Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Anatomy of a Book Proposal

I've started working seriously—well, not that seriously, but I'm picking at it—on my book proposal for CURSE OF THE HIPPO.

Book proposal writing is no fun. My last one took months and was over 40 pages long. But I'm better at it now and I already know how to write one, so it's going faster this time.

Here's the basic structure of a non-fiction book proposal:


You can rearrange the elements a bit but don't stray too far from the basic setup.

I was tinkering with the MARKETING AND PROMOTIONS section last night. That's where you explain why your book is needed, why people will buy it, how it can be pitched, and how it could be successfully promoted.

And I realized I was a bit short on gimmicks this time 'round. Last time, I pulled out all the stops. Solo woman circumnavigates the world live on the internet. I threw in the Ethiopian truck accident, being harassed on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, and being shaken down by the Uzbekistan police in the Tashkent subway for extra credit. Okay, I didn't plan that stuff but it helped.

But this time there is no quest, no manufactured excuse for travel. No "Because it's there." Nothing trite that I can glibly trot out and state was my mission, no pogo stick up Mt. Fuji for me, as I first fled my own demons from Namibia to Cape Town to Uganda, then took shelter in comic books in Kuwait, and finally went to Cairo for no particular reason aside from the head office asked nicely.

And I ended up starting the marketing section with this. Which will do nicely.

    Since the dawn of time, men and women have traveled the world for fame, fortune, and to satisfy their curiosity. People also travel for other, less conventional, but no less compelling reasons: a fascination with a person or place, to settle a bet, and for what can only be called whimsy.

    -Library Journal 12/15/06

And then there are those who travel out of desperation, taking jobs in the Arabian Gulf once the money, love, and biological clock has run out.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Might As Well Smoke

CAIRO, Oct 19 (IPS/IFEJ) - Air pollution is so bad in Cairo that living in the sprawling city of 18 million residents is said to be akin to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. According to the World Health Organisation, the average Cairene ingests more than 20 times the acceptable level of air pollution a day.



Saturday, October 27, 2007

What Exactly Does a Dik-Dik Sound Like?

My blog got a mysterious number of hits on Wednesday by people looking for "dik-dik on a stick." A little sleuthing revealed that the dik-dik on a stick photo mocked up by Steve had total strangers wondering what dik-dik tastes like.

Which sounds obscene. But I promise it is not.

Even stranger: The Google ads showing at the top at the time promised "dik-dik ringtones." What the hell is a dik-dik ringtone?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Go Ro!

My pal Roberta has been granted an expense-paid month-long residency at the largest international artist and writer studio residency program in the United States. This is courtesy the Dodge Foundation.

Ro gets discouraged sometimes at being an artist in a world where it's hard to make a living at it, the same way I frequently wallow in despair over trying to make money as a writer. This is great news about the grant to Ro.

Yay Ro! Here she is with her masterpiece done in electrical tape on a garage door.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Stalking the Wild Small Antelope

"Ix-nay on the..." What? I can't remember what I was talking about in these goofy little work web videos. It was unfortunately just those of us in the New York office in June, so you won't see Captain M or Mr. Fixit or my pals from the Cairo or Kuwait offices. I'd gone sleeveless that day and had to put on a thick winter sweater out of respect to our audience.

The first video is kind of funny, but to see me truly making a fool of myself, be sure to click on the menu bar labelled "group dynamics" and choose my name.

Given the bit at the end of the me segment, I have a feeling the ix-nay was in reference to me saying the word dik-dik onscreen.

Here on my blog I can say it all I want. Dik-dik! DIK-DIK! DIK-DIK!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Keeps Me Up at Night Too

My train ride to work takes about 17 minutes.

Normally, it annoys me. That's 17 minutes too long.

But for the last few days, it's been pissing me off because it's too short. Too short for me to finish reading "Who Hates Whom" by pudu-aficionado Bob Harris. It's subtitled "Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up: A Woefully Incomplete Guide."

This book is just wonderful. Clear, conversational, and hilarious. What's that? Funny? How can a book describing civil wars, genocide, and power-mad dictators be funny?

