4 for the price of 2


I’ve been in Mozambique for work for the past two weeks (hence the silence here). One thing I quickly noticed, which I also remarked in Cuba a few years ago, is that once you know one Romance language and a little bit of another, you basically know them all. It’s magic!

I visited Cuba right after finishing a Spanish class that had gotten me through the basics:  the most straightforward past, present, and future tenses, a lot of vocabulary, and simple syntax and grammar rules. That grounding got me about thisfar in conversations with Cubans, but that was good enough for me. Through my arduous journey to French proficiency, I’ve come to expect incremental language-learning progress, and I can now see and appreciate it more clearly.

While traveling in the Cuban countryside, I met a trio of Italians who took the same bus back to Havana with me. We had a nice conversation in English, and then they started speaking to each other in Italian. It felt like my intense week-long effort to concentrate on Spanish allowed me to open up my ears and let the Italian wash over me – and I heard the Romance in it, so to speak. I could understand the gist of what they were discussing – what to eat for lunch or something like that.

Here in Mozambique, I’ve had a similar experience with Portuguese. Funnily enough, I’ve been communicating mostly in French, since my two closest colleagues and collaborators do not speak the greatest English. French is our lingua franca. It’s been very good practice, and as in Cuba, it – and my rusty-but-still-in-there-somewhere knowledge of Spanish – has unlocked the Romance in Portuguese. I’ve learned to turn the sh sounds into s sounds, and with a few other auditory acrobatics, it’s basically Spanish. And when my Spanish isn’t strong enough to understand what someone is saying, my French fills in the gaps.

There’s been multiple moments when I haven’t needed my colleagues to translate for me because I’ve gotten a full enough sense of what someone is saying based solely on listening for the similarities between Portuguese, French, and Spanish. Now I understand what my Czech father meant when he said that he could understand Polish even though he never learned it and could not speak a word of it.

Language families are the best families! Just kidding. But they are pretty great.

The saga continues


Just in case you are on the edge of your seat waiting for an update on my tale of woe…

I would like to introduce you to two close companions of mine.

Here’s Perry, my dientamoeba fragilis:


I believe he took up residence in my intestines fairly recently, perhaps in Ghana. Apparently he’s a crafty guy who evades detection, so I’ll never know for sure where or when I picked him up.

And here’s Zoey, a blastocystis hominis who’s been with me for at least a year:


Because the consequences of harboring this particular parasite are medically unclear, when Zoey showed up in my test results last summer, my gastroenterologist decided to ignore her for the moment and focus instead on treating other things that were more likely to be causing my intestinal distress.

This time around, I saw my integrative medicine doctor before my GI, and when she discovered that I now have not one but two parasites calling my intestines home, she prescribed a ten-day course of metronidazole, which goes by the drug name Flagyl. I’m three days in and it is making me super nauseous and dizzy. It is also probably doing a lot of collateral damage to my gut, but who knows. It’s all very unclear. So much is unknown about digestive health; it’s frustrating.

Still, I’m happy to be doing something, anything, to get my house back in order. And by my house I mean my body, because what is my body if not my home? Parasitic visitors are not welcome in it. 

I saw my GI the day after I saw my integrative medicine doctor, and though she agreed with the course of treatment, she also told me not to expect too much from kicking out these home crashers. She said that achieving anything close to a balanced microbiome is tricky for people like me, and that I may still feel shitty even after the parasites vacate the premises.

Still, I’m excited about the presence (and imminent departure) of my two parasites. It means that I can possibly blame something separate from myself for my digestive failings. It also opens up a new front in the battle for my gut health. Heretofore I had been fighting again generic bad bacteria and general bacterial imbalances; now I am fighting against two very specific enemies with very specific names.

So, after leaving the first doctor’s office, I found myself happily humming a song we used to play on the record player when I was a kid, “Me and My Teddy Bear.” Only I was singing “Me and My Parasites.” I ended up writing a full adaptation that is now stuck in my head: 

Me and my parasites
They have got strong tenants rights
Just me and my parasites
They play and play all day

I hate my parasites
They keep me up both days and nights
Oh I hate my parasites
They prey and prey all day

Every night they’re with me
As I climb up the stairs
And in my guts they glisten
And give me toxic flares

But me and my Flagyl pill,
Are out to get em, kill kill kill!
Just me and my Flagyl pill
We slay and slay all day

Then me and my one body
Sans parasites and I’m set free
Just me and my one body
I pray and pray all day

I enjoyed the exercise so much that I thought, maybe I should write a book of poetry called “Rhymes for the Digestively Distressed”? It’s an uncaptured niche market for sure…

[Top photo: Osvaldo Gago; parasite photos: CDC]

the weekend is here…


… and I have a few links — all from the New York Times — burning a hole in my inbox pocket. So before I leave you to your weekend adventuring, here they are:

This is science fiction come to life. Since I was a little kid frustrated by having to put my ideas into words, I have yearned for a tool that could read my mind and transfer my pre-verbalized thoughts into another person’s brain, and vice versa. I never, ever thought it was actually possible. Well, this comes pretty close:

Meanwhile, this is the story of the last three years of my life, and perhaps it resonates with your life story as well?:

I’ve been thinking a lot about “fair trade tourism” recently, and I intend to write about it here as soon as I have time to compose my wide-ranging thoughts in a somewhat organized manner. In the meantime, I found this article on ethical travel thought-provoking — especially how narrowly they defined the term for the purposes of the article.

