Saturday, July 23, 2011

Balancing & Vices

Two entries in two days? What the what? Truth is I wanted to write about all of this, but it didn't seem like the various topics went together, so I split them up. Internet was crap last night so I decided to wait. Either way, here is another entry for your reading pleasure.

I have been finding it very difficult lately to balance certain aspects of my service here, namely being able to eat my own cooking and not offending Ugandans by doing so. This has felt lately like it translates into a bigger issue of not being sure how much of my American-ness to insist on holding on to and how much to let go of. I will start by saying that Northern Ugandans are some of the most welcoming, kind, and happy people I have met before. They have made me feel at home since arriving here and seem to genuinely care about me, which I don't doubt at all, but I also don't want to take it for granted. They can also be pushy and have little tact about certain things. I will go on to say that I don't prefer Ugandan food to, say, my own cooking. During homestay I was pretty miserable on the food front and merely picked at what was in front of me (if you know me, you know that picking at food is a completely alien action). I was so excited to cook for myself again when I got to site. I tried out a lot of the recipes in the cookbook, I posted pictures of my creations on facebook, I even gave recipes to my family and friends back home, urging them to try out what I'm making. It was the best thing ever, except that to not eat at the college every day is somewhat of a sin. My college is not wealthy, I've come to find out, comparing it with other institutions I've visited and hearing the stories of my friends' schools. The school is even closing two weeks early because we can't afford to feed the students anymore. There is only one dish ever prepared and served; posho and beans. Posho is maize flour mixed with boiling water and can best be described as a dry, dense version of grits. It's much smoother in texture than grits, but unfortunately has no butter, cheese, salt, or pepper mixed in. The beans are simply boiled. I have eaten at the college several times, but usually prefer to duck out and eat left overs or something at my own house. This has drawn attention and "playful teasing" in the form of telling me I'm not Ugandan enough, that I need to learn to love the food since I'll be staying forever, and that I need to understand the reason for the limited diet is the poverty level of the country. (Although I feel like some pretty poor places in the world have come up with some amazing culinary creations.) I know that I'm supposed to be integrating into the community and sharing culture, and I had a discussion about it with my principal the other day. It was very informal; he's my neighbor and we were standing in our yards. I told him that I had tried almost all the Ugandan foods I'd ever heard of, even the white ants that were brought to me. I told him that I had not refused to try anything since I've been here, and that I thought I was pretty brave to begin with, moving 8,000 miles away from my family to live in a completely foreign culture simply to try to help and learn, something almost none of my friends back home would do. He told me it wasn't enough, that trying foods wasn't enough, that I had to love them, and that when I don't eat their lunch they are sad. I asked if he'd ever tried something he didn't like, and he just laughed and asked what kinds of foods we had in America that he wouldn't like (they call all of our foods "snacks" by the way, we don't eat real food). I tried to come up with the scariest, weirdest things I could think of to make my point: lobsters, crawfish, oysters on the half shell, ceviche, sushi, tofu, seaweed salad. Not having ever seen any of these, none of this even made sense to him, let alone got through to him. I get frustrated that it's so easy to criticize me and my culture when they are here at home, and the phrase "don't judge someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes" is completely lost on them. I have tried to offer food to people here, things I cook that I want to share. They just look at it and laugh and tell me I eat only snacks, and that I should eat their food. I'm trying to figure out how much I should give in and how much I should be like "this is something that's important to me, let me eat my goddamn spaghetti, will you?" It seems stupid to be this concerned about food, and that I should just give up, but for some reason it's bugging me.

Secondly, vices. I have developed three of them: reading, cleaning, and planning trips. I guess all three of those things were present in my "real life" just not to the extent that they are here. Cleaning is actually super necessary because bugs will move in and take over if I don't sweep (including all the corners and up the backs of doors) on an at least daily basis, mop the whole house weekly, and never leave dishes out overnight. Spindly spiders, little robotic jumping spiders, and ones that look like they are straight out of Arachnophobia. I swear a producer of that movie was like, "Oh hey, I've been to Uganda, and they have some creepy ass looking spiders hanging out up in the north. They're little, so they seem like they'd be harmless, but man do they give me the willies." I actually had a little jumping spider living in my room for a while, mostly up on the ceiling. I watched him attack a fly one afternoon, and then found the dried up corpse on the floor later that evening. Since he was earning his keep, I left him alone. Somehow sadly, when I returned from my weekend in Gulu he was gone. His much bigger cousin stopped by the other day, but was gigantic and much too close to my bath towel hanging on the wall, so he got the boot. Or more accurately, the flip-flop. Also in my menagerie are flies of all shapes and sizes, bees the size of a baby's fist, wasps that come in to explore my house, centipedes as thick as a finger and eight inches long, praying mantises - both minute and enormous, the tiniest gd gnats that can fall through mosquito net weave, and mosquitoes ranging from Florida sized to looking like they flew out of Jumanji. Geckos live in my house too, and other than occasionally startling me if one jumps out from behind a curtain, I really don't mind their presence, because they eat the bugs, and are cuter than them too, even though they poop everywhere.