But somehow it is. And somehow, in spite of describing bleak situations from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka, from Somalia to Haiti, somehow Bob Harris makes the world out to be kind of a hopeful place. Or at least a place with a good sense of humor. After all, how bad can a place be where one of the Guineas was once called Poo?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Alternate Energy

I'm trying a little experiment. Let's call it sustainable power on a micro-scale.

It's a tiny solar charger that supposedly is going to charge my mobile phone.* And my iPod too.

I realize my solar charger is not going to save the world or stop global warming, but it's kind of exciting. Of course, I can't try out my new toy right now. It's dark out. The down side of being sustainable.

This could be useful If I ever end up living somewhere without electricity again. Like New York City on a hot summer day.

*Don't laugh at my cheap prepaid phone. Twenty bucks every three months and I can read my e-mail on it, so there.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Not So Dangerous After All

Last time I looked at Burundi, it seemed pretty dangerous.

It was 2005, and I was trying to figure out if I could catch the Lake Tanganyika ferry from Burundi to Zambia. From there, it was easy enough to get to Namibia, where I was renting an apartment for the next month. I was trying to avoid the long way around, which involved an overnight bus from Kampala to Nairobi, then an overland trip to Dar es Salaam, then a long train or bus journey to Zambia. I'd done it in reverse in 2001. It takes forever—the thrill wears off after the first 30 or so hours—and I was trying to avoid repeating it. Plus, a ferry across Lake Tanganyika sounded fun.

The journey from Kampala to Rwanda is simple enough. But going through Burundi seemed like a bad idea. The country was internally at war, though muggings were more likely than fighting. I decided that now was not the time to go to Burundi. I ended up flying one-way to Windhoek, then taking the bus back from Cape Town three months later.

So when Craig told me he was off to Burundi on Sunday, I was worried.

I realize this is ridiculous. One point I always make is how threats are exaggerated and there is more likelihood of violence at home than in other countries. The biggest threat, I say, when traveling in Africa, is road accidents. And when people say to me, "You're really going to (country x)? Are you crazy," I always defend my choices and point out that sensationalist attitudes are rooted in lack of awareness.

So in the case of me worrying about Craig going to Burundi, I'd decided to keep my mouth shut. Or more or less shut. He's a big boy. He's been all over the world. He's reported from war zones. He's braved the Cairo Carrefour during back-to-school season. A little mugging wouldn't scare him.

Then I decided to educate myself instead of worrying, since not worrying aloud only translating into worrying to Yasir by e-mail. Yeah, right, worry about a little crime to a guy who has had to hit the deck while nearby soldiers were disemboweled by grenades. That'll look real Lara Croft of you.

Turns out Burundi has been at peace for 14 months. And Craig is more likely to get malaria than a mugging. Backpackers are already going overland and talking about it on the Lonely Planet message board.

Furthermore, it turns out that if he wants to, Craig can visit the spot where Stanley found Livingstone, though in fact Livingstone was not exactly missing.

And now, I'm no longer worried.

Now I'm just jealous. I want to go to Burundi too.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Could Have Been Worse

I had just left Brett after a pleasant dinner at one of my favorite East Village restaurants, Boca Chica. Brett and I used to hang out all the time when he lived on East 7th and I lived on B and 13th. But that was the late 90s and things have changed. Brett lives in Brooklyn with his wife and kids, and I live in... well, it varies.

I took the V up to 14th, then heard "JOURNAL SQUARE TRAIN, JOURNAL SQUARE" as I approached the PATH entrance.

Maybe I could catch it.

I raced through the turnstiles and right to the closing doors. They were almost shut. So as all New Yorkers do when faced with a wait of ten or more minutes for the next train, I threw myself into the eight-inch space.

And ended up with only my foot wedged in the door.

I didn't look up, knowing the icy glares I'd get from the inhabitants of the car. The "Wait for the next one, you idiot" glares.

I waited a beat, but the doors didn't open again. It seemed pointless to just stand there, so I removed my foot to wait for the next train. Ten minutes would go fast enough. I had an issue of Wanderlust magazine to read.

Unfortunately, while my foot cooperated, my shoe did not. My shoe, caught by the toe in the rubber insulation of the Journal Square train door, was about to go to New Jersey without me.

