Saturday, July 28, 2007

The things I did do during the past week

I have been trying to post something once a week at least, which makes me look back on what I did, what I read, what animals I saw, and so on… Even if I don’t write it all down because it is boring, classified, or too similar to something I did the previous week, it makes me feel better about myself. All right, I did do something after all!
The highlight of the previous week was reading Delirio, by Laura Restrepo. The book’s style is rather challenging, but I read it and enjoyed it. And I am really proud of my progress in Spanish. The story is divided between three (four, if we count the aunt) alternating narrations, but each one of them is mostly linear so that helps. The real challenge is this: what would normally be a paragraph is made into a sentence; what would normally be a chapter is made into a paragraph, and the whole novel is treated as if it were one chapter. Sounds weird? It is, but it is also surprisingly easy to get used to, and then I wondered why we insist so much on setting out dialogue, etc…

Here’s a random example:

Aguilar a duras penas logra pegar el frenazo para no atropellar al mendigo que
de buenas a primeras sale de la lluvia y se le atraviesa a su camioneta, Pero
qué mierda hace este loco suicida, por poco lo mato y el corazón me patea del
sobresalto pero según parece a él toda la escena le importa un bledo, simplement
hace parte de su rutina y de los gajes de su oficio, y sin que yo sepa a qué
hora ya está metiendo una mano por mi ventanilla mendicante, Dame para un
cafecito, hermano, que el frío está berriondo, me tutea como si … [sentence goes
on for another half page].

Condensed and roughly translated version:

Aguilar almost runs over the beggar, But what the hell is he thinking, I almost
killed him, and my heart is pounding but he doesn’t seem to care, it’s just part
of his routine, and now he’s sticking a begging hand in my window, Give me money
for coffee, brother, it’s cold, he tells me familiarly as if…

She does capitalize the would-be sentences, but the language still flows right past the comma simply because we’re used to moving on. Obviously, the biggest challenge is that there are three distinct voices crammed in there: the narrator, the beggar, and Aguilar. So it works, but I only think her technique is effective so long as it is unique.

I saw two gulls! The first one was a young slender-billed gull Larus genei in flight, and the second a summer plumage adult white-winged tern Chlidonias leucopterus. They both surprised me, since I am not really expecting any interesting birds for another month at least. I finally got some pictures of the desert foxes, but they aren’t so good so I’ll try again. I did, however, catch this neat pipistrelle-type bat (I know nothing about bats):

Then I solved the problem of the blue-less Trapeles persicus lizards. It is indeed the female that has no blue on the underside, and the male that does. Even on the male, though, the blue becomes hard to see when they are on the lookout for big predators like me, because they start to hug the ground and fold their throat pouch. I caught a female and a male, but I couldn’t take pictures of the male’s underside in my hand because he bit me really hard (he drew blood, actually). So here is the male after he bit me and I involuntarily gave him his freedom back:

And here is another cute Stenodactylus gecko. This one is called Stenodactylus doriae. He looks somewhat like Stenodactylus arabicus (which I also photographed in my hat), but yellowish and spotted, and more aggressive-looking.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Kuwaiti foods, a few books, and the newspapers

Life has been rather eventless lately. I made several unsuccessful attempts at photographing the desert foxes that come out at night, and I caught another long-eared hedgehog a couple of nights ago. I’ve been reading books and newspapers to pass the time, and I’ve been getting more time to talk to the Kuwaiti border police personnel. I’m not even trying to improve my Arabic, since any progress I might make wouldn’t really be significant enough to make this mission much more enjoyable. Spanish is much more important to me at this point. I still have a long way to go until I am fluent in it, but not nearly as long as Arabic.

One of the advantages of spending time with the Kuwaitis is that their food is far better than ours. This is a light meals, in comparison to others that I have had. I still know a lot of food names, but I just make the Kuwaitis laugh with the Iraqi dialect I am used to. Some of the sergeants on the border now call me Abu Timmin, because I didn’t know that the Kuwaiti word for rice is ’Aysh, and I used the Iraqi equivalent: Timmin. From the American point of view they look like a bunch of uncivilized picnickers, but in fact there is a whole set of unwritten rules on how to handle each kind of food. I guess my table manners are bad by Kuwaiti standards. Oh well…

I just got done reading Mi País Inventado, by Isabel Allende. It was not a great book (informal, and too short), but it made me re-evaluate the other books by her that I read this year (Cuentos de Eva Luna, Hija de la Fortuna, Zorro, La Casa de los Espíritus, and Retrato en Sepia). What surprised me most is just how much of what she writes as “fiction” is actually straight from memory. I still get impatient when she has female characters act and think like upper-class, modern American women (such as a nineteenth century Chilean woman who opens a microcredit bank for poor women). However, I had to completely re-evaluate La Casa de los Espíritus and Retrato en Sepia, in light of the fact that they turn out to be almost all family lore.

