Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Sad Passing

So, I was planning on having the final pre-Christmas blog be a fun little thing (granted, my blogs probably cannot be called “little”) about people asking for my hand in marriage, or telling me that I should be finding someone to marry (after all, I’m going to be here for two years, which is, like, an eternity), or asking me to find them a person to marry (one guy asked for a young, 18 or 19 year old American girl, one girl asked for an older American man with lots of money, so she can buy Porsches and stuff).  But then, something happened late last week.

The mother of my counterpart, Max, has been ill for some time now, battling what sounded like some form of cancer – possibly ovarian cancer, but I’m not sure.  She had been in the hospital for a while, and, a month or so ago, Max moved her to his home so she could be with family.  I only met her once, several weeks ago, and, at that point, her stomach and feet were quite swollen, and she was unable to stand.  Not too long ago, Max told me that she was not even able to sit up anymore, and he was periodically shuttling a doctor back and forth from the hospital to his house to extract fluid that was building up inside his mother’s stomach.  It has definitely been weighing very heavily on his mind for a long time, and he felt bad whenever he needed to leave Kalisizo for a site visit…but he also felt bad because, in his own words, his work has been “bumpy” (meaning inconsistent and unsteady, since he has needed to spend a significant amount of time taking care of his mom).  Obviously, I told him that I completely understood and that he was still doing good work.

Last Thursday, he told me that he had talked to a doctor who was suggesting palliative care and giving his mother a prescription for morphine.  At this point, I figured that her passing couldn’t be far off, since the doctor obviously wanted simply to make her as comfortable as possible.  That night, a little after 8:00 pm, I got a call from Max.  For a few weeks, I had been a bit scared whenever I would receive a call from him at night or early in the morning, but, up until Thursday, the calls were always about something else.  On Thursday night, though, I knew it as soon as I heard Max’s first word.  He said, “John, my mother, she has died.”  My initial response was simply, “Oh, Max, I’m so sorry,” which was actually all I was able to say at that point, because he said thank you and quickly hung up.  I had been in the middle of making dinner, but I just stood there, motionless, probably for about a minute, with the phone still held against my ear.  I really had no idea what to do at that point.  It was too late for me to go to his house, which is probably about 5 kilometers away, so I decided to send an email to the rest of the Positive Planet people, letting them know what happened.  This turned out to be a good choice, since Max called again a little after 11:00 pm, asking me to do exactly what I had just done.

On Friday, I tried to do any work I could in the morning, and then, after eating an energy-packed lunch consisting of a guacamole sandwich and a banana, I decided to try to make it to Max’s house by bike.  Five kilometers is not a long bike ride…on paved roads.  The roads to Max’s house are not paved roads.  As I was jostled about by massive bumps, as I dismounted to push the bike up the really steep hills, and as I careened down the other side of the really steep hills, I tried my best not to completely wipe out.  Last year, I had grown accustomed to going for speed on the wide, flat, completely paved roads of Tampa.  Going for speed was not exactly the best strategy in this situation.  In many cases, there was probably one very specific path to take that was sort of safe, and, in many cases, I think I missed that very specific path.  Miraculously, I did not completely wipe out, but, after I had been clutching the brakes in a death grip while speeding down a very steep, very bumpy hill (with a herd of cattle taking up the good half of the road), my back tire blew out, and I had to get off and push my injured bike the rest of the way.  Luckily, there was only one more hill to climb before reaching Max’s house, and so I made it, safe and sound.

Quite a few members of the extended family, neighbors, and friends were there.  A bunch of guys were outside, attaching big tarps on trees using, I think, dried banana leaves (they’re very versatile resources), Max and some other older men were sitting on some benches outside, and the women were inside the house.  Spotting Max, I went over and sat with him…We talked a bit about what work I had accomplished Thursday afternoon and Friday morning (I think I had actually been fairly productive), and a bit about the current project our masons were finishing up out in the western part of the country.  Then, I met some of Max’s brothers and some other relatives, greeted the head teacher and the assistant head teacher from the primary school across the street (I had met them a few weeks ago), and saw Max’s wife, Teddy.  I spent the whole afternoon there, sitting outside with the guys (it seems that, for the most part, the men stayed outside and women stayed inside), and learning a little bit about traditional practices when someone dies, as I attempted to explain what often happens in the USA.  Having relatives who own a funeral home helped a bit, in this respect.