Visions of me riding the train in one shoe, then limping down the street (or maybe just to the shoestore) crossed my mind.

I bent down and wrestled the shoe. The train was moving ever so slightly when, to my great relief, my shoe came free in my grasp.

And I was standing on the platform in one bare foot, holding a shoe, as the train sped away only inches from my face.

I dared not look behind me to see the amused or disgusted looks of the other commuters. I simply placed the shoe on the platform, stuck my foot in it, and skulked to the end of the platform.

I caught the next train rather than hang around. It went to Hoboken, not to my stop. But that's okay. Anywhere But Here would do nicely.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Luck in Disguise

A year ago, my condo was for sale.

I'd been kind of pushed out. It was my choice to sell, but the reason I had to sell was that the other condo owners in the building had--in my view--made some unsustainable plans that would result in bills I could not pay. I'd poured a lot of life and energy into the building. So had Turbo. But in the end, what mattered was money.

I begged and pleaded--"Just repair the leak on the roof. It's only three years old. Don't tear it all off and start over."

They voted to spend. I told them we had emergencies all the time, to be more fiscally conservative. That a roof would mean permits, would mean the city would notice us and property taxes could be reassessed. Pointed out that the roof we had already might last another six to ten years, and that everyone who had bought in 2002 had moved on already in spite of plans to stay long term. Life has a way of changing your plans.

I didn't want to sell but neither did I want to be at the mercy of people whose good intentions meant a future filled with expenses every time someone spotted a crack.

I reckoned I had until Thanksgiving. If there was no contract on the place by Thanksgiving, I might as well get comfortable and start looking into home equity loans. Few people look in the winter, and by spring I'd have lost at least $20,000 off the value, given how I thought housing was going.

I got a contract on October 30, and closed on Dec. 13. I was homeless a few months, living in an East Village sublet. Then I moved to Cairo.

Through a former neighbor, I learned that after I left, the condo board doubled the maintenance. And then their wonderfully low taxes, last assessed in the early 90s, were reassessed.

And the taxes went up 400 percent. From $100 a month to $400 a month. The basement started flooding, the windows leaking, and they say there is some problem with carbon monoxide.

And guess what?

The new roof still leaks.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

More Fun with Freelancing

Here's a book I contributed to earlier this year, Make the Most of Your Time on Earth, from Rough Guides.

It's another in a slew of books along this same theme. I think this one is really nice compared to the others, though I have to admit I haven't picked up many of these. There's something about collections of ultimate experiences that disturbs me. Maybe because you can read it and either feel depressed and inadequate because you can never hope to measure up, or else you read it and feel smug because you've already done so many of the things listed. (Guilty as charged.)

Or maybe it's because so many of the titles gauge what you've done against the measure of dying. "Things to Do Before You Die." And that's just depressing. I haven't seen the polar bears yet! My life is a failure!

Anyway, this Rough Guides book is packaged nicely and edited tightly. So tightly in fact that it seems that when I ate Ethiopian food, my eyes "blew out." Must be a British term that the editor uses.

My pieces are #379 (Camping with Hippos in Uganda), #388 (Ethiopian food), and #495 (Robot Camel-back Racing in Kuwait).

Blowing-out eyes aside, I'm really pleased with my pieces in this book and with the book overall.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Working Girl

I was in the bookstore browsing books on Jamaica and Bolivia (in perhaps-vain hopes of leaving town for an upcoming holiday) when I came across a book I had written two pieces for.

It's a National Geographic hardcover called Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World's Greatest Trips. By the time the editors were desperate enough to put out the casting call that found me, most of my specialties had long since been written by others.

Nevertheless, I contributed a few pieces and they even paid me promptly. They put my name in teensy type at the back along with a few hundred other names. It irks me to have to buy a copy. I'm guessing they don't go around handing out $40 hardcovers to the writers. The postage alone would be mind-boggling.

Less irksome is that the page the book falls open to is a piece that my pal Amanda wrote. (Damn you, Castleman. You and your falafel got a good spot.)

