Breaking The Silence

Well, I’m back in Ouagadougou and back to blogging. The past week, I was in Utah, where I spend the early part of every June, grading AP exams. The College Board, which runs the AP exam system, doesn’t want us to say very much about the grading for fear of giving something away to future test-takers, I guess. So I have some pictures of Utah’s beautiful landscape to share.

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Here I am at a place called the “Living Room”, a spot overlooking the University of Utah campus and the city from several hundred meters up a ridge.

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This is the panorama of the city with the Great Salt Lake shining in the distance and my roommate Sean at lower left.

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Sean and my old Johns Hopkins cellmate Ernst Pijning were there, and they did the Living Room hike, but when I proposed another hike on the last day they wimped out on account of the heat. To my Ouaga-dulled senses, 36 degrees C (95 F) didn’t sound like too much for a nice hike, so I went alone to the Limekiln. The structure on the left in the middle distance, sticking up from behind some trees, is the lime kiln used to prepare the cement that built the great Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. It now belongs to the University of Utah and is no longer in use but has been preserved as a historic site. There’s a big letter “U” painted on the hillside just to the left of where you can see. And just below is a gated community full of huge houses in questionable taste – each house nice in its own way but clashing horrendously with the neighbors: faux-adobe Southwestern next to half-timbered Tudor style next to Palladian Italian, etc.

It is, as everybody now knows after the tragic Orlando shootings, Gay Pride season. In Salt Lake City, they had their Gay Pride parade the second day of our reading, and the assembly area for marchers and floats was behind the convention center where we were working. I went out at break and got a picture of this:

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That’s a My Little Pony float for the Salt Lake LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Bronies and Pegasisters, take note, you have hit the big time! There were also marchers in pink Imperial Storm Trooper garb.

The reading was, as always, immense tedium in pleasant company (a quote from my Facebook feed of three years back). The College Board includes college teachers in the AP grading in order to keep up standards, and also perhaps for marketing to convince universities to accept AP credit. As far as I’m concerned, I’m convinced. There are a whole bunch of miserable essays, but of course, they don’t pass. The ones we give good grades to are genuinely OK by college standards, and occasionally I run across an essay that could easily pass as upper-division or even graduate work. After we had mostly finished with grading and there was, as always, a long delay while they chased down the last essays and made sure they had dotted all their t’s and crossed their i’s, I took pen and paper and tried to write my own response to our question. It was challenging to address all the documents that the students had been given, group them in different logical ways, come up with a coherent thesis, and so on. And I had the advantage of having just read several hundred other essays first. Next year the format for the exam is changing somewhat, and in ways that could make it even better as a test of college-level historical writing skills.

After work, in addition to hiking, we get to enjoy the nightlife of Salt Lake City. I say that without the slightest hint of a wink: Salt Lake City does have some nice restaurants and bars. On “dine out night”, I and my friends went to dinner at a Spanish tapas place called Finca. Tapas are like sushi, you never realize how much money you are spending until you get the bill. They also managed to sell us a $250 bottle of wine, by mistake, they said (they having represented it to us as a $40 bottle), though ultimately after a bit of protesting we got them to reduce the price to $100. Still the most expensive wine I ever drank. It was a bit dry for my taste, though it opened up nicely.

The trip to and from Ouagadougou was challenging. On the way to Salt Lake, I got Air France to Paris and a quick plane change to a direct Delta flight to Salt Lake that arrived noonish – total elapsed time 18 hours. Sitting in that Paris – Salt Lake plane for 10 hours was somewhat painful. I had an interesting seatmate, an American-Israeli woman who had been teaching English for a  year in Tel Aviv and was on her way home. We talked Israeli and Middle Eastern politics. The trip back was substantially longer. For some reason, Air France and Delta can’t seem to talk to each other. In the Ouaga airport on the way out, Air France had taken half an hour or so to figure out how to issue me a boarding pass, but I chalked it up to African air travel. On the way back, in the Salt Lake airport, the very nice ticket agent spent over two hours on the phone (from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m.) trying to get me a boarding card. When she finally got  the mess sorted out, my original flight had left and I had to be booked through Minneapolis. I had a four hour layover in Minneapolis, permitting me to leave the airport and have a nice seafood lunch in Minehaha Park.

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Two views of a quite spectacular waterfall in the park. Minehaha Creek flows into the Mississippi River, only a mile or so away. On the long road to New Orleans…

When I got back to the airport, come to find out that the Minneapolis-Paris flight had been oversold and they were looking for volunteers to go on a later flight. When I found out that the later flight was Air France, I volunteered at once. There was $700 in rewards offered, but at the last minute a couple of seats opened up on the Delta flight and I was deprived of my $700. I consoled myself that when I got to Paris I would have plenty of time to go into town and hang out in cafés, because I had an 8 hour layover until my flight to Ouagadougou. When I went downstairs to the immigration desks, I discovered that the line was halfway across the building. I couldn’t see spending three hours or so in line in order to spend another 45 minutes riding the light rail into town so I could eat hurriedly and take the light rail back. So I slept in the airport. They appear to have taken the uncomfortable orange things away since the last time I hung out in CDG, so I had to make do with a quite uncomfortable seat. And then I was home in Ouaga.

It is much cooler here than when I left. The rainy season has started in earnest. Last night, it rained buckets, much of it while I was up greeting the Gouems at their tin-roofed maquis. Hard to have a conversation in that sort of rain. The lights went out too. Luckily, there was beer. My boss was happy to see me; a bunch of students had submitted “revendications”, meaning they thought I had made a mistake on their grades. I looked over the stack and found several where I had in fact made some calculation or data entry error, and tomorrow I’ll go up and fix those. So that’s it, back to work for a couple of weeks, and then on my way at last.

And Salif says he wants to buy my bike. Possibly also Karim, the bike mechanic. So we’ll see if I can get any money back out of it. The original purchase price was $130, which would about buy one of those café meals in Paris on the way back.


4 thoughts on “Breaking The Silence

  1. Hi, I was a Fulbrighter in Ouaga 2010-2011 in the Anglophone Studies Department. I loved my year there. Please stay in touch with me. Rita


      1. Thank you for your reply. Would you help me get in touch with Jean Ouedrago? My email address is:
        I also work on African cinema, would be good to have contact with Jean also.
        Enjoy your last month in Ouaga, I miss Burkina, loved my year there.
        Thank you,


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