I have read 43 books so far, in under 6 months. Whoa. Granted two of them were Harry Potter and eight were A Series of Unfortunate Events, but that is still a lot. I swear every other conversation somehow relates to something I've read and I am starting to feel like an ass hat being like, "Oh yea, that's somehow related to something I read!" I'm like Hermione, sheesh. If anyone wants to send me Harlan Coben books, The Survival of the Sickest, or anything else you've enjoyed, I'll love you forever! (Shameless plug: also, see my wish list for other, fun, package ideas! I heart mail!)

I heart planning trips. Danielle and I used to sit around our apartment with Expedia pages open on our computers, trying to figure out where to go. We looked at London a million times, Italy, the Caribbean, but we never went anywhere except to visit our families. Now that I'm over here and am a stone's throw from crazy ass places like Rwanda and Zanzibar, and am in the company of people who are excited about traveling too, we're planning trips that are so totally going to happen. Climbing Mt. Sabinya, for instance, in a few weeks (the mountain that straddles the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda), and hiking Mt. Elgon a few weeks after that. I love looking forward to things in general, and looking forward to these small milestones instead of that looming "21" on my wall (as in, 21 months till I'm done) makes this experience much more doable and enjoyable.

Friday, July 22, 2011

what do you bring to Africa?

There are a number of things that I packed and lugged all the way over here that were a waste of space and energy. I knew that when I was packing and lugging them over here, I just didn't know which of the million things I brought would be useless. Now that I've been in country for almost six months (what?!) I feel like I have better sorted out what is amazing and what is crap.

Ballet Flats? Crap. I only ever wear my rainbow flip-flops. PC says we're supposed to wear nice shoes, look smart, yada yada, yada... the reality is that my rainbows are as nice and smart as most of the shoes I've seen. The ballet flats aren't even out among the shoes I rotate through - rainbows, second pair of rainbows, running shoes, shower shoes, chacos (which I haven't worn since training), they're neatly packed in my bottom drawer. I feel like constantly stooping to empty sand and rocks from my sweaty ballet flats would be silly, and so they will stay packed until I either give in and give them away to a Ugandan (which I hate the thought of because it perpetuates the idea that white people are here to give things away), throw them in the free box for another volunteer to get excited about only to realize they're useless in Africa, or throw them in the duffle bag I'll be bringing home and leaving there next spring.

Standard sized pillow? Fabulous. I put it in a vacuum sealed bag and shrunk it down to lay flat in the bottom of my suitcase. I love it. Peace Corps gave us a decent pillow when we went to homestay, but it's not quite the same as having my pillow from home. It's also super helpful when I have people stay with me, and having two pillows on a bed is just more homey, and we all know that's really what PC is all about. (No, for real. A homey home will keep you sane.)

Beer Koozie? Useless. While I used my beer koozie all the time in the states, to the point where I just kept it in my purse, it has proven to be a pointless addition to my packing list. The beers here are 500mL where the ones in the states are 333mL, so it wouldn't fit even if I wanted to use it, which I don't, because 90% of the beer here is served at room temperature and doesn't need to be wrapped in neoprene. Not to mention the fact that I never drink here except once in a blue moon.

Pushpins? Mildly useful. All of the buildings here are are built of bricks with a covering of cement to make them look smooth and smart. Because of this fun construction fact, pins are a non-option for hanging things on the wall. I did, however, use them to decorate, tacking some cloth to some ugly, unfinished wooden panels on a cabinet. Had I not had them I could have used glue or something else, though.

Duct Tape? omg omg omg I should have brought 5 more rolls. I love it. Things I have done with duct tape: hang every single card, letter, envelope, and box front I receive on the wall in my bedroom, hang every single picture I brought in my sitting room, make funnels to stick in cut-open water bottles to trap fruit flies, cover the wall where I'm going to put a nail so the cement doesn't crumble (it took me a few tries to figure this out), tape closed my bucket when I was moving so the contents wouldn't spill out, label cords so I know which solar lamp goes with which plug, fix a pair of cheap sandals, label tupperware, etc.