I also got some interesting comments on Chilean society from this book. Some anecdotes are really funny, like one about a powerful landlord who used to say the following rhymed prayer after having raped the women on his property:

Señor, no fornico por gusto o por vicio, sino por dar hijos a tu servicio.
(Lord, I do not fornicate for pleasure or for vice, but to provide children who
will serve you)

I really wish she would just go ahead and write a people’s history of Chile. Her description of the late 1800’s expansionist war against Peru and Bolivia is extraordinary, and Zorro is unexpectedly full of neat descriptions of California, Spain and New Orleans in the early 1800’s.

According to the crown prince of Kuwait, the Amir is Father to all Kuwaitis, and he has “inherited from his honorable ancestors deep insight into the present with all its reality and, in tandem, exploring the future with all its dimensions and potential either on domestic or foreign policy at all levels.” I know, this is grammatically dubious, but this is exactly how it was reported in the Kuwait Times a few days ago. The original Arabic. probably sounded even more like a badly translated Hindu scroll. His deep insight decided that Kuwait needed a new weekend. Starting in September, Kuwaitis will get to rest Friday and Saturday, instead of the current Thursday and Friday.

Hey, if I had his abilities, I’d adopt a new weekend too: Tuesday through Sunday.

Nobody seems to mind the coming of the new weekend, since unlike the US where the weekend tries to encompass the Sabbaths of Jewish, Catholic, and Adventist traditions, here everyone that matters is Muslim, and there is only one sacred day of prayer – Friday. So the day of rest is just a recent addition, a western import. As for the imported labor that does 99% of the work in Kuwait, most of them never get a day off so they aren’t impacted.

I also learned about a really neat office in the Kuwaiti government: the “Supreme committee for the ideal mother.” Its chairperson is Sheikha Fareeha Al-Ahmed. She thinks Kuwaiti youths are corrupt because of insufficient satellite TV censorship.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Things to do in the heat

It’s hot out here – REALLY hot. Not only does the sun beat down almost vertically on us, but the breeze is even hotter, and carries little sand particles that get in our eyes, nose, everywhere. Also, there is no natural shade whatsoever, no grass that might diminish the glare, no rain that might keep the sand down, not a single cloud that might occlude the sun for a short while.

The larks just stand out in the sun, beak open, looking stunned and forlorn. Only the dhub lizards seem to deal with the heat all right. As for myself, I just drink inordinate amounts of water, and I have to watch that I don’t step in and out of air-conditioned areas too much, because that makes me feel sick. In some places such as the command post tent, there’s a good fifty degree difference between inside and the afternoon heat. Going in and out of there makes me feel like I am being repeatedly kicked in the stomach. Jad says it’s because I’m skinny and I have low blood pressure. I think he’s right.

Since this is hopefully the hottest temperatures I’ll ever have to live in, I made a couple of experiments.

First, I ran along the base perimeter at 1700 one day, when the temperature was around 115 degrees F. I made it in 52 minutes and 25 seconds, which for the 6.5 mile distance is slow, but this wasn’t about speed. I stopped sweating around mile four, not because I had run out of water as Army doctrine says I would, but simply because my sweat glands were “turned off.” When I stepped into the air-conditioned gym tent, I started sweating profusely until my body temperature was back to normal, and then I stopped sweating even though I think I still had plenty of water in me. I didn’t get a headache (once again, the Army says I should have), and my skin was not particularly “cool and clammy.” The most disagreeable effect of the run was that my saliva turned into a white paste that was very similar to school glue, but thicker. After ten minutes of AC and a liter of warm water, I was back to normal. So I guess water loss isn’t as dramatic on the long-term as the Army says it is. I don’t know how long I could keep running without any water, maybe another hour or so before losing consciousness. Whatever it is, it’s way past the Army’s limit for hard work in extreme heat. I think I could get used to living and working out here without air conditioning, but it wouldn't be fun.

Second, I read about camel herders in western Sahara (not the country) who spend the hottest part of the day wrapped in wool blankets. I had indeed noticed that when the outside temperature is below body temperature, putting on my ballistic armor makes me hotter, but not as much when the outside temperature is greater than my internal temperature. I put on some long unused polypro underwear to a couple of patrols, and I didn’t really feel a difference.

The only proven remedies for extreme heat remain: going to Southeast Alaska and staying there, or entering an air-conditioned area and staying there. As a result, we’ve been waiting impatiently for the end of the deployment (less than a hundred days in Kuwait left!), and spending as much time inside as possible. Here I am, staying out of the heat:

I just love my computer – how did I ever get by witout it? It’s my post office, radio stations, shopping center, CD player, cinema, and everything else in a single small, relatively cheap, incredibly high-tech toy.

