Thursday, October 26, 2006


Ah - settling back in Atlanta. When I arrived back from Niger, I had two weeks until pediatric boards, so I didn't do a lot of socializing. I did get to connect with Sarah, an awesome woman I met in Niger. We were on the same plane home, and talked for hours over our pain chocolat and cafe au lait. In the words of Anne of Green Gables, she's a kindred spirit! She was in Atlanta for a conference, so we went out for dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant.
I spent most evenings at Starbucks with my friend Deidre, as EIS officer a year ahead of me, who was in the pediatrics class I started with at Vanderbilt. She didn't get to take boards last year because she was deployed to Katrina. So nice to have a study buddy!

Peds boards were Oct 23-24. I didn't realize how many former Vandy peds residents would come down from Nashville for boards - here's the crew! It was a fun reunion. There's one notably young resident. Andrew (the one guy in the picture) was a med/peds resident with me, and his wife Deb and son Henry came down with him. (And yes, the relative risk for being blonde if you do a peds residency at Vanderbilt is quite statistically significant!)
The peds boards were 2 days - 4 three hour sections, each with a 150 question book - yes, still on paper, and grueling! I ended up finishing most of the sections with some time to spare, so I would run up stairs and hang out with Deb and Henry.
Me and Henry - the world's most irresistible almost three year old!

Samir and Vidhya put on a post boards dinner that night, invited a great assortment of classmates (many with kids), and then announced that they are expecting, too! So there was much celebrating, and much passing babies around! For those celebrating by imbibing, the rule was "baby before beer". (Although someone pointed out that in the beginning, it's often beer before baby.)
Tommy (the baby in this picture) had just started eating a paper plate. Tommy's dad had just taken Infectious Disease boards. (but that's Samir holding him)

Christine and baby Gia

Kate and Tommy

Disclaimer: None of the said babies belong to those pictured with them. :)
Gosh, you'd think no one ever feeds Tommy!
I had another great treat the next day when my friend Richie, also in my med/peds class at Vanderbilt drove through with his 6 month old son Richie Jr., his beautiful wife Rosmira, and her parents, on their way to visit his parents in Florida. What a gorgeous little boy - so serious! (Actually, he mostly slept.)

Richie, Rosmira, Richie Jr., and Rosmira's parents

What's next? Visiting Nashville this weekend, going to my medical school roommate's wedding the weekend after that, having a highschool friend visit the weekend after that, BOTC the weekend after that... and trying to get Niger data analyzed, the protocol for my next project sent off for IRB approval, several writing projects and presentations done....but at least I no longer have to study 5 hours a night!!!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The End!!!

After our grueling trip back from Timia to Arlit and then Agadez, we had another grueling drive from Agadez back to Niamey. These pictures were taken on a break at a gas station in Tahoua, where I drank two bottles of coke.
Moussa is utterly spent.

All the guys resting on their prayer mats
And the girls look just exhausted!

Back in Niamey, I had a couple days to get my visa extended (which was pretty easy) and to work with Etienne to get all the data downloaded from the PDAs (which was very hard). A dear friend of my family, Rev. Scott Clark, was in Niamey for a conference on using Arabic script to write local languages, so we visited the national museum to see if he could find any examples there. We didn't, but were directed to a research institute dedicated to studying and preserving them, which was fascinating.
The National Museum was fairly impressive. There are both pavilions and artifacts, and a fairly decent little zoo.
Beautiful water birds....
And a hippo waiting for his pool to fill back up

One of the dinosaur fossils - they have some pretty amazing skeletons in their collection!

This poor thing is the remains of the most famous landmark in Niger, the arbre du Tenere, or Tenere tree. At one point it lived in the desert and was the only landmark in the vast Tenere desert between the Air Mountains and the oasis of Fachi on the 600 km long camel caravan route. In 1973, a Libyan truck driver backed into it, and it has lived it the National Museum ever since.

Night in Tima and leaving the mountains

I had promised the teams a sheep (the favorite meat) to celebrate when they finished the survey, and they held me to it. Only problem is that sheep are pricey in Timia! I shelled out 80 bucks for a sheep, which they decided to have roasted. I was a little apprehensive (fortunately I never had to see the sheep in one piece), but it was delicious! With all the teams, drivers, and military, there were 22 of us, so the meat was divided into platters that we all sat around.

