As a boy growing up in Illinois, March meant Spring was just around the corner. I was always alert for tiny hints, like the sprouting of a crocus from the half-frozen soil, the sighting of a robin fluttering in a dogwood tree, or the sweet sounds of a mother screaming, “Get the hell outta this house with those muddy shoes!”
Now that it’s March in Mali, I’m training myself to be aware of the coming of “hot/dry season” through subtle signs, like the gentle tug of your inner eyelid as it adheres to your dry cornea, the forming of scabs in your nose as you inhale oven-like air, or the distinct sounds of a student vomiting from heat exhaustion during recess (a sound I was serenaded with in my classroom just last Friday).
Jamey and I survived the wet season (June-Oct) like it was nobody’s business. Roads that resembled the mighty Mississippi? We could have pulled a water skier behind us the way
we barreled down the middle of these rushing rapids in our Toyota something-or-other (we’ve had that vehicle for 7 months and I still can’t remember what it’s called, but I think it’s silver—or maybe grey?). During this season a monsoon wind blows from the southwest, bringing with it dark, ominous clouds and severe rainstorms with some wicked lightning and thunder. Obviously coming from South Florida, we are accustomed to this type of meteorological event, though I must admit that during the storms here in Bamako there are no old people driving at a snail’s pace with their hazard lights blinking.
The cool/dry season (Nov – Feb) was a dream. This is when the northeasterly Alize wind, the French name for trade wind, blows relatively cool air upon Bamako. Our windows stayed open to let in the refreshing breeze–and maybe a burning plastic smell if the neighbors decided to burn an old suitcase, which they did–and you could actually wear a long-sleeved shirt without passing out.
As we gloated about successfully making it through each season, our colleagues never failed to remind us about what was coming. “Oh, you just wait until March when the hot/dry season starts….bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha,” they quipped, about four hundred times or so.
Seriously, I’m actually glad it’s March so they can’t use that line anymore. But then again, the hot/dry season has its downsides. To quote Britannica.com, beginning this month “the harmattan, a dry, hot wind that blows from the east out of the Sahara, sweeps the soil into dusty whirlwinds and is accompanied by daytime temperatures of about 104 to 113 °F (40 to 45 °C).” Anyone for a noontime run?
This is our first experience with a dry climate. And when I say dry, I mean a chunk of the sun fell next to you and sucked every milliliter of liquid from your pores—no sweat, tears, snot, saliva. I sometimes wonder if I still have blood flowing. If it wasn’t for moisturizers I
would look like the father of the chameleons that crawl all over the place here. Fittingly, the best protection against dry skin is shea butter, or karite as they call it here, which is made from ground-up nuts that grow here. It’s not greasy or smelly, and it makes your skin soft as a baby’s bottom—the perfect remedy for lizard skin.
It was also this month when we first noticed that the master bedroom AC unit (known by the exotic sounding name “climatiseur” in French) didn’t make the room quite as cool as it had previously. We reasoned that the hotter temperatures outside made the AC a tad less effective, but then we woke up a bit sweaty one morning when it was actually cool outside and decided to have it checked.
Now the great part about our housing here is that the school handles all maintenance issues, so we simply put in a work order and someone visits the house the same day and when we get home everything is magically repaired. Except for this time. That evening we didn’t notice a bit of difference, even though our facilities guy said it was. And then in the wee hours of the morning the AC imitated the possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist, letting out a sort of “You’re going to burn in hell” scream (I think it was in French, or Latin maybe) and grinding to a halt.
So we dragged ourselves to bedroom #2, which features only a twin bed with room for one. That meant dragging in the twin mattress from bedroom #3 so one of us (and that would be me) could sleep on the floor. We clicked on the small AC unit in that room and tried to return to REM sleep. An hour later at 3:00 AM, when normal people are dreaming or snoring, we were still wide-awake in a warm, stuffy room. Obviously the demon from the master bedroom climatiseur had possessed this unit as well.
So we dragged both twin mattresses to bedroom #3, poured a line of holy water across the threshold to keep out the broken AC demon, and cranked the AC unit to its lowest setting as we crossed our fingers. By 4:00 AM I was nearing frostbite stage, so I assumed all was well with this climatiseur and wrapped another blanket around me.
