Wednesday, April 26, 2006

(for JF, who put it all in perspective)

"Well, you could stay home and watch TV instead," reflected a colleague as I fretted about my next travel adventure. My father and I are going on safari in June. We're heading to the Okavango Delta in the northwestern corner of Botswana in southern Africa. The game viewing there is superb, and all the charts promise lions, elephants, cheetahs, colorful birds, and everything in between. The fancy coffee table book our safari agency sent us is filled with glossy panoramic photographs of the African bush, and I easily imagined myself in the landscape, free from all worry and bother, waiting only for the next friendly predator to stroll languidly past my tent.

But that was before a friend--a travel nurse--sent me the Botswana package from Travax produces country reports focused on health and safety issues synthesized from data provided by the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization. After reading the 42-page document, I wondered why I'd paid for my safari package in full. I also wondered why the photos from the safari agency showed tourists in shorts and sleeveless shirts--didn't they know about malaria? ticks? UV exposure? What about the food and waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid, and cholera? Airborne contagious diseases such as polio, influenza, and tuberculosis? Measles, sleeping sickness, and parasites in abundance? And let's not even get started on HIV/AIDS. Turns out Botswana has the second-highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the world, with an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate among adults of 37% and 33,000 AIDS deaths each year (out of a total population of 1.6 million). For perspective, the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate among adults in the United States is less than 1% (0.6% to be precise), and AIDS deaths reach about 14,000 people each year out of a total population of almost 299 million people. I checked the CIA World Fact Book to make sure Travax wasn't making this stuff up. Don't breathe, don't eat, and definitely don't have sex in Botswana.

Believe you me, I ran to my doctor for a first round of innoculations (DPT and hepatitis A for starters) and for a slough of prescriptions. Because the risk of TD (traveler's diarrhea) is so high--there's bacterial diarrhea and protozoal diarrhea, so if you don't get one, you'll get the other--I came away with three prescriptions just for diarrhea: one for bad diarrhea, a second for really bad diarrhea, and a third for really, really bad diarrhea. Next week, I go to the travel clinic for the second and final round of innoculations (typhoid and polio) and to discuss which of the many malaria profylaxes has a chance in hell to work in Botswana. Turns out African mosquitoes are mutating like crazy and many are resistant to anti-malarial drugs. Great. Does that mean the tubes of 35% DEET cream I bought to slather all over my body and the giant bottle of super-toxic Permethrin I'm supposed to spray on every article of outer clothing before I leave are just an exercise in wishful thinking?

As I was ranting about all this to my sister one evening, she looked at me askance. "How did you miss this stuff?" she asked me. She writes geography books for a living and is just coming off a period of writing specifically about Africa. She loves to relay to me all the statistical data she's gathered on the countries she's writing about, so Mali's human misery index, Uganda's information campaign against AIDS, and guinea worm eradication in Senegal are daily conversational fare between the two of us. I guess I'd missed this stuff because, like most Americans, I live in a cocoon of public health splendor. An Iranian taxi cab driver once told me that the U.S. miracle is its vast and highly effective system of agricultural distribution. Now that I'm going to Botswana, I think it's our ability to manage and protect public health on a grand scale...and still have money left over to go to the movies.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


I didn't really want to come to Disneyland for the annual science teachers national convention, but now that I'm here, I'm not sure I really want to leave. Everything is perfect. The weather is glorious, pleasantly cool in the early morning and comfortably warm by afternoon. The flora is in full bloom--yellow day lilies, shrub-sized clivia, paperlike California poppies, bougainvillea, azaleas, lantana, hip-tall birds of paradise, camellias and clematis as big as plates, and everywhere everywhere the gentle susserating of palms. Birds chirp high in the trees, a sociable sparrow shares my breakfast scone, and from morning til night, children squeal with a mix of delight and terror as the Disney machines, on their slightly rusted rails, hurl their occupants through space for an all-you-can-ride thrill.

There's not a speck of trash anywhere, no signs of poverty or distress, and at every turn, there's Mickey Mouse to greet you with his goofy grin. He's carved into the soap in the hotel rooms, carefully clipped into the hedges, and perched--ears only--atop the heads of most children under ten, who seem to sprout a Mickey cap within minutes of their arrival.

On the walk back to the hotel from an afternoon of convention sessions, I happened onto a Cinderella theme wedding, complete with golden carriage, white horses, coachmen, giggling bridesmaids all in pink, and a fairy princess bride, perfect in her whiter than white wedding gown and sparkling tiara. I felt an instant pang of envy; that feeling of recognizing before one's eyes a childhood fantasy made real in someone else's life. A beefy bodyguard approached me, asking in an apologetic tone if I would mind bypassing the bridal party, as the entourage was about to make its way to a garlanded canopy tent a few hundred yards away where the bride was to be married in outdoor splendor. The guard and I fell into whispered conversation, and I asked him if Cinderella weddings were common at Disneyland. He confessed that, as an employee of the bride's family, he wasn't sure of the statistics but that theme weddings were not unheard of.

