Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Reeds in Italy
Part Three: Accidental Tourists

You know, this is a weird post for us. When we started this blog in 2005, we simply wanted to talk about what it was like to live according to the implications of the message of Jesus wherever those implications took us. We wanted nothing more than to "dance with the One what brung us" as we like to say. We certainly did not think we'd be posting travelogues or yapping about our lovely visit to some cultural Mecca. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that, but it's just not why we thought we came.

But here's where He brung us this week. And after Nigeria last week, and who knows where in the coming weeks, it only underscores what we have known for sometime: that the more one lays fear aside, lays aside excuses and justification for going partway-- the more one simply follows Him, the more abundant His promised abundant life becomes. Our journey has been nothing short of wildly unpredictable with every step. Sometimes we think we are walking on water.

So this week, He brought us to Milan, Italy. And for three days, we got to be His guests. So here's a bit of Milan.

These first three are of the famous Duomo Plaza, from three angles. Renita is on the far left of this shot.
This is from another angle, actually facing the other angle. The big arch is the entry to the shopping area-- the Duomo cathedral is on the extreme right.

There it is. The cathedral is huge-- the third largest in the country.

The back of the Duomo. Inspired and inspiring gothic architecture.

Inside the Duomo. Thousands of works of art, including over 3000 sculptures, and huge stained glass windows from the sixteenth century.

The stunning sculpture of St Bartholomew, one of the most moving I've ever seen. Tradition says he was flayed alive. So here he is, skinless, actually carrying his own skin as a reminder of his sacrifice. In the Duomo.

The Castello of Milan...

...A structure built in the 12th century. We couldn't stay long, but it was fascinating.

The Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie-- the home of Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper.

It was painted above the kitchen door in the monastery. It is a piece that struck us with its majesty and power. Even though much of it has been lost through age, it is gripping to behold.

A close up pf how it looks on the wall. As bad as it looks in this picture, it looks better on that wall like it is, than any doctored rendition I've ever seen.

Finally, on Thursday, we visited the canals. Milan used to be filled with canals, a bit like Venice, although not on the sea. But they filled most of them in now, except a few. This is a typically quaint restaurant just along side the canal off camera to the right.

He ya go. Actually, they are planning to bring more of the canals back, for tourist purposes. Milan is a world fashion capital, but lags behind several Italian cities in tourists. Thanks to a curve ball throwing God, they got two more this week.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Reeds in Italy

Part Two: Rounding Up the Unusual Suspects

On Monday the tests continued at Instituto Clinico Humanitas. More Doplers, another CT Scan, an MRI, an EEG, another EKG, a heart ultra sound, a urine test, more blood tests, yadda yadda. But the evidence was mounting. With every test, TIAs or “mini-strokes” were looking less and less likely causes of my difficulty speaking, vision problems, and partial numbness. My blood pressure was an acceptable 130/90, my veins and arteries in great shape and clear, my brain waves normal, my blood work all normal (a bit low on the “good cholesterol,” but otherwise a-ok.) There is almost no history of stroke or diabetes in my family. It was just impossible to rule any other way, and our neurologist predicted it on Saturday. These were not TIAs. They doctors told me they were all surprised. They said they took one look at me and assumed I was a stroke, heart attack or diabetes case just waiting to happen. “He’s fat, he must be unhealthy- “ which is a prejudice with a long and cherished history among the uninformed. But the Docs admitted their bias, and patted me on the back for fooling them. Of course, they said, “It would still be good to lose weight.” Thanks doc. Exercise too, right? Meanwhile, what’s going on with these episodes? It was a process of elimination, a process of “ruling out” as health professionals say. When the most obvious suspects are ruled out—vascular disease, evidence of stroke, hypertension, poor blood chemistry—you look for the unusual suspect. And again, the neurologist had her eye on the right bad guy.