The next day we filled out another work order, this time for both AC units, and explained the problem to one of our maintenance guys. The trouble is, it’s a little uncomfortable to bellyache over AC temperatures to a guy who not only doesn’t have air conditioning in his own home, but doesn’t even have electricity. I felt like a pampered Palm Beacher complaining that my caviar was too salty or that my Lamborghini looked spotty because someone didn’t dry it after it rained.
Living a good portion of my life a stone’s throw from Palm Beach—one of the wealthiest enclaves on the planet–I’ve had plenty of exposure to pampered rich folks who feel that
the world resolves around them. To earn extra cash I worked a few weekends at a Palm Beach garden shoppe (you have to spell shop like that if you’re catering to the wealthy). One of my tasks was filling palatial mansions with flowers and plants to welcome the homeowners who were about to jet in for the weekend from their estate in Fancy Pants, Connecticut or their penthouse apartment in NYC. We would bring in thousands of dollars of orchids, roses, apple blossoms (or whatever other flowers were not naturally blooming at this time of year) and place them throughout the house.
Once I had to position 30 potted Phalaenopsis orchids around a giant, sunken, white marble bathtub without leaving a single fleck of bark or a spore of moss on any surface or “the wife would go nuts.” I’m telling you, I had all kinds of ideas what I could leave in that bathtub that would really make her go nuts.
Another time, as we were filling a mansion with two vans full of flora, the owners arrived without warning, their private jet having landed an hour early. We were always told that, in the event the homeowners were present, never ever to address them. The husband passed us in the foyer (pronounced “foy-ay” of course) and my friend Mike—against all rules– bid him a good afternoon. Without a word or even a glance in our direction, he went into the master bedroom and slammed the door.
But we were in a dilemma…we had not yet adorned the gymnasium-sized master bathroom with Norwegian pussy willow or Icelandic edelweiss or whatever ridiculous endangered plant they had requested. And the only way to access the bathroom was to go through the bedroom where Cashy McCashpants was watching TV–which, BTW, rose from a slit at the end of the bed, with just the touch of a button.
The choices were like an old episode of Dynasty: leave the bathroom unembellished and suffer the wrath of the beautiful but cruel socialite, or interrupt the serious mogul/tycoon who was tired after a long day of closing factories and putting hundreds of people out of work. We opted for option two, being slightly less afraid of the husband, but still got a hateful “Don’t interrupt me again” as we left the room.
This is what I think about when we approach our humble maintenance staff with requests like “Our AC doesn’t seem as cold as usual.” I don’t want to be the evil Dynasty character, even though our modest salary nearly puts us in the wealthy realm compared to what the average Malian earns. I don’t need pampering when our security guard pedals his bike an hour to get here each day, then remains outside in the heat for 12 long hours while inside we watch Downtown Abbey and whine that the AC is not chilly enough. I’m not that guy!
So we were careful to explain the “problem” to the maintenance guys, trying our best to make it sound like a very, very minor inconvenience that we barely noticed. And to be
clear, the maintenance guys always take our “complaints” seriously and are gracious about getting the repairs made…Malians would never think to roll their eyes or call us wimps. Again they spent a portion of the day at our home tinkering with the AC units, changing parts, testing, and so on. Well, you probably guessed that nothing had changed by that evening. Despite their assurance that all ACs were working fine, the climatiseur produced air that was neither hot or cold, just kind of like someone’s breath blowing down on us.
We let this go for a week, hoping that our purchase of a swamp cooler would improve our interior climate. This contraption, a sort of tall fan on a stand with a water reservoir at the
base, puts moisture in the air. Moisture is not a word you hear much during the hot/dry season, unless it’s someone saying, “Look, the sun has desiccated this cat, removing all of the moisture from its body.” So we welcomed this invention into our home, as Jamey assured me that adding moisture to the air would also make it seem cooler (some scientific principle, I think).