I also worked on another book that just came out, or maybe I didn't. I just shot off an e-mail to Kelly to find out. "Um, Kel, I know I am going to look stupid, but is that the book I contributed three pieces to, one about robot camel racing in Kuwait, one about camping with hippos in Uganda, and one about eating Ethiopian food?"

I wonder if I'll have to buy that book too.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Losing the Habit

After Turbo and I split up, after I finished writing books on tent camping, I camped a lot less.

But for years afterwards, I eagerly rushed into every camping store I saw. It took a long time for me to break that habit.

And now, having retired young from real estate and rehabbing ancient properties, I find myself learning to resist the call of Home Depot, or the tool section at the dollar store. I have a garage full of tools. They once planed and sawed. Now they are effective dust-gatherers.

But hardest to kick is the Open House habit.

It's Sunday, my second Sunday back in JC. The day is glorious, the sky a vivid blue, the leaves still richly green and just starting to show hints of yellow. The South Asians are playing cricket in the tennis court, the Latin Americans playing volleyball just behind them.

And everywhere, there are signs. "Open House! 1-4."

Normally, I'd visit every one of them. I like to know exactly what is happening in the JC real estate market, and what if the perfect property comes on the market?

Instead, I resist. It's not time yet. I don't even know if I'll live here or in Cairo. And if I'm going to live here, there no reason to buy now, while prices are still creeping down and property taxes are climbing up. No buying. For sure.

And for now, I forbid myself to even look.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Better for Time-Telling than Tooth-Brushing

In 1820, Colgate opened a manufacturing operation in Jersey City, and 27 years later, its head office moved over from downtown Manhattan.

Colgate stayed here in JC until the late eighties. By then, the company had expanded to other factories and offices, and the JC factory was closed since it could not be effectively modernized.

The old building was razed in the 80s, during that last local boom. Such a shame--it had a classic industrial look and some visionary should have renovated it into condos. But Colgate and local officials faced a dilemma: What are we gonna do with the octagonal, 50-foot Colgate clock, one of the largest clocks in the world?

The octagon shape was intended to support Octagon Soap, a Colgate product long since lost to time. Mayor Hague turned on the current clock in 1924, which replaced a smaller one from 1908. The original clock, according to an article in last week's paper, moved to Indiana.

Today, the orphaned 50-foot clock sits on an empty lot by the Morris Canal, in the shadow of the Goldman Sachs office building. It's unlikely to remain there as that empty waterfront lot is prime real estate (though it's supposed to become a park). But the Colgate clock is a vital symbol of JC's industrial past. Colgate is long-gone, but there is no way this clock is leaving town. It will just be moved again.

Friday, October 12, 2007

No More Avoidance

Somehow, I didn't use a single vacation day in 2007.

Sure, I was in Spain and Egypt for half the year, but not one of those days was a proper day off.

And I am facing weeks of "use-it-or-lose-it" time that must be used by the end of 2007.

I have loads of frequent flyer miles and I'm jonesing to add a new country to my passport--the last new countries were Kuwait and Bahrain in early 2006 and before that? An overnight in Lesotho in 2005. Since then, I've just kept repeating myself, and always for business.

Last night I passed the new GAP store on Sixth Avenue. Yes, Canadian group travel company GAP has its own storefront in New York City. So I stopped in and picked up a catalog. There's a trip to Bolivia that's under $600. Similar operators would take me to Tunisia, another place I've always wanted to go. And if I had lots of money, I'd go up to Manitoba and see the polar bears immediately.

But really, shouldn't I be taking that time off work to sit at home and work on my book proposal for "Curse of the Hippo?" It's been a year since "Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik" came out. I can't find it anymore in half the bookstores I visit. And I haven't even bothered to look for an agent or publisher yet.

It's time.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ode to the Mango

My favorite food group is mango. And of the various types (yellow, red, Haitian, Australian, Indian and so forth), my favorite has got to be Egyptian mango.

Which is probably not an official type of mango, but to my mind, it's the one that matters most.

Craig knows this. And that's why he bought one of each type of mango juice at Whole Foods and left it in my 'fridge for when I got home from Cairo. Very nice of him. I was SO thirsty after dragging my bags from JFK on the Airtrain to PATH and then up four flights of stairs.