Pouring tea - love that stuff! And loved watching him make it.Our platter of sheep :)
In hierarchical Nigerien society, the drivers and the military were sat down together, so I decided to turn the hierarchy on its head and sit with them. Gotta love all of us with our bottles of Coke beside our now empty platter - we made short work of it!

I did pay a visit to the gals.

Bed time - there weren't mattresses, so the girls just put a mat and a blanket on the ground and all piled on. Timia was the first time I was cold. I looked down at the thermometer in the cold early morning and it was down to a bone chilling 78 degrees. Oh well - I was still happy I had brought a jacket, and glad to crowd under a blanket! The climate is much milder in the mountains than the surrounding desert.
Peole started getting up at 4:30 the next morning, and we were on the road by 6 am. It took us eight hours to drive the 130 miles back to Arlit - you'll see why.
At one stop, I had a chance to jump in back with the military guys for a picture. The guy who took it cropped our heads, but I just love it. The two I'm sitting between are Akadam Bougnasse and Damotane Adebamba (he's the one who was always making the tea).
Apparently, when it rains in the desert, the fine sand turns into the worst mud imaginable!
Our vehicles made it through this OK, but then ran into trouble....
Our land cruiser was the one that kept getting stuck and having to be pulled out.... (note the window replaced with wood - that's the one that got caught in the riot in Niamey and had a window knocked out)
but at one point 3 of the 4 vehicles were stuck and the fourth had a flat. Idrissa managed to get us all unstuck and back on the road, but it took a lot of team work.
Moussa and Sanouna with their pant legs rolled up.

Timia 2

Timia is known around Niger as a mountain oasis that is an incredible fruit producer, so we took a tour of one of the orchards. Most of them are a thin irrigated strip between the mountains and the sand, but are incrediblly luxurious - grapes, date palms, apples, oranges, pomegranates, mandarins, grape fruit, all practically on top of each other, and trees just weighed down with fruit. I have never seen anything like it! I bought a sack of grapefruit and a sack of pomegranates.


As Timia sees its fair share of tourists, a couple small hotels have sprung up, and one has a pair of ostriches, some Barbary sheep, and several Dorcas gazelles. As large animals in Niger have been hunted almost to extinction, it was a treat to see them, and these folks are trying in their limited way to guard their existence. The animals have fairly large enclosures and looked healthy and well cared for.

Me trying to convince a rambunctious little Dorcas gazelle to hold still for a picture.

They are absolutely precious!

When the sun set, we climbed to the top of the hill to the fort with a guide, who showed us around the inside of the fort and explained its history. Here are some of the orchards, seen from the top.

Here is the village of Timia, illustrating that it is just a thin strip along the edge of a sandy mountain valley, with surrising lushness. In the foreground are the pits out of which the mud for the houses was dug - they now fill with water for livestock.

The guide on the left on one of our military escort on the right on the fort's balcony. Yes, I am small and stout next to Tuareg! The military guy's name is Akadam Bougnasse, apparently a classic Tuareg name, and he's got to be at least 6'6". He had such striking facial features that I had trouble tearing my eyes away from his face on occasion. I never got a picture of him smiling, but he had a great smile. That afternoon he accompanied me and Idrissa everywhere we went, enjoying the sight seeing, but always alert and clearly on duty. Made me feel very protected!

Timia 1

Our teams finished mapping and surveying Timia by noon, so we had the rest of the afternoon off, a much needed break and the official end of the survey (the other 6 teams had already finished and were back in Niamey). We spent the hot part of the day sleeping under a tree, then I joined Idrissa, the Red Cross logistician, for some sight seeing. A few kilometers outside Timia are some waterfalls that originate from a mountain spring, so they flow year around, even during the dry season, though they are only a trickle if there hasn't been recent rain.

The spring originates in this little cave behind a tree and flows through the valley.

The terrain all around is incredibly rocky and almost barren, except for occasional trees and a sparse dusting of grass in places.