They were migraines. And that came out of left field because I’d never had them before. Mine were the less common type called a migraine “with aura.” The speech, visual and sensory disruptions were all part of the profile, and the fact that a severe headache followed each episode was the key. So just like that, the mystery was over. And not the mystery only: my fear of impending doom was over. I was suddenly being informed that I am healthier than most really fat guys have any right to expect to be. It was a nice moment.

So there ya go. Our little adventure, taking us out of Africa to Italy is drawing to a close. Soon, its back to Liberia to solve yet another mystery, maybe even bigger than this one—how is this chapter in Liberia going to close, and what chapter will be waiting on the other side of the page. But, that can hold off a few days, can’t it? Yes it can, because, after all…

… Milano awaits!

Next Time-- The Reeds in Italy, Part Three: Accidental Tourists

Getting ready to climb into the CT scan earlier Monday morn. Philip getting ready to make me feel weird.

This is a CT cross scan of my bod. Not sure of all the organs we're lookin' at-- knowing its my guts is enough, no?

The MRI. I go in there. I come out a changed man.

Nurse Roberta takes my blood pressure, this for the 20th time in five days over a couple thousand miles.

The endocrinologists tells me he's not going to tell me to lose weight. Thanks.

The head of the department, left, and the Dr. who followed me through from the initial ambulance ride, Antonio Voza, tell me I can go home.

Before I leave, two more things. First lunch for two, an italian feast-- now that's hospiital food!

And Roberta gets to yank out the multi valved, tinker-toy like structure that's been stuck an inch into my arm for three days. I still feel that pull. Note she's smiling, the sadist.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Now, for Something Completely Different

The Reeds in Italy
Part One: The Attack of the Transient Ischemics

Well folks, the last we chatted was two weeks ago, as Renita and I were just setting foot in Nigeria and planning for a time of learning and evaluation from our colleagues in the central plateau city of Jos. Then last week, Renita returned to Liberia and took up blog duty, and I planned on attending a conference on good governance sponsored by the Micah Network. However on Sunday afternoon (the 17th), I experienced something completely unlike anything I ever had before. It was one of the weirdest trips I’ve ever been on, and I’ve been on a few. While munching on some nuts and talking with a friend, I began to notice I was stuttering. Buy the time 30 seconds had passed, I not only could not pronounce certain words, but I could not even figure out what word was supposed to go where. Even if I could figure out the word, I could not say it. When I attempted to spell, I couldn’t imagine the letters. It was fascinating. I thought I’d eaten some bad peanuts. I also suddenly had a bad headache. I called Renita and after doing some research, she said what I had sounded like a TIA. (Transient Ischemic Attack)

Called “mini-strokes,” TIAs occur when blood in the neck or head is blocked from reaching a portion of the brain. A TIA can affect several different functions, and with me it started with my speech, but on Monday I had a severe headache and my vision was affected, on Tuesday I had another episode with inability speak, on Wednesday my left hand and left side of my face and even tongue (Now that’s weird!) went numb, and by this time the doctors in Jos were insisting on an “emergency evacuation” to a hi tech hospital before I blew a major gasket. Everyone was now certain these were TIAs, and the stroke clock was ticking. The trusty American Heart Association warns us to treat suspected TIAs like stokes and that many people who get TIAs go on to have a major stroke within a year. So I was more than willing to get to a hospital with the most modern facilities. But where? Where would our brand new insurance company send me?

Buongiorno! On Wednesday I was told I’d be Medivacced (sp?) out of Africa to the Istituto Clinico Humanitas in romantic Milan Italy the next morning. Of course I'd rather go to Michigan, but Milan would do. I was ready. But the next morning came, then the day came--and went, and I was told the emergency would have to wait another day. Friday morning came and went, and finally around 1:00pm we got off the ground in our personal-sized jet. We were supposed to be in Milan around 6:00pm, but due to two refueling delays, we did not arrive until midnight. I had a great time onboard with the Kenyan medical staff and English pilots. Real characters. I kept telling them that, with all the delays, “It’s a good thing nobody’s sick.”

