Thursday, August 25, 2011

we are who we are

IST is somehow winding down, and we are getting ready to move on to the next phase of this fantastic vacation on Saturday morning. It has been a little hilarious reconnecting with all of my PC friends, most of whom I had not seen in four months. A large chunk of the girls have some version of the same bracelets, shoes, and purses that we've bought at various markets around the country. Our bracelets are braided leather with seed beads sewn in, our shoes are flat flip-flops with amazing beaded designs across the top of the foot, and our purses are all beautifully colorful cloth hobo bags. We wear scarves and look like peace corps volunteers. It's nothing short of fantastic. All four things I want to buy for everyone I know back home, they're so much fun. We have the same Ugandan phrases that we've picked up, partly from living in the culture and actually picking them up, and partly because we find them funny and are being ironic. We joke about getting back to America and having no one understand that when we say "mzungu, how are you?" in an obnoxious nasally voice, it's actually in the top five funniest phrases ever. I'm so thankful for these people :D

In rebellion of our accommodations, we've been walking and taxiing to delicious restaurants in the surrounding communities. We've had legit pad thai, some sort of heavenly pasta bake, pizza, calzones, burgers with fried eggs on them, a buffet that literally brought tears to some peoples' eyes, red wine, tiramisu, and key lime pie. My bank account is not happy with me.

The actual training has been interesting. All of our counterparts are here, so a lot of what we are talking about is how we're dealing with the differences between our cultures. We have addressed being called "mzungu" when walking around (which I don't think most Ugandans will ever understand why it bothers us), corporal punishment, and who is to blame for HIV transmission in the case studies we're reading (the wife who handed her salary over to her husband who then went and got drunk and slept with prostitutes? apparently yes, she is to blame for not being more responsible with her money... and then obviously the woman who had a drink with a guy, she's definitely to blame.*) Josh and I coordinated the session today on Women and HIV that sparked one of the more heated discussions we've had so far. Several people came up to us afterward and told us how much they appreciated the frank discussion on such a sensitive topic. It's a hard reminder of what we're facing when the honest opinions of our Ugandan friends are shared. That condoms have never been used, that women are to blame for rape if they drink alcohol, that godlessness within a marriage is the main cause of domestic abuse.

*note the sarcasm.

Friday, August 19, 2011

next purchase: hiking shoes

Still here, going strong. Myself and the other 43 volunteers in my group are currently stewing in annoyance at the venue for our In Service Training (from hereon out known as IST). Three months into service (four for us, to coincide with the break in school terms), PC Uganda holds this training to reconnect, process what we've done at site, and figure out where to go from here. Traditionally, it's held at a nice hotel outside Kampala to give us a little tiny bit of luxury in our otherwise grimy and besmirched lives. However, our group is staying at the same place we stayed at for PST; we live dorm style, eat food that keeps us from starving, and have no access to a pool. The hotel we had been originally promised had self-contained rooms, bread pudding, and tile floors. Needless to say, we were all a bit crestfallen when we received the text confirming that the venue had been changed. I need to stop complaining though, because there is hot water (sometimes) and monkeys that roam around and try to steal our food, which is entertaining if nothing else.

True story: last weekend I climbed a volcano and ended up in Rwanda. I traveled down through Mbarara and stayed with Jen a night, and then we made our way down to Kisoro with a decently sized gathering of our training group. We argued with a couple different conductors in the bus park, trying to get a fair price all the way to Kisoro, where a van from the hostel had agreed to pick us up.

Annoyed at a pitstop

We had to make a pit-stop in Kabale (get a map) to "grease the brakes" (warning sign #1). The road from Kabale to Kisoro is all through the mountains and absolutely breathtaking, and about half of it is still under construction.

Beginning of a seriously treacherous road, Sabinyo is the third mountain you can see 

 At one point we all smelled something burning so the driver stopped to check the brakes and saw they were smoking (warning sign #2). In the typical "it's ok, we go" fashion that I've become so accustomed to (but still find hilarious) we continued on our way until we came to a small trading center where we stopped again and the guy sitting next to me blurted out "Oh my god, the wheel is on fire!" and we all skittered to get out of the flaming matatu (final warning sign). Some of the locals who were standing around threw sand and mud on the wheel to put it out, but obviously we refused to get back in to continue down the mountain.

Flaming brakes

 We payed the driver for taking us, though not the full fare since we didn't actually make it all the way to Kisoro and had been in danger of being burned to a crisp. It was a slightly terrifying three minutes as he tried to rally the crowd against us in protest of our reasoning. We got it solved and no punches were thrown (thank GOD.. I was more scared of that than I was the flaming vehicle I'd just been sitting in.) The Ugandans standing around started shamlessly requesting money from us for helping put out the fire and keeping us company (seriously?). I have so many fewer qualms about flatly refusing these requests and calling someone out on their manners than I did six months ago and firmly told them to go to hell. Josh called the hostel and had them drive up the mountain to pick us up as our matatu went speeding off into the darkness. I have no idea how far they made it with burnt, mud filled brake pads, but we didn't see any evidence of a wreck on our way back a few days later.