There was a Tuareg rebellion in 2004, and our military guys told us about chasing Tuareg rebels up hills of boulders like this.

But soon you cut down into the valley and see the beautiful blue pool of clear cold water. There are several smaller pools in the rocks above, as it's sort of a multi-tiered waterfall. I and a couple others swam across a couple times, climbed up the rock wall on the other side to look at the little pools above, then dove back in. It was the most refreshing, invigorating, exhilarating swim I've had in a long time!
The rocks around it have been sculpted into waves by the eons.

Group pic in the pool, before I decided to go for a real swim.

In the middle of the village is a conical hill with a French fort, built in 1952, nestled on top. It was never actually used for military purposes, but the view from the top is amazing!
The well in the middle of the village.

Idaoudene and Abarakan

Eventually, we started seeing real mountains rising above the sandy valleys.
A lot of the landscape was very stark, almost lunar, but became beautiful as the sunlight played on it and reflected different colors.The first selected village was Idaoudene, where the chief, picture here on my right, was at least 6 foot 8 inches.
Our military escort sat down and started making the traditional Nigerien tea - they were not fasting. Nigeriens often carry around these little wire stands for charcoal, and tiny teapots, so they can sit down anywhere and make tea. The Nigerien tea ceremony is very complex and exact, and consists of three "(shot) glasses, the first "as bitter as death", the second "as mild as life", and the third "as sweet as life" (and boy, do they pour in the sugar!!) I really enjoyed their hospitality, as they always offered me a glass.
We couldn't do Abarakan, the next village, that night, so we camped out at their health center and did it the next morning before continuing on to Timia.
Sunrise over the boulders rising behind the health center. It was Sunday morning, and I climbed up to have some prayer time, which sparked an interesting conversation when the gals asked what I had been doing up there.
This is the health center, and all our vehicles, looking down from the boulders - rather pretty with the light behind it.
Saley, one of our surveyors and one of my favorite people, with some of the women in Abarakan. Poor Saley had a simmering malaria practically the whole time, for which she was sporadically taking chloroquine (difficult on your stomach when you're fasting). She finally gave up and took artesunate near the end, and felt much better.

Arlit and the Air (pronounced I-Ear) Mountains

Arlit is a three hour drive north of Agadez and could not be more different. While Agadez has been settled and important in th history of the region for over 1000 years, Arlit was built in the 1960s when uranium was discovered under the sands of the Sahara. For several decades, Niger boomed, and while the price of uranium has fallen, still is responsible for 1/3 of Niger's exports. We had to visit one of the mining company offices at the mines to get permission to conduct our survey in the miner's quarters, which had been randomly selected for the survey.

The miner's houses are built in very mod (1960's) squares, with blocks and straight streets, very unlike the rest of Niger.
Arlit's climate is noticeably different than Agadez, as Arlit is in the true Sahara. It was about 105 in the shade and I pulled my thermometer out of the sun after it hit 115. It was a dry heat, and even 95 degrees at night felt pleasant with the desert breeze. After we finished mapping the quarters in Arlit that has been selected, we set out for the villages that had been selected in the Air mountains. You have to get across about 60 km of desert first, which is not trackless, but has many intersecting tire treads, and unless you bring a good guide to set you on the right one to enter one of the narrow passes into the mountains, you could end up in Algeria.

The sand and fine gravel are occasionally punctuated by large boulders and few sparse, stunted trees. When it rains it the desert, water puddles stand all around for a few days.

We traveled in a convoy of our vehicle, two teams, and a logistician. In the end, we were glad we had so many of us traveling together. It was a lot of fun to race across the sand together.
Since there had been sporadic banditry in the mountains, we picked up an armed escort from a military base in Arlit. They were Tuareg, and I really enjoyed interacting with them.

One rode in our vehicle in front, and three piled into the back of the logistician's (Idrissa's) truck. With their fatigues, turbans, and rifles, they looked like some sort of desrt militia, but you feel so safe when you know they're your guys. I love this picture of Idrissa with the thumbs up out the window!

Eventually, the desert gives way to rocks, which give way to boulders, and you start climbing into the mountains. We stopped for a photo op here.