Two things, though. (1) When we turn it on, it sounds like an army helicopter full of special ops is hovering inside the room, so TV viewing or conversation is out of the question. And (2) the moisture feature is so effective that if we leave it on for too long, it feels like we are back in Florida in mid-August when the humidity makes it feel like you are walking through a swimming pool.
I finally mentioned our dilemma to Caroline, our school director, who promptly called in the facilities guy and someone to interpret and had me explain the whole ordeal. The end result was that—in one day–they completely replaced two of the AC units. The one in the master bedroom works so well we are considering opening an ice skating rink in the bedroom on weekends to make a little extra dough. The unit in the living room, not so much—human-breathy air at best. We will eventually get up the nerve to report this as well.
Fortunately we have not been visited (yet) by the whirlwinds of powdery, orange soil that leave the air hazy and put everything into soft focus. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still dusty. If it wasn’t for all of the daily dusting and floor mopping we do (and I mean “we” as in our maid Fati) everything inside the house would appear to be made of orange soil. And that’s after leaving the windows and doors closed all day.
We’ve decided that any clothing or footwear we buy in the future will be in shades of burnt sienna only, since that’s the color everything turns eventually anyway. Sadly even our 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets are taking on an orange glow. I’d like to think it’s because they gather dust when they are hung out to dry, but I fear we are transferring orange soil each night from our skin. Soon we will be the color of John Boehner. Wow, come to think of it, if he was nude
he would totally disappear into the scenery here.
We really only have to endure the H/D season for 2 more months, and then school’s out for the summer. And honestly, what does it matter what the temperature is when we go from our air conditioned house to our air conditioned Toyota something-or-other to our air conditioned school. It’s not like I’m tarring roofs or laying asphalt roads…I teach in a classroom with two large AC units and five ceiling fans. Poor me.
And frankly, hot weather is not such a big deal here. Unlike the States, there are no weathermen harping on and on about record-breaking heat and showing lists of way you can survive the heat….because it’s always damn hot here this time of year!
People still go about their business working in the fields, selling stuff on the roadside, and living in homes without AC. This time of year Malians often sleep on their roofs in little tents made of mosquito netting. We still get our daily exercise in, doing a run every evening (we even ran to the store to buy olive oil to save a car trip), though we finish a bottle of water during the actual run and don’t produce sweat. And in your daily comings and goings, the weather forces you to slow down and chill out, and that’s a skill we need to learn, stat!
On our three-minute drive to school last week, after our night-of-the-broken-AC, I said, “I’m exhausted. This is going to be a looong day.” Just as I finished saying this we passed two guys sleeping on a blanket on the side of the dirt road, next to their semi-trailer truck, clouds of orange dust drifting over them as each vehicle passed. “But I think we’ll survive,” I added as I cranked the AC down another notch and clutched my tin of caviar.
I love reading about your adventures and teaching experiences in Mali. I can’t remember how I ran across your blog, but I’m glad I did. My husband and I leave at the beginning of August for our adventure in Lagos, Nigeria. We’ve decided that life’s too short to wither away in the public school system in the U.S. I expect that the weather we’ll experience is much like what you and Jamey have “enjoyed”, although at least you have some experience with heat and humidity. Good Lord, we’re from Washington State, so I know it will be a challenge adjusting to the weather and overwhelming population!
Best wishes for a great finish to the school year for you both!
Thanks for reading the blog, and congrats on making the decision to teach abroad…very exciting. Initially it’s a scary step, especially starting in Africa (!) but once you’re there, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. Keep in touch–would love to hear about your adventures in Nigeria. And if you have any questions about moving abroad to teach, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s all very fresh in my mind!
This is one of your best! We’ll work on the living room A/C tomorrow…..
Thanks Caroline. No rush on the living room A/C, really!
Jeff, I so enjoy reading your posts from my couch on this beautiful Texas spring day. We’ll soon be suffering our own 100 degree plus weather, but i wont be in Africa! What a grand adventure you are having. Love you, Louwane
Thanks Louwane! Isn’t it funny how both of us got the travel bug at the same time on that infamous jaunt around Europe many years ago? Better come and visit us here someday. I would suggest avoiding the hot/dry season though 🙂
Great story, love reading your posts.