And really, I wasn’t. My symptoms had subsided, and with my recent back pain gone after two months of killing me, I felt better that I had in months. As soon as I got to the hospital, they drew blood and put me into a CT scan. They immediately determined there was “no current emergency” and at 1:30am I was wheel-chaired to my room. After a few hours of sleep, the tests continued—more BP, EKG, Dopler/vein artery test, then I met the head of the department, watched the Olympics in Italian, and rejoiced at 2:00pm as my lovely wife appeared at my doorway. And joy of joys, the hospital staff said she could stay with me while I’m here. Conjugal visits! Finally, to top off our first day, a little later we met with my neurologist, and after a very nice and relieving chat, she ended our conversation by deepening the mystery of these strange episodes—she doubts they were TIAs at all.

Next Time-- The Reeds in Italy Part Two: Rounding Up the Unusual Suspects

In the medivac jet - here Larry our pilot self administers a sobriety test under the supervision of Joseph the doctor. He was too drunk to tell if he passed.

James, my Kenyan nurse, takes the stretcher while I support him from the chair.

The ambulance took us to the Instituto Clinco Humanitas, where I was met by this guy. No additional comment necessary.
And this lady. A little camera shy, but definitely not shy with needles. She wheeled me up to my room...

...where the next day Renita joined me, exhausted, after a long flight and a longer week.

One building (mine) of the huge Instituto Clinico Humanitas complex, a truly world-class teaching hospital. If they can't figure me out here, it ain't gonna happen anywhere.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Me Back in Liberia, Bob Still in Nigeria

As you know we arrived in Jos, Nigeria on the 9th of August. Unfortunately, the internet did not allow us to upload photos, but we had a great week in a very pleasant city. Compared to Monrovia, which is slightly larger than Jos, life appears much more organized and the streets appear much cleaner. Because it sits on the Jos plateau, the temperatures are cool and even though it is in the rainy season, there are comfortably dry days.

Our primary purpose for being there was to learn about the work being done in Nigeria and share with our friends there what we are doing in Liberia, with a view toward considering whether Nigeria might figure into our next steps. We were treated exceptionally well by David Tyokighir and John & Esther Orkar.

I needed to return to Liberia early in order to meet a guest from Grand Rapids, Robert Shane, who arrived to work with LEAD on its books. Bob remains in Nigeria for an additional week to attend a conference, eat pounded yams, and take more pictures.

Here are some of the pictures that we have so far.

Landing in Lagos, a small slice of a city of 16 million.
Driving was basically like driving in a giant city anywhere.

Landing in Jos - see any difference?
The road into Jos was lovely.

The area is like Michigan with mountains.
CRWRC Headquarters, Jos, Nigeria.
Bob and I had a week filled with meetings.
We visited the local highschool; here is Beadie preparing lunch for the kids. She is frying potatoes on the left and small donut-type morsels on the right.
A shot of the city.

A couple of views of the scenery on the outskirts of Jos. The entire area was very rocky...

...and moo-ey.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Now, for Something Completely Different:

The Reeds in Nigeria
Weather: Some light rain during the day, but mostly partly clody. Light, varable breezes. Daytime highs in the low to mid 70'sF (Lo 20sC), nighttime lows in the mid to upper 60'sF (Upper teens C)
At least half of the Reeds, anyway. After a delay of eight hours, we left Monrovia last Friday, stayed overnight in Lagos Nigeria, and by Saturday morning found ourselves in Jos. Unfortunately, we are as yet unable to download pictures, but I must say, Jos is beautiful. Jos sets on the great Jos Plateau, so temperatures year round are comfortable and humidity is much lower than on the Liberian coast. We are involved in meetings here as Renita talks about what LEAD is doing in Liberia and I discuss other matters, do a bit of teaching, and prepare to attend a justice conference next week.
We'll do our best to get some images up, but for now, to see general touristy images of Jos, check out the web site at Click on the photo links.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Liberian Cuisine, Part Three

Weather: For the most part a dry and mostly sunny week until Friday. From Friday to Sunday, heavy overcast, windy and rainy. Temps in the low 70’sF all day, prompting us to dig out our sweats and socks and close the windows.