So, here’s what I found out.  The tarps were being put up because many family members would be sleeping outside that night, just because (I think) there isn’t enough room in the house.  To help keep the people warm, some of the guys had started a fire with some huge logs…these would take a long time to burn and would probably last through the night.  People do bring gifts to the family of the deceased, and these gifts are often very practical.  Some people will bring needed supplies for the ceremony…for example, Max showed me the burial cloth that his mother’s body would be wrapped in, and said that sometimes this will be brought as a gift.  (Some people in Uganda do use caskets, but Max said that the traditional way is to wrap the body in a burial cloth.)  Others bring firewood, and others bring food (the family cooks for all of the people who are staying at the house…which is quite a lot…we saw one person drive up with a 50 kilogram (about 110 pound) bag of rice on the back of his motorcycle.  And some people will give money to the family.  Max was keeping a record of the money he was receiving in a little composition book (like the ones we used in elementary school).  Whenever someone new would arrive, he or she would first formally greet all of the men outside (greetings are important), and then, if the new arrival was a woman, she would go into the house, where the women would cry loudly…I think the term for this is “wailing”.  Actually, the women did something very similar when I saw a funeral in Suriname (the culture of the rural villages there is still quite similar to the cultures in some parts of Africa…I won’t go into a big Suriname history lesson right now, but basically, African slaves were taken to the former Dutch colony, they escaped very quickly, fighting ensued, and the Africans escaped into the rainforest, where they established villages with cultures very similar to those in Africa).

The men didn’t really take part in the crying.  They just made small talk and did “guy stuff” – for example, they spent a significant amount of time trying to fix up my bike with some super glue…which, eventually, actually worked, I think.  Around 3:30 pm, “lunch” was served, which turned into kind of an ordeal.  I was brought posho (the clumps made from maize flour and water) and beans, but Max wanted me to have a bit more variety, so he told them to take it back and put matooke on there, as well.  It turned out that there wasn’t any matooke (which is weird…everybody always eats matooke), but there were sweet potatoes.  So, Max asked them to add sweet potatoes instead.  Well, that was misunderstood, and I was brought a bowl of beans and a plate filled with about eight sweet potatoes…no posho.  So, Max told them to also bring a plate of posho, at which point I said, “You know, I would be fine eating anything.”  But Max remained intent on getting me a variety of food.  So, I ended up with a full bowl of beans, a plate filled with sweet potatoes, and a plate filled with posho…and, remember, I had already eaten lunch.  Almost immediately, I said, “So, uh, Max, do you want some sweet potatoes?”  He took about half of one, and left me the other seven and a half.  So, I went to work, and (this probably shouldn’t come as a big surprise) I finished everything.

Around 5:00 pm, some of the guys broke out some hard liquor.  They had something called Waragi (which I think is gin), and something else made from cane sugar (it could have been a light rum).  And we witnessed yet another of the many uses for banana leaves…a cup for drinking alcoholic beverages (just fold one a couple of times, and it seems to work pretty well).

Eventually, around 6:00 pm, I told Max that I should be heading back, to make sure I got home before dark.  I gave him a small monetary gift, grabbed my newly repaired bike, and headed for home.  Once again, I was able to avert complete disaster, although I had to get off a few times to reset the chain after traversing an especially intense bump.  If nothing else, I now have tremendous respect for the Ugandan people who travel on these roads every day of their lives using bikes and motorcycles.

The burial service was on Saturday afternoon.  I spent the morning in Kyotera (the next fairly big town to the south), because we needed to send some money to our masons out west, so that they could make it home once they finished the tanks.  Max obviously wasn’t able to do it that day, so I went and took care of it in his place.  Around 3:00 pm, I started heading up to where the burial was taking place.  It was at another house (I’m assuming the house of one of the other sons), not as far away as Max’s, so I was able to walk.  I arrived right as they were finishing serving lunch and beginning the mass.  The assistant head teacher from the school next to Max’s house spotted me, took me to a seat, and got me some food (again, I had eaten lunch already…obviously I had not learned anything from the day before).  There were no utensils, so I finally got to eat in the traditional Ugandan way…with my hands.  Rice isn’t the easiest thing in the world to eat with your hands, but it worked fairly well.  The really awkward thing was that I was eating through nearly the entire mass (it was a big plate of rice), but I think it was okay.  Other people were eating, too, and nobody seemed to find it odd.  Maybe, to a certain extent, this shows the importance of eating when you have a chance, in a place where people might not always have enough food.