It’s simply incredible what is out there on the web nowadays. For example, I was just trying to by a GPS, and read a comment leading to a link that sounded funny. And of course there went several hours of my not-so-precious time following links from all over the world. I ended up on the blog of a Chilean author I had never heard of before! He writes about interesting books, critics magical realists (“Colombia, un país donde los ‘garciamarquianos’ o los ‘gabistas’ abundan como el café y la guayaba”), and even has some really interesting insights about my perennial dual language problem (he was born in California and moved to Chile when he was thirteen). One of them follows, written in English in the original:

“Yes. Some people believe there is such a thing as bilingualism. I have my
serious doubts. One can speak, even write in different languages, but one of
them must dominate. And in my case, by now, it's Spanish. I am a
Spanish-language author and, more important, a Chilean. In the United States
now, I have an accent. I stumble on spelling and, though I may talk all day in
English, at the end of the day, I will need to revisit things in Spanish.”

So I’m getting one of his books, along with the GPS receiver and some Chinese “Lapsang Souchong” smoked tea. I just can’t believe what is accessible to people almost anywhere in the world. Having grown up in Paris, it came as a matter-of-course that the world’s greatest paintings, libraries that could answer any queries, and any kind of music or food I might fancy, would be readily available. But now this is all easily accessed from my couch!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Larks - as promised!

Yesterday was the fourth of July, but I didn't get to celebrate that. I had meant to run in the five kilometer fun run but I couldn't participate, so the fourth came and went like every other long, hot, boring work day in the desert. Actually, I did drink a non-alcoholic beer and eat a slice of pizza after my shift.

There still have been some reasons to celebrate a little. We've now been on active duty for a year - there are only about four months left to go for most of us. Why do I say "most of us?" The National Guard is always broke. If we can get sent to Army schools immediately after coming back from here, the cost of the school will be borne by the federal government, not the state.

Another reason to celebrate is that I finally got my promotion to sergeant, which had been promised to me loooong ago but the paperwork kept getting lost, filled out wrong, etc... So this is the "Sergeant Lost Frenchman blog," from now on! This year I was the number one infantryman for promotion to sergeant, so my chain of command put extra enrgy into the matter and the problems were worked out. Now I can boss everyone around! Actually, no. My job won't change, except that I'll be paid a tiny amount more and I won't have any more excuses for making mistakes.

Lesser people blog about Middle Eastern affairs, Washington conspiracies, and Paris Hilton. This blog post is about what really matters: larks.

Larks seem to be the only bird that can take the heat out here - whereas almost all the other birds are gone, larks have actually increased in numbers since it got really hot! There is something awesome and bizarre abut the fact that they spend the summer in this dry, hot, predator-infested inferno even though a fertile river valley is just a few hundred kilometers away. This one is my favorite, the hoopoe lark Alaemon alaudipes. The hoopoe lark is the biggest of the larks I see around here. It runs more than the other larks, and it has a really neat early-morning flight song ritual that I got to wake up to every morning while I was on southern Iraq missions.

Here is by far the most common bird around here: the crested lark Galerida cristata. Anyone can recognize it; it's the one with the crest. They are always around, but somehow I have been having a very hard time getting pictures of them. I got this picture by waiting for about an hour by a small mud puddle where a water truck had overflowed.

And this one is another very neat species - The bar-tailed desert lark Ammomanes cincturus. Okay, this particular one looks really worn-out and ragged, rather like a stuffed specimen Julien just pulled out of a dusty crate from an eighteenth century museum expedition. It was very much alive, though. Just hot, miserable, and more than due for a molt. This lark looks like a bleached, featureless female house sparrow when landed, but when it flutters about it is easily identified by its soft flight and rounded, ochre wings. Normally the bar on its tail is not as visible as in this picture. I see this lark quite often in places where there is not even a shrub in sight, and sometimes in small groups.

Finally, this is the desert lark Ammomanes deserti. Every time I see a desert lark, it looks different. I always have a hard time figuring out what it is, and every time I am disappointed by how dull the bird is. This one happens to look like a pipit with an unusually thick bill and no streaks, but generally they are just boringly and confusingly non-descript. Some are sandy or tawny, and some are grey like this one. The thick beak, dark above and pale below, and the soft flight are the only real identification criteria that have worked for me.

Then there is only one other lark I have identified here: the really cool black-crowned finch-lark Eremopteryx nigriceps. They got really close to me, but of course I didn't have my camera handy when I found them.