Northface Rain Jacket? Ugh. This is a love/hate thing, because apparently Northface rain jackets' lining deteriorates after a few years and they become no better at keeping rain off than a tee-shirt. My jacket is now eight years old and well past its prime. It's especially awesome that the neck was the first place to go, so on the two occasions I've worn it, my neck has gotten soaked. I can't bring myself to throw it away though considering how expensive it was and how wasteful it feels to throw things away here. I should have done a better job appraising it before leaving and just bought a new one then.

Planner? Have you met me? I'm a bit anal about things, somewhat stubborn, like to organize, and am a visual learner. I always get the same planner several years in a row and get genuinely annoyed if the company discontinues it or changes it somehow. I brought one with me mostly as a comfort thing, but I use it all the time here. As disorganized as the school system (and every other system) here can be, it would drive me nuts not to have some sort of calm center where I keep track of meetings that are supposedly taking place, lessons I'm most likely not teaching anyway, trips I'm planning, and, most importantly, when I'm getting together with fellow PVCs. I also use it to make sure I'm both on track with my malaria meds and bathing often enough. When it comes down to it, I know myself very well and am glad I listened to that voice that said "you're going to want a planner." Jacque is picking me up a 2012 version when she's stateside this winter.

Awesomely bad 20 degree rated sleeping bag? I live like 2 degrees north of the equator, I knew this before coming here. What was I thinking? Yes, it does get chilly here, and yes I sleep under a blanket, but the whole sleeping bag thing could have been done a lot less intensely. I could have gone with a 60 degree bag that would take up less room and be way more useful. I brought a sleeping bag to take with me when I visit other volunteers (which is hilarious by because we all just pile in a bed 3 or 4 deep) but usually leave it at home since it's so impractical here. I am planning a camping trip on Mt. Elgon next month though, so hopefully it'll be a little colder there and I won't feel so stupid.

Measuring cups? Love mine. Bright orange kitchen aide ones. I probably could have found them somewhere in country, but I would have put it off and estimated shit for a few months and then eventually bought some when and if I thought of it. Bringing my own I was able to measure accurately from day one and have not thought twice about trying to find some or lamenting that my tortillas just don't come out quite right. I do, however, need some measuring spoons (if anyone could get orange kitchen aide ones, that would be awesome. I like to match.)

Friday, July 8, 2011


The paradox of being in Peace Corps is that it feels like nothing ever happens when in fact, many things happen. Many things that you would probably be amused to read about, that I have to remind myself are maybe worth writing down. There is a saying about PC that goes "the days go really slowly, but the weeks go fast" and I've found that to be pretty true. Days can drag on here and by 6 pm I'm thankful that I can finish cleaning up for the day and go to bed and read. (It's kind of funny that I'm over here in Africa having this crazy adventure and I go to bed at 7:30 or 8 most nights.) But somehow it's already Friday when my friend Jen was just here on Monday. I don't know where the week went.

Since I have been a crappy blog writer for the past few weeks, I'll have to search my memory and try to recap what went on. The Health Center, Budgeting, Missing People, The RPCV, The Ugandan Club/Town View Guest House, Students Return, Remedial Lessons, Gulu, EuroBash2K13, Stars, etc.