"It's a whole other world out here, " I remarked in awe.

"It's lovely lovely," he grinned in response, raising his eyebrows and cocking his head in a sort of self-mocking acknowledgment of his role in this dreamland production.

Since my arrival at Disneyland, I've been wondering how to explain the appeal of the place. I think of myself as immune to canned reality, far too sophisticated to be seduced this easily. My colleagues must view me in this same light. They've been chuckling at me and my Disneyfied glee.

The monumental effort behind such a carefully manicured vision is a given, yet you don't ever see anyone laboring at it. It all takes place after hours or very discreetly in remote corners. I think it's because the vision is so smooth and tightly controlled that we fall for the fantasy. And, after a weekend of listening to science teachers at wit's end over plummeting student achievement in STEM skills (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), over the lack of meaningful support from the highest levels of government to reverse the trend, and over distorted national priorities, the Disneyland cocoon provides respite. Tinkerbell is there to wave her magic wand to wish it all away, and for a day or two, I believe.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Spring is the traditional season for demonstrations in France (May 1 is workers' day), and indeed students, labor unions, and citizen sympathizers have been demonstrating for a couple of weeks in Paris and in other major French cities. My father is in Paris this week, and he's been sending regular email updates. He reports that much of the action in Paris has been near iconic sites such as the Eiffel Tower, the Bastille, and the Place de la Republique, which is close to where he is staying. Air, rail, and metro traffic has been impacted, and many schools and businesses have closed on strike days.

Unlike the rioting last autumn, which was focused in poor immigrant ghettos, the upheaval this time is in the urban core. It is largely a white, middle-class protest of a new labor law that extends the period of employment probation for workers under the age of twenty-six to two years (currently the probationary period is only a matter of a couple of months). During the probationary period, employers have the right to dismiss young workers for just about any reason. The new law was meant to open up job opportunities for youth (a major issue in last fall's rioting), but instead, most young people in France resist the idea of American-style at will employment. They want the new law abolished. President Chirac has stepped in, changing the language of the law a little so as to ensure that, at a minimum, employers give reasons for dismissing youth employees.

La Chef writes to me about the demonstrations in highly reflective terms. As a grandmother, she sees her grandchildren inheriting a very different world from the one in which she grew up and lived out most of her career. She sees the forces of economic globalization at work in France and says that many of the changes to French labor law, against which so many citizens are protesting, are a foregone conclusion. We agree that the socio-economic contract that has provided job security in France for more than half a century is falling apart, and that historic change such as this is painful.

In broad terms, I wonder how changes to employment patterns impact culinary traditions. In the United States, with low unemployment and a high percentage of working families, quick meals in front of the television are increasingly the norm. Eating at restaurants during the work week has become de rigueur. The number of families heading for restaurants to celebrate holiday meals is skyrocketing, and the industry is quickly adjusting. The same trends are appearing in France, where the hours-long family meal is becoming a relic of the past. French grocery stores carry more prepared and pre-packaged foods, and even Valrhona, the preeminent French chocolatier, has begun to produce and sell chocolate chips as well as standard bar chocolate for cooking. Chips are easier for the home cook, who can save time and avoid the mess that comes with chopping up the large and heavy blocks of Valrhona chocolate into manageable pieces.

I discovered a 3-kilo bag of Valrhona chips in La Chef's cupboard last fall. Although she laments the passing of "slow food" and makes her career out of preserving slow food values (local and organic production of food, seasonal eating, home cooking using only the freshest of ingredients), she loves the chips. "Easier for melting," she says. On this trip to Paris, I've sent my father to Georges Detou in the Les Halles neighborhood for a 3-kilo bag of Valrhona chips for me. I've already gone through almost an entire bag from his most recent trip to Paris in early March. The chips are perfect for an Americanized version of the French "reine de saba," a sort of molten brownie traditionally made with pulverized almonds. Below is the easy American version.

Americanized Reine de Saba

12 ounces Valrhona chocolate chips (American semisweet chocolate chips will work too)
1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

1) Melt 6 ounces (about one cup) of the chips and the butter in a small pan over low heat. (You can melt the chocolate and butter in the microwave or over a doubleboiler as well.) Pour the melted chocolate and butter into a medium-sized bowl.

2) Beat the sugar into the melted chocolate. Then mix in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the vanilla.

3) Sift together the dry ingredients and stir into the chocolate mixture, blending well. Add the remaining 6 ounces of chips (not melted) to the batter.

4) Pour the batter into a buttered 8-inch pie dish or cake pan and bake for about 23 minutes* in a 350-degree oven (for glass pans; 375-degree oven for non-glass). Serve warm with ice cream.

*Note that chocolate brownies, cakes, and cookies are best if pulled from the oven a little underdone. If overcooked, chocolate desserts become too dry. Twenty-three minutes is just about right for this recipe.