Sadly, mango juice in a bottle will never replace fresh-squeezed. And after ten days home and five days in Barcelona, I have a serious craving for Egyptian mango juice. It's ripe, sweet, and full of pulp.

But I won't get that here, where mango juice comes in a jar. Where a mango smoothie is made of frozen mango cubes.

I met a man in Cairo once at a party. He told me he loved mango juice, that Egyptian mango was the best in the world. That he'd eaten so many mangoes during mango season that he'd gotten kidney stones. That the best mango was a kind I never had, something where the name meant "bull balls," because they were so large, thick, and round. I wish I'd tried a bull-ball mango.

I bought a mango here at the fruit stand, let it ripen, and the threw it in the blender with some ice.

It was adequate. But I miss the lush, chunky, delicious taste of fresh-squashed Egyptian mango.

Here is my mango haiku.

Egyptian mango
Excuse to move to Cairo
Bulls balls of the kings

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Morning Spaceout

"Excuse me, excuse me!"

A businesswoman was tapping the glass on the PATH train door from inside the car I was in.

"I wanted to get out," she explained to the conductor who stood at his post a half-car away. He'd just closed the door at 23rd Street.

"Hold the train," he bellowed over the loudspeaker to the train driver. The driver, who had been about to leave, stopped. The conductor used his key to open the door and let her out.

"I thought there was a stop at 28th Street," she explained sheepishly as she exited. I think I speak for the entire car when I say we were all wondering why she didn't just get off at 33rd Street and walk back instead of holding up more than 500 people on their way to work.

She stalked away, as her sunglasses fell off and landed on the platform.

"Your sunglasses fell off!" I yelled after her as the door slid shut. She kept walking.

The conductor again bellowed into the loudspeaker.

"PICK UP YOUR SUNGLASSES." Everyone giggled as his voice echoed through the station.

She stopped, walked back, and picked up her glasses.

The train pulled out as the conductor addressed the car.

"Sometimes you're busy thinking and just in another world. Which is fine on the train but never do that in traffic. Don't trust any driver. Always be alert."

I'll keep that in mind.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sentimental Mornings

This morning, the generator kicked in at the construction site across Hamilton Park.

Perfectly normal, this sound of a generator at the crack of dawn.

For Murchison Falls, that is. For Paraa, the small village I spent the summer in back when I was optimistic and in love.

Except I wasn't, because that's not really someone I am capable of being. I was close though. It was unequal (his territory) and awkward (his friends), but still romantic.

It was June of 2005 when I went over to Uganda. The man I'd met in the final chapter of Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik had an international development job there, and I wanted to be in Africa to write a book about Africa, so off we went to Uganda.

The ending of the story was one of those heroically horrific romance-gone-terribly-wrong stories, but the last few months were spectacular. Events that left me needy and in the hospital were to his terrified mind the catalyst for a breakup, or rather a runner, as it produced a vanishing act better than any magician could conjure up.

But before that, we laughed along the Nile. He slept through the heat of the day while I photographed warthogs on the carport. The hippo trundled by our bed nightly, sounding like a less-benign Snuffleupagus.

That's when I started this blog. I called it "No Hurry in Africa" then. And now I'm looking at home, feeling spectacularly average against a backdrop of overachieving New Yorkers. Now is the time for routine, for joining in the Habitrail of employment, eating, and sleeping.

The generator this morning caught my attention. The familiarity of the sound transported me instantly back to Uganda, jump-started me into nostalgia. Where is he now? Is he a refugee perhaps helping refugees, a kindred soul with luckier circumstances? Did the master's degree work out? Who does he love? Or is he like me, permanently distant, walls of solitude earned over years of self-sufficiency and independence? Did he learn from abandoning me and is he a better person now, someone else reaping the rewards of the lessons I never intended to teach?

And then I think: "Eh, who cares? Live alone and like it."

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Marie and Marie

The Other Marie and her family came down from upstate and we went over to Liberty Science Center.

I've known the Other Marie since we were either 15 or 16 years old. She transferred into TC Williams from an Italian high school. (Her father was in the navy and she'd lived abroad most of her life.)