Sent from my iPad
Thank you–I appreciate your feedback–challenges me to write more/better!
Hello, my name is Kiana Reed and I am a former student of Dr. Sherer. He told me about your blog and what you have done, and told me it may be beneficial to talk to you. I am highly interested in teaching internationally, and would love any advice/help you could spare! I also love how you write your blog! Thanks! – Kiana
I started reading your blog when I found it on the Internet under a question entitled “ What’s it really like living in Africa ?” I started to look at it and before I knew it I had probably read most of the entries up until Jannuary 24th, 2013. Then I just started working on my own goals: grad school or finding another teaching job overseas? (One word of advice for the future: although I have not taught many years overseas, I have encountered some international schools where the directors did not follow the contract or lacked integrity. That was no fun ! Hence this uncertainty within me about returning to teaching overseas…to be seen.) Some background info on me: I have also taught in a few international American schools, including West Africa. But I have never taught in the interior of Africa and reading your latest posts the other night makes me wonder if I would be able to handle the heat as I have always lived on the coast in African countries. Like you, I also accidently found out about the international American schools overseas teaching positions (long story) and so after my B.A. I got my teaching certification. BUT ISS told me I needed to have 2 years of teaching experience before I could be accepted as a candidate with their recruiting agency. Ugh !!!
So I did my 2 years in a public school where the classes were huge, there were few textbooks/resources and most of my students were very rough/rude (it was not always their fault as they came from broken homes.) And as you mentioned, there were those standardized tests-except at that time they were not as big of a deal. Recently, I discovered I was really out of the loop (because of mainly teaching overseas) when I began to notice this year how standardized testing has become so “important” all over the USA.
I agree with you-it’s totally ridiculous and not the way to actively engage students in the learning process.
Anyway, for some reason I looked up your blog again last night and read your latest entries. This time I decided to bookmark your blog under one of my “favorites” on my computer.
By the way, I actually tried to apply for a job at AISB this year but Caroline was looking for teaching couples due to financial reasons. So each time I read about your experiences I admit I get a little envious. It sounds like Caroline is a really nice director.
Finally, the main reason I am writing tonight is because I just could not resist telling you how much I enjoy reading your entries. I don’t know if you take turns writing the entries or if it is the same writer (my guess judging from the writing style is that it is the same writer).
In any case, you are a very talented and creative writer. I also enjoy what I perceive to be a sense of awe, amusement and the occasional sarcastic comment. I think this blog could really become a book some day or that you should seriously think about becoming an author (yes-I know- I hate when people tell me that because 1) I have heard it wayyyyy too much and 2) it takes lots of discipline which I don’t think I have and 3) just because one can write well doesn’t mean they need to go write a book). So, I’ll be following your adventures from time to time from now on whenever you update your blog. Oh- and send that bright African sunshine here (I live in the USA for now)- the weather sucks (since November!)…..
I see you changed the cat names. Understandable. 🙂
Just hopped over here from the link you left on your response to the Teacher’s Resignation Article in the Washington Post (appreciated your comment there btw). After a full day of teaching – without any of those pesky requirements and tests, since I teach kids outdoors in my own self-designed program – I settled on the couch for a rare evening of doing whatever I want, and found myself swept up in your great, humorous writing. Thank you for it!
Thank you so much for the comment Aimee. I’m so glad I facilitated some good couch time!
Just stumbled across your blog recently, devoured it, and sent the link to my colleagues teaching here with me at an international school in Central Asia. Your “dessicated cat/moisture” line made me chortle coffee right out of my nose…fantastic!
Keep up the brilliant writing. The only note I have for you is one of “waaaaahhhhh…wish there were more entries”.
Your postings are relatable to so many of us teaching halfway around the world, outside our literal and figurative comfort zones. I certainly never thought I’d remember sidewalks as spectacular inventions, or wax nostalgic for traffic lights/lanes/signs that drivers view as commands, not just mere suggestions…
Thanks for the blog!
Thanks Julia–I really appreciate your feedback. And I love your sidewalk and traffic observations, which fit Mali to a tee!