Renita and I are heading for Nigeria on Friday to meet up with some of my CRWRC friends there, so we’ll have some interesting images from Africa’s largest nation. However, we would not be good hosts if we didn’t leave you with a couple of dishes to try before we left. First though—some food related news:

Item—In Lofa County, to the Northeast, the cassava farmers are complaining about a new threat to their crops—elephants! The forest elephants are returning to Liberia, and as they find new stomping grounds, they are stomping all over some of the farmers’ livelihood. The elephants are protected, but as in other African countries, there is no love lost between the people and the pachyderms.

Item—The government of Liberia is cracking down on retailers of the nation’s most important commodity—rice. The price of rice is regulated, and is currently set at $31.00 USD for a 100 lb. bag. Many retailers have been raising the price in their shops, making life very difficult for the average citizen. This week, the Johnson-Sirleaf administration announced stiff penalties for price gouging and that inspectors would be out in force, closing down violators and auctioning off their goods on the spot. We’ll see.
Now on to the recipes:

Cassava Leaf with Cow Meat
Cassava is a staple throughout the region, both the potato-like tuber and the fibrous leaves. The leaves are not edible without pounding or grinding. Cassava leaf is prepared with a fair amount of oil, to soften its natural bitterness. The oil of choices for most people is red palm oil, which adds a musky flavor, but we’ve stopped using palm oil due to its high saturated fat content (more on palm oils in a future post). Regular vegetable oil works just fine.

To Prepare: Cassava leaf is easy to prepare. First select the meat you want. The most common is dried fish, or fresh fish, or both. However chicken, turkey, pig or cow meat work just fine. Today, we are going with the beef. Purchase a pound or two, depending on how many you’re feeding. Bones are ok. Sear the chunks of beef, then place beef in a pot of water with two chopped medium sized onions, hot peppers to taste, some seasoning (your choice) and beef stock or cubes. Boil until tender. Add three cups ground cassava leaf and one half cups of oil. (Liberians love oil and would likely add one and a half cups or more of palm oil) Bring to boil, then simmer for one hour. Serve over rice.

Bitter Ball Torpagee with Snails and Dried Fish
Torpagee (pronounced Tō’-pah-gee) gets its name from the oil that flavors it. Essentially, torpagee oil is “aged” – some say fermented—red palm oil. The taste took us some getting used to, but Hannah loves it with beans and hot dogs. (It’s called Beans Torpagee then.) You can use different vegetables or meat with torpagee (Dried meat is a favorite), but today we are going to stretch you a bit. First, the veggie of choice. Bitter balls are light green or yellowish berries about an inch in diameter. And as their name implies, they are bitter in taste. For the meat—and I’m using the term loosely--we’ve selected snails and dried fish. Dried fish you already know something about—we have some picture in our June archives of our Calvin/Kuyper College guests observing fish being dried. Snails are something else. They are large, about the size of a child’s fist. They are purchased alive from wheel barrows filled with hundreds of them. Escargot it ain’t. The texture is rubbery and the taste reminds me of, well, mud. But it’s Liberian Cuisine.

To Prepare: Select five or six large snails and three medium sized dried fish. Drop the live snails in a large pot of boiling water. Boil for a half hour- forty five minutes. After boiling, remove the snails from the shells and chop. Set aside. Chop the dried fish. Set aside. Wash and clean the bitter balls and boil for forty-five minutes, then remove and mash. Place in a fresh pot with two medium chopped onions, hot peppers to taste, one to one and a half cups of torpagee oil, the chopped snails and fish. Boil for an hour. Serve over rice.