When I read the article below, it sounded highly familiar. I searched my blog and lo and behold, four years ago, in a blog post with an almost identical title to this one, I linked to an earlier New York Times article about this same exact subject. It remains fascinating.

Senegal: the Casamance


In March, I traveled to the Casamance region of Senegal for work. I didn’t realize until I was making the plans that I had actually been to the Casamance before, as Kolda is technically in the Haute Casamance. But the area of Senegal that is reputed to be the most verdant and beautiful is the Basse Casamance, the western section on and close to the ocean. And this is where I would be heading for work. I was pleased, to say the least. Some pictures…

Continue reading

Egúngún, right here in NYC


As may have been clear when I wrote about it in February, I was in serious awe and admiration of the egúngún masquerade that I saw during the Vodoun festival in Benin. I really didn’t know much about the tradition before visiting; I had mostly just seen photos that blew my mind and convinced me to visit. Since then, I’ve been reading up on it, and the subject grows more and more fascinating with every word. It also grows more and more confusing in certain ways, due to nuances in the cultures, religions, and ceremonial practices of close but not entirely similar peoples who share the egúngún tradition, like the Fon in Benin and the Yoruba in Nigeria.  So, I will quote liberally from authoritative texts rather than try to explain things in my own very unauthoritative words.


Last weekend I was excited to visit the Brooklyn Museum for their exhibit of an egúngún costume made some time between 1920 and 1948 in Nigeria by a family called Lekewọgbẹ. The museum describes the exhibit as:

“the life story of a twentieth-century Yorùbá masquerade dance costume (egúngún), from its origins in Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́, Nigeria, to its current home in Brooklyn. Composed of over three hundred textiles from Africa, Europe, and Asia, this egúngún swirls into motion during festivals honoring departed ancestors. Centuries old, egúngún is still practiced in Nigeria, the Republic of Benin, and in the Yorùbá diaspora.”


Also according to the Brooklyn Museum, egúngún is a Yoruba word that can refer to three distinct but related things: “all Yoruba masquerades, a specific masking society and related festivities, and the particular masks used in those events.” Egúngún masquerades go back hundreds of years to the sixteenth century.

“Most often appearing at annual festivals that honor immortal ancestors, egúngún also emerge on special occasions or at moments of need. The masks are vessels for communal ancestral spirits and, as such, are active only when occupied by those forces or ny maskers embodying those spirits. Men who perform egúngún remain human while temporarily taking on a spiritual dimension as they physically manifest unseeable ancestral forces. As dancers must conceal their human form to achieve this, they also wear gloves and long socks; a mesh panel at the front permits them to see during performance. …

During festivals, the masked egúngún travels from the shrine or grove to the streets and public centers, accompanied by drummers, singers, ritual specialists, and crowds of followers. These festivals reunite ancestors with the living, who assure the success of their community by lavishing praise and ceremony on the returned relatives. Spreading breezes of blessing in return as it whirls and dances, the egúngún allows the ancestors to participate in the present.”

My interest was piqued when I read that the egúngún tradition is alive and well in the Yoruba diaspora, including Brooklyn. A quick Internet search led me to the realization that the annual Isese Festival featuring an egúngún masquerade is just around the corner on Sunday, June 2. It starts at 11:00am at Locks of Nu Natural Hair Salon, 2000 Fulton Street. The procession will then make its way through the streets of Bed-Stuy. It is firmly on my calendar and I can’t wait to go. If you’re in the NYC area, I encourage you to come, too!

Here’s the invite from their site:


a super shitty story


I don’t know why but I have been looking forward to telling this story since the moment it started with a bang. Perhaps there is catharsis in the public airing of my literal dirty laundry. Perhaps I am a perverse exhibitionist. Perhaps I just like talking shit.

On that note, I plan to italicize every statement in this post that is both literally and figuratively true. Because if I’ve realized anything over the course of this very shitty time, it’s that the word “shit” is a stand-in for basically anything and everything in American culture. Why is that? Could it be that our culture is as obsessed with poop as I am? I’ll come back to that later. First I have to tell you how this shit started. Continue reading