Anyway, the mass was pretty standard (besides the fact that it was in a different language), and as they were slowly transitioning from the mass to the actual burial, the assistant head teacher showed me the grave that was in the process of being dug.  It looked to be about a meter deep and was lined with bricks and a layer of mortar.  We spent a few minutes talking about similarities and differences between Uganda and the USA…gravestones, caskets, cremation, etc.  Eventually, the body, wrapped in the burial cloth, was brought over to the grave, the priest said a few words, and several men lowered the body down into the ground.  People started passing out small leaves and flowers to drop into the grave, and then, after someone would drop those things in, they would go over to a banana tree and break off a leaf.  I wasn’t able to find out what this might represent.  Eventually, the grave would be filled in, and a concrete pad would be placed over the top.  I don’t think they will put up a gravestone, but I could be wrong about that.

After it was over, I got to talk to Max a little bit.  He seemed to be doing okay, and he was happy that I was able to come and see the service.  Ever since the death had occurred on Thursday, I had been thinking about changing my Christmas plans and spending the holiday with Max and his family, and, as we talked, I made up my mind, and told him that I would really like to be with his family for Christmas (I didn’t just invite myself…a few weeks ago his wife, Teddy, had mentioned that I could come if I wanted).  I’m happy to report that this seemed to make him very glad, and he rushed over right away to tell Teddy.

So, I guess I’ll get a chance to experience Christmas from a truly Ugandan perspective, and hopefully I’ll have some good stories to report in the next installment.

On a completely unrelated note, for some reason I’ve started writing a little poetry over here…possibly because I don’t have quite the same opportunity to write music, and I need some sort of outlet like that (though I have started playing around on a Ugandan instrument…more on that in the future).  Anyway, it’s not connected to the funeral, or to Christmas, or to anything else in this post, but I thought I’d share the poem I wrote last Sunday night.  I put it up on Facebook, so you might have already seen it…


The dreams, they come less seldom now,
Though memories dissolve with morning’s light.
Fleeting landscapes from worlds unseen,
Partial fragments, pieces of night.

Why these wanderings through the mist,
These brief escapes of fantasy?
Are they, perhaps, designed to hide,
To shield from harsh reality?

Yet how can I deny the cry,
The child, alone, left to die.
Not sure how to dry her eyes,
I find, still, that I must try.

For when this life has passed its prime,
When earthly things seem less sublime,
Will I lament that I was lost
Amid a sea of dreams uncrossed?

Or will I look into your eyes,
And say, I did my best to try,
To sail beyond the fantasy,
To face the true reality.

And still, though oceans separate,
I know you help to navigate.
So as the sun completes its flight,
Let me dream of you tonight.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tis the Season…For Grasshoppers

As I expected, when I’m at my site, I’m almost exclusively a vegetarian.  For breakfast, I’ll usually have a variety of fruit (some combination of orange, passion fruit, papaya, and banana), along with a toasted piece of bread, and I’ll either put peanut butter and jelly or a fried egg on that.  For lunch, it’s usually a simple sandwich, maybe peanut butter and jelly again, maybe peanut butter and banana, or sometimes avocado (and I want to make guacamole soon).  For supper, it’s usually either pasta or rice with my supreme sauce.  “Supreme” doesn’t have anything to do with the tastiness of it (although I think it’s pretty good)…I just call it supreme because it basically consists of every vegetable I currently have in the house (kind of like a supreme pizza), mixed together in a frying pan.  This past week I did get a little adventurous and bought a pumpkin, having very little idea how to cook it.  It worked out pretty well…I just cut it up, boiled it, added a little cinnamon, sugar, and the veggie sauce, and then mashed it all up, kind of like mashed potatoes.  I liked it. The second time I tried it, I added banana to the boiling water to replace the sugar, and I think that worked out pretty well too.  Anyway, my point is that I rarely, if ever, eat meat.  Even when I go out to one of the local restaurants, I’ll get beans, peas, or ground nut sauce as my source of protein.

That is, unless the girls from the guest house next door cook me up some insects.  About a month ago, I was introduced to termites, which were pretty good.  Actually, I don’t know how much taste they really had…I mean, there’s not exactly a whole lot of meat on one of these things.  They probably just fried them in a pool of oil and sprinkled a ton of salt over them.  Now, it’s grasshopper season, and they fried some of those little guys up for me, too.  And, what do you know, they were good.  Of course, this probably shouldn’t come as a surprise…I still don’t think I’ve found a food that I really don’t like.