Kisoro was freezing. We arrived suuuuper late at night after having been traveling for a good 45 hours or so (I left Lira at midnight on Thursday night, and this was now near midnight on Saturday night). There was a fireplace in the lodge and I felt like we were on a ski trip rather than a hiking one. We quickly ate what had been prepared for us and then settled down into our huts for a cold, brief night's sleep.

We woke up early and I tried to figure out exactly what to take on an 8 hour hike up a volcano that had been described as nothing less than gnarly by two incredibly athletic PCVs. These are the things that made the cut: a liter of water, little camera, big camera, two Clif bars, headlamp, steripen, roll of TP, change of socks, PC ID (to get the East African Resident park discount), a packed lunch, and a ziplock bag. Of these things, this is what would make it if I do the hike again: small camera, water, Clif Bars, maybe the socks.

Hiking to the base of the mountain took like 3 hours

 I got some amazing pictures, but the giant camera was definitely too cumbersome to bring again. I did an awful job packing for these three plus weeks away from site and didn't bring my camera cords, so you'll have to wait to see pictures (but since the internet is so slow here, you'd have to wait anyway, so whatever.) The hike was gorgeous but difficult and I only made it to the first of three peaks, but still, I climbed a really big, 12,037 foot high mountain and I'm super pumped about that fact. Next time I'll have to be faster because there's no way I could have made it to the third and then back to the base before dark. The first and second peak straddle Rwanda and Uganda, the third wedges the DRC in there somehow. We sat and laughed and looked at the nonexistent view from inside a cloud and took the requisite "look I'm in two countries at the SAME TIME" pictures. There were some ridiculously precarious Ugandan ladders (read: tree trunks nailed together) leading our way up the ridge, and they were only more daunting when we had to descend them backwards in the rain. We stayed on the peak until it started thundering and lightning and we realized that we were indeed on the highest point around, so it wasn't smart to stay. The guards (yes we had guards, with guns.) were convinced that we'd be fine and wanted us to wait for the rest of our group to come back from the third peak, but we ignored such requests and started making our way down. It was terrifying, but a fun quote I read recently succinctly states that if you want to lead an interesting life, you should be prepared to spend half of it terrified, or something to that effect. The hike down took what felt like a miserable 7 hours (but was actually only a miserable 4), mostly because we kept having to stop in the freezing cold rain to wait for everyone. The guards told us that sometimes elephants or buffalo come out onto the trail in the evenings (oh how I wanted to see an elephant!) We made it back, soaked and worn out and sat again by the fire, drinking Nile beer. Life is good and my only regret is that I put off ordering a new rain jacket until last month and it hasn't arrived yet. That would have been nice. These will be my next purchase as I have now cemented in my mind that hiking up mountains is something I'd like to continue.

Seriously steep!

View of the second of three peaks from the first (where I crapped out)

The next three days were spent making our way slowly up to Lweza for IST. Nothing was dry for several days and it sucked having to pack up wet things and tote them all over the country, but whatever. We ate some amazing food and slept in an amazing hotel along the way, completely spoiling ourselves, knowing full well what our accommodation would be for the next two weeks. Jacque, Stella, Leah, and I are all sequestered in a dorm on the other side of the compound, away from the ruckus and fraternization that is going on in the big dorm, but we're moving tomorrow or the next day, so maybe we won't be so antisocial anymore. We walked up to the mall (yes, mall) today and got pizza and ice cream, and are going back tomorrow to get burgers because I found one with bacon and fried egg on it. I also ate macaroni and cheese pancakes at my hole-in-the-wall-Italian-place that I visit when traveling. There is a culinary genius somewhere out there who obviously sends me his love.

In catch-up news, I went to a malaria training, finished my first term of teaching in a Ugandan college, turned 28, painted my nails four times because people love me and sent me amazing packages, decided one of my goals here is to become a phenomenal packer, graded appallingly maddening exams, and got more than one glimpse of the incredibly brave and capable person I am, that this experience is slowly but surely revealing.

I miss and love you all, but it feels like time is finally starting to pick up and move more quickly. I've been here six months already, and it kind of feels like nothing most of the time, so I'm much less concerned about getting through than I was a few months ago. It's a test of my patience sometimes, exhausting and frustrating others, but mostly it's amazing and I have to pinch myself to see if it's real and then congratulate myself when I realize it is, and I'm living it.