The Health Center: Since my college was closed for about two weeks due to budgetary issues, I went by the dispensary that is run by the church to see if there was anything there I could help with. "You can come give health talks" the nurse (?) told me, "We have antenatal sessions on Tuesday and Thursday, and give immunizations on Wednesdays. You come around 10." Whatever will I talk about? I asked. "Oh, simple things, like preparing for the baby to arrive, antenatal nutrition, breastfeeding, HIV/Aids, malaria, that kind of thing." Lovely. I returned a few days later and sat around for about three hours while women got their pulse, BP and other things taken. Finally the head nurse (who I later found out was newer in this village than I am, and just likes to be in charge of things) asked me to give my talks. I sheepishly asked if I could just assist and supplement since I wasn't exactly sure on the way they did things, it being my first time and all. She said that was fine and then asked what I'd prepared. "No, I want to just help out today, I haven't prepared anything." She asked if I could talk about HIV and I said sure, so she went on for about 10 minutes in Lango and then asked if I had anything to add. I had to stifle my laughter because other than picking out numbers I understood, the word condom, and ARV, I wasn't sure what was said at all and would have a hard time adding on to it. I kind of gave a little talk on how HIV attacks the body's immune system, how it's spread, and ways to prevent it, although I could have been repeating exactly what was already said, I don't know. She translated for me, and it occurred to me that I really don't want to be sued for malpractice due to mistranslation here, but I'm not sure Ugandans are as lawsuit crazy as Americans are. I told them I wasn't comfortable telling women how to prepare for the coming of the baby since I haven't had one and things are way different in the states. We, for instance, don't tell women they need to shave their privates to avoid cutting baby's head with the pubic hair. (Do we? I've never had a kid, I don't know.) Sheesh. I went back the next day and sat while women came and got their children immunized and dewormed. I was fascinated by the nurses walking around, stepping over small bodies to give shots. What if one of them tripped? It seems like it might be safer if the needles stay in one place and the other people move around. This is not the place I'd want to be accidentally stabbed with a deworming shot. I haven't been back yet, but I have been reading my Life Skills and HIV books to get a better idea of how to approach community education sessions. I drew a pretty sweet poster representing HIV attacking the immune system and letting opportunistic infections do the dirty work. It may or may not include lions and elephants, my two favorite animals.

Totally legit explanation of how HIV works

Budgeting: I've started trying to do envelope budgeting here so I can save money to go on all our awesome trips that we have planned (rafting, climbing Mt. Elgon, Egypt, Gorilla trekking, and backpacking down to South Africa). It is kind of a pain in the ass though because the ATM gives me super huge bills (50,000/=) and no one here has change. Even trying to pay for something in my market here with a 5,000/= note would be looked at as ostentatious. Bah, guilt.

Missing People: Yep, that says it all. I received some awesome news though that two of my good friends got engaged and will be getting married during my time here. Though I wasn't planning on going home at all, I decided that I can't miss their wedding and will be making a visit back to the states sometime next spring. It'll be just about half way through my service, a long enough time on this side to where I'll fully appreciate it, and a short enough time afterward to where (hopefully) it'll breeze by once I'm back in country. Knowing that I'll get to see my dog, drive my car, and eat all my favorite foods made me feel so much better last night when I was making the decision. I know that I would have gotten to do all those things in two years anyway, but the fact that I get to have a little reprieve in about 10 months is like a weight off my shoulders.

The RPCV: From 1969 to 1971 a woman served in my village and taught at the school down the road from me. She met Idi Amin, tanned in a roofless hut, hitchhiked to Nairobi, wore short shorts, taught the future (current) woman president of parliament, and returned last week to hang out with me and tell me all her stories. I had been in touch with her via email and knew she was coming, so I offered to cook dinner and host her for the night. I made homemade pasta, and bought both a bottle of wine and real glasses so we wouldn't have to drink out of my nalgenes or toothbrush cup. We sat outside and used the place mats my mom made me. (I felt fancy.) It was so cool hearing all her stories and walking around the village with her as she pointed out buildings that hadn't been there before, her old house, and where the pyromaniac next door lived. Even more exciting is that she went to my university (Go Gators!) and has a house in NY not far from my dad's family, so I'm hoping to keep in touch with her over the long term. I can't imagine coming back here in 2051. Nuts.

The Ugandan Club/Town View: After 5 months in country, my friends and I finally ventured out to a night club. As most of my friends back home (Nora) will tell you, I'm not really one for clubs except once in a blue moon, so while I was excited to see everyone, the club part wasn't really drawing me in. After stopping off at two bars, one of which was a country club of sorts, we headed to Club 24/7 and were promptly stopped by security for having cameras. Seriously? is JT in there? Kanye? No. You're not getting my camera dude, you don't even have a legit coat check system going. Two of our friends had Ugandan guys with them, so they were safe from stares and grabbing of arms and the "you come" that is oh so annoying. The rest of us were not. The ratio of guys to girls in there was about 9:1, men were just standing around drinking, half dancing badly to bad music.... we lasted about an hour before we had to call it quits and be able to say "yes, we went to a Ugandan club, no we probably won't again." I got a rolex on my way out, because late night street food is always a good idea (or so I thought.)
We had gotten a room in town for the night so we wouldn't have to hope for transport back to Boroboro super late. The room cost 16,000/= (about $6) and it's true that you get what you pay for. Three of us shared the bed (sleeping sideways with our feet hanging out, tons of mosquitoes bites.) It was stifling hot and I woke up the next morning feeling like crap. The rooms are all dorm style so everyone in the hotel shares two bathrooms that are at opposite ends of the hall. Getting sick in public bathrooms is not my favorite thing to do, not by far, but it's happened before and I guess it will happen again if I continue to eat street food in Africa. I avoided breakfast and was pretty useless the rest of the morning as we walked around and eventually made it over to Sankofa. Nikki and I went back home earlier than the others left, and the walk from Nikki's house to mine was brutal. I slept the whole afternoon, laid around in the evening, went back to bed at 8, and slept all night. Monday I felt much better.