We used to live together in JC in the late 80s and early 90s, then we both moved to Avenue B and lived in the same building for years.

Here's what we really look like now, and here's what we looked like when we first met. And here's us in 1992. We're holding up all right.

Friday, October 05, 2007

You Know You're Home When...

I boarded the Journal Square PATH train at 33rd Street, two blocks from my company's New York headquarters. The conductor was talking to a friend.

"All the loonies are out today," he said.

"At 4:30, we were sitting here at 33rd Street. A woman came up to me and said she had a 4:35 train out of Hoboken, could I close up the train so we could go."

"I said to her 1) You're not going to make that train and 2) This train doesn't go to Hoboken."

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Too Far to Get a Replacement

My poor Ramadan lantern! I made it no farther than the x-ray machine at the Cairo airport before some ape in a uniform grabbed it and shoved it into a huge pile of luggage, as I howled for him to stop.

He didn't stop. But he did ask me for a tip.

No, I didn't tip him.

I'll try to repair it. Maybe it can be saved.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Successful Board Meeting

"I am such a slut!"

Baffled, I blinked amiably at the landlord of the flat I had rented in Barcelona. He was a funny and sweet guy but I wasn't sure how to respond to his admission.

But when he'd said it for the fifth time in 10 minutes, I realized it was a standard line of his, that I was allowed to chuckle.

"My trousers are falling down." He tugged at his jeans, which were slipping off of his hips as the gold belt around their waist was not actually looped through them, but just sitting on top. "On the street that is a good thing. On the stairs, not so good."

I agreed that walking down seven flights of stairs while losing one's pants could be dangerous. He added, as an afterthought:

"I am such a slut!"

We'd inadvertently become co-conspirators a minute earlier. It was the day before I was flying home, and new tourists had showed up to—confusingly—rent the flat I occupied. But the owner was nowhere to be found. He was off being a slut. After all, it was mid-afternoon on Sunday. That's just late Saturday night for such a slut.

"We've rented a flat from him. Do you know where he is?"

I suggested the new tourists go for coffee after locking their bags in my place—actually the landlord's place. I'd rented his newly renovated studio via Craigslist. Normally, I rent a place from Rentalona and I've never had a problem with them. But I needed internet access. My job is not a 24-hour one, but it's at least an 16-hour-a-day job.

The newly renovated flat had not been quite finished. "I'm afraid I've been out too much partying with my friends and did not finish."

At least he was honest in addition to being such a slut.

He'd installed me in his own flat and went to sleep amidst the ladders and power tools. And now here I was, faced with new occupants to the flat I was sleeping in. The seven-story walk-up flat with the slutty landlord. It was a puzzle.

Then the owner waltzed up the (many) stairs.

He spotted the tourists, then froze as the gears in his head turned almost visibly. He gaily introduced himself and came up close to shake hands. He reeked of alcohol and... sweat.

"The board meeting went so late. But I did very, very well at the board meeting."

He didn't say it to the new people but in my head I added, "I was such a slut."

He then went about moving me into the now-finished renovated studio and installing the new tourists in his own flat. He and I retired to the studio, where he showed me a website called gaydar. co.uk, and searched for Egyptian gay men.

"That one is delicious!"

"Where will you sleep tonight?" I asked. He was a funny guy and all but I'd paid for my own flat, not for a flat with a roommate.

"I'll sleep on the street! No, with a friend."

He then proceeded to ask me a lot of racy questions about the sexual practices of Egyptian Muslims, which I cannot repeat here as this is a public blog. Sadly, I do not know the answers to most of his questions. I do know that it is not uncommon for women to receive the "two-stitches" operation. That is, they can revirginize prior to marriage.

He was cleaning up the studio for me, still declaring his sluttiness and board meeting success when I took my leave. I went to the coffee shop to waste time while he finished up. I'd leave in the morning and wasn't sad to go. It was highly entertaining but I'd spent enough time in Barcelona. I'd bought new clothes and my Tin-Tin caganer. I was done. I may be so done this time that I don't need to go back.

But if I do go back, next time I think I'll rent from Rentalona.

Monday, October 01, 2007