not make the cut.  Maybe because we had a third wheel that didn’t quite look like us or fit in to our age cohort.  Maybe it was a different gatekeeper who didn’t like us and our the preppy look.  Who knows?  It just felt like that bit in “Seinfeld” where George returns to the beautiful people club, but it’s evaporated.  There’s no club.  It was a mirage.

Less than a year later, I was just starting college.  And in February 1980, the disco-dancing mecca of Studio 54 closed.  It had been raided, Rubell and Schrager later found guilty of tax evasion (even with Roy Cohn as their attorney), and it felt like its closing marked the end of disco in the way the Stones concert at Altamont marked the end of the 60s.

Studio 54 remained under lease to Rubell and Schrager, and it served as a live music venue in the 80s.  But never again did it regain the cachet I got to witness in 1979.

Tennesee Williams and Marisa Berenson at 54. Yeah, it was like that.(photo: Anton Perich)

Tennesee Williams and Marisa Berenson at 54. Yeah, it was like that.
(photo: Anton Perich)

Reporting Mistakes, Recording Mistakes

L1001646The story I reported for the program today from Coney Island was eye-opening.  I got to meet the owners of archetypal pizzeria Totonno’s in Brooklyn, and will be delighted to return when they re-open so I can taste their product.  I was introduced to the owners of Gargiulo’s, a classic Italian-American special events restaurant.  And I witnessed the sad wake of Hurricane Sandy after it had morphed into a superstorm by the time it hit New York and New Jersey.  Across Coney Island, there are reminders that the neighborhood is not the same post-Sandy:  trash lies uncollected, building materials litter the sidewalks, many homes and stores are vacant.  But there are reminders that this is a recovering disaster zone…in America.

No matter how long I do this job, there are times when I still slip in the craft of it.  In the old days of radio, the number one rule was to pack more batteries and cassettes into your kit bag than you could possibly need.  “You never know,” is the overarching guide.  With flash-memory recorders, you still need the batteries, but not the cassettes.  You just need the appropriate memory card.  And typically, one will do fine.  But I had previously removed the memory card before heading down to Coney Island.  So there I was, an hour plus from midtown Manhattan and my CF (compact flash) card for my Marantz 660 recorder, in an emergency zone, and not many shops open.  Antoinette Balzano had already met me in front of her family’s pizzeria, Totonno’s.  And the second I turned on my deck, there it was in the digital display:  “NO CARD LOADED.” Thus began about 20 minutes of contrition and stress.

I was Antoinette’s the late model white Jaguar, a camera on my lap, and the recorder’s display virtually screaming at me, “You idiot:  where is your spare memory card?  Why did you leave the other behind?”

“I am so sorry,” I say to Antoinette, who was busy on her car phone trying to line up a replacement for Totonno’s ruined Hobart pizza dough mixer.  “What?!  Are you telling me Hobart is a monopoly?  No other company makes this machine!!?” Her temper with a restaurant supply company attendant was red-lining.  I waited.  When she got done with the call, I tried again.

“I am really sorry to ask you this, but do you know if there’s a Radio Shack or a Best Buy anywhere near here?”  She didn’t seem worried.

We went to the Radio Shack.  Nothing.  They only seem to sell cases for mobile phones these days.  Then, CVS.  I’ve had decent luck in the past finding memory there, but not this time.  Then a Russian shop at the back of a shopping plaza whose sign claimed they specialized in computers and flowers.  “No CF,” said the man behind a counter of old electronics equipment and, yes, plastic flowers.  “It’s old format.”  Yes, I know, thanks for reminding me.

Finally, at a Walgreen’s that claimed it was a photo specialist, in the back of the store, I found CF cards.  Phew.

The show could go on.
L1001678 2

Three Tales of the Leadership Crisis in Africa

How bad are things for some heads-of-state in Africa?  Let me tell you three stories that can help answer that question.

One:  the president of Mauritania was at his country home over the weekend.  Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was returning to Nouakchott, the capital, when his car stopped at a checkpoint.  Allegedly, one of the soldiers didn’t recognize him, and accidentally shot him in the arm.  Or the abdomen.  Maybe both.  Many people when they heard the story, well they assumed it was a coup that had failed.  But no, insisted the president, it really wasn’t.  It was just an accident.  And other observers in Mauritania ultimately believed him.  As a newspaper editor in Nouakchott said, the country’s soldiers are very nervous and live with their fingers on the trigger.  President Aziz is now in Paris recuperating from his injuries.

President Abdel Aziz appearing on Mauritanian television after the accidental shooting. He was later flown to a hospital in Paris.

Now, Mauritania is a country where most of the leadership changes since independence in 1960 have happened at gunpoint.  I haven’t done a full count for all of Africa, but let’s just say a lot of governments have changed that way since 1960.

Which brings me to this next Africa item:  The Mo Ibrahim prize.  It was started in 2007 by Mo Ibrahim, a cell phone magnate who was born in Sudan.  The idea is to award the multi-million dollar prize each year to an African leader who really delivers on promises, and who democratically transfers power to his or her successor.  But this year, it was announced today, there was no winner — because the committee couldn’t find anyone who qualified.  Same thing happened in 2009 and 2010.  Which makes this final African story all the more poignant.

Capt. Thomas Sankara, about two weeks before his death

25 years ago today, one of Africa’s brightest lights was killed — in another one of those barrel-of-a-gun transfers of leadership.  Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso, shot by his second in command and presumed best friend on this day in 1987.   Some Americans might have remembered Sankara’s speech at the UN General Assembly in 1984.   That’s where he stated his immortal words, “without a patriotic education, a soldier is nothing more than a criminal in power.”  Kind of rich coming from an army captain president.  But he had a lot of the continent rooting for him.

His killing was the first big story I covered in Africa.  I stayed in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, waiting for the coup-maker Captain Blaise Compaore to fall.  It never happened.  And now, 25 years later, Mr. Compaore is still in power.