Before the barf-o-rama. Rach, Nik, Me, Jac, Stella was in the front seat. 

The Students Return: My college is now open again, with about half the students and half the staff reporting back the first week. I've been teaching more consistently than I had been before the break, which is nice, but the college is closing early so I really only have about 3 weeks left. I teach the first lesson most mornings and my students are always about 20 minutes late because they saunter back to the dorms after the assembly to get their things. I got mad yesterday and told them to bring their books to the assembly next time. I also get annoyed with no one answers questions or follows directions, but then feel stupid when they offer "madame, we have not picked you," which means "we can't understand your American accent and you talk too fast." I hate feeling like I'm belittling them by putting on a fake Ugandan accent, and I hate when they imitate me in a high squeaky voice, so I just try to talk slowly in my normal voice but apparently they don't "pick" me well enough. Ugh. I have decided that I'm just going to be as ridiculous as possible and not take myself seriously at all, and maybe something I do will stick in their heads. They laugh at me anyway, I may as well be in on the joke.

Remedial Lessons: I'm not sure where this came from; if it's because we missed time being closed, or if the IRC always does this, or maybe a combination of the two, but I'm teaching seven days a week now. People from the International Rescue Committee came and talked to the staff about remedial lessons to increase girls' education and retention in school (our college is like 70:30 men, and sidenote: it bugs me when they say "the girl child," just say girls, we're not a specimen). There was a lot of talk about getting money for buildings and paying for lessons since we're working on the weekends. I think it was finally decided that tutors should be paid 5000/= per lesson. That is $2. The thing that gets me is that there's no sort of curriculum presented by this organization that is supposed to help the students, we're just supposed to teach on the weekends exactly what we'd be teaching during the week. The feeling like I'm not 100% sure what's going on has continued...

Gulu: About two hours to the north is a town called Gulu. It is pretty well known for being one of the main places that was so badly devastated by the LRA. The IDP camps have almost completely been taken apart, but remnants remain and are a reminder that things weren't so great not so long ago. A group of us traveled up there last weekend to visit, hang out, and generally get away from site (I hadn't been away since the service project in the southwest a month ago). I love getting to know the volunteers from groups other than ours, the year-ins and year-and-a-half-ins. We stayed in a pretty nice hotel and layed out by a pool for the first time in forever. We ate super yummy food and shopped in the market for things like football jerseys (I have to figure out who I support) sandals, and running shorts. I tried Ethiopian food for the first time, and Indian food for the second, both of which are now in my top favorite food-genres. I drank a coffee milkshake for breakfast and walked around barefoot after the sandals I bought in the market broke. It was an amazing time.

Street in Gulu seen from our balcony

Ethipoian food! 

Eurobash2K13: Completely ignoring every "live in the moment" quote I have ever read, I planned my post COS trip last week. Bored one Monday afternoon (after recovering from what was surely food poisoning), I looked at the map on my wall and listed out countries that would take me around the continent of Europe in a somewhat organized fashion. What I came up with was the most awesome trip anyone has ever planned (not that I'm not on one now, or won't go on several while I'm here...). Starting in Morocco, we're going to Spain, Portugal, back into Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, back into Germany, Denmark, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, back into France, the UK, and Ireland. So ridiculous, the 18 year old me would be peeing her pants at the thought of this trip, but she'd also be perturbed that it took this long to do it.

Stars: I walked up to my college the other night at about 10:30, way later than I have ever walked around my village before. The power was out, and it had rained earlier, but the sky was clearing and on my way home I saw more stars in one little patch of sky than I have seen in any open area I've stood in before. The lack of light pollution here is incredible.

Milky way seen from my yard

Holy super long update! I've got to start my laundry (because I have an American sized load to do, which will take a million liters of water and several hours, blah) and the power just went out so I don't want to waste my battery. Thank you to everyone who has sent me packages recently, the apple oatmeal is amazing and I'm trying to hoard it and enjoy it at the same time, which isn't working (so keep it coming :D)

Miss and love all of you!!!! <3