Harvesting grasshoppers actually seems to be a really big deal, and it appears that just about everybody does it.  In the Luganda language, there’s actually a word that means “the month of grasshopper harvesting” (“Museenene,” which is related to the word for grasshopper, “Enseenene”).  I think it takes place through most of November, and maybe into early December.  From what I’ve been told, here’s more or less how it works: People will stand a whole bunch of 55-gallon steel drums together in a group, and then will put long poles into the drums.  The poles extend way up into the sky, and then lights are put on top of the poles.  At night, the grasshoppers are attracted to the light and have a “flight of Icarus” experience (they get too close, hit the light, and get zapped), at which point they slide down the poles and fall into the drums.  Then, the unfortunate fallen soldiers are collected, cooked, and set outside on a mat to dry.  (Apparently, if you dry them without cooking them first, they develop a smell that is not so appealing.)  Once they’re dried, people will sell them all over the place…in markets, at taxi stops, at other random locations along the street…Some sellers will carry around big plastic buckets on their shoulder filled with the little things, and others will separate them into individual-sized plastic bags.  I was just in the Masaka taxi park a few days ago, and I still saw people selling, so, even though it seems like the season’s coming to a close, it might not be quite over yet.

In other news…

Joseph, Sunday, and Gonzaga (left to right) in their uniforms
As you are probably noticing, the pictures in this blog have nothing to do with grasshoppers.  Sadly, I didn’t get any photos of the high-tech grasshopper-catching systems, and the bugs that I ate were in my stomach before the thought of taking a picture even entered my head.  So, instead, I thought it might be nice to let you see some of the people I’ve been working with.  We’ve been working on getting uniforms made for the Brick by Brick masons, and, a few weeks ago, they were finished.  These pictures were taken when three of our most consistent guys, Sunday, Joseph, and Gonzaga, received their uniforms.  They were definitely very excited to get these, and, as Marc, Positive Planet’s director, said, you’ll be able to recognize them from a mile away…seeing as these uniforms have the same color scheme as a traffic cone.  Right now, the masons are at a school out in the western part of Uganda, building our two biggest tanks to date…30,000 liters each (about 8,000 gallons each).  After that, we’ll probably be heading to one of Positive Planet’s partner schools to build a structure that will contain a classroom, a library, and a storage room, which will be our first thing that’s not a rainwater tank.  As for other brick business activities, we’re working hard trying to get some marketing going…I’ve been in touch with an artist in Kampala who’s printing up business cards, Max is talking to a local artist about designing a signpost to go outside of our office, and we’ll be working on designing an informational leaflet with pictures, prices, etc., that we can give out to possible clients.  Business marketing…not exactly my area of expertise, and not exactly what I expected to be doing in the Peace Corps, but I think it’s going okay so far…

The logo on the back of the uniform
On another note that’s kind of related, I was in Kampala last week (Nov. 28 – Dec. 2) for the Rural Water Supply Network forum.  This was actually incredibly lucky.  It’s an international forum, only held every few years, and this year, it just happened to be in Uganda’s capital city, which is only three hours away by crowded public transportation.  The forum started on Tuesday morning, so I traveled into the city on Monday.  Actually, Max and I came in together, and we used to day to meet with Dr. Moses Musaazi, a professor at Makerere University (probably one of the best universities in Uganda) who helped to invent the technology we use to make the interlocking soil bricks..  He was a very nice guy, and he had several suggestions for us as we move forward into the construction of larger tanks and other kinds of structures.  After our meeting, Max headed back home, and I headed downtown to find Jake and Patrick, two of the volunteers who would also be going to the forum.  We spent that night in one of the standard Peace Corps dives, piling into a room with two other volunteers who were in town for medical stuff (it seems like people are in Kampala a decent amount for medical stuff…I’ve been fortunate so far).  We just got a few extra mattresses at the front desk for a few bucks each, and spread them out on the fairly small amount of floor space in the room.  Early Tuesday morning, we got a ride to the hotel where the forum was being held.  This place, the Speke Resort, has got to be the nicest hotel in the country.  It might be the nicest place I’ve ever stayed in, anywhere.  For one thing, it’s right on Lake Victoria, so it’s a good location.  On top of that, it’s got a massive pool, a bunch of courtyards and gardens, and a nice restaurant, among other things.  And the food…oh my.  Buffets for breakfast and lunch, and eating at the restaurant for dinner…I may have put on 10 pounds over the course of three days…and I was definitely not a vegetarian for those three days.

For most of the people at this conference, the prices were cheap to average…but, you can probably imagine that, for Peace Corps volunteers who have gotten used to spending less than a dollar on lunch at a local restaurant, we were being as cheap as possible.  So, the three of us got one single room with a king-size bed.  And yes, all three of us slept in the bed.  I was the lucky winner of the middle position, by virtue of the fact that I was not in the room when positions were decided.

Joseph and me sitting in the office
But seriously, getting to the actual content of the forum, it was really good.  As you can probably tell from the title, it was all about water supply for people living in rural areas of developing countries.  Rural populations are often the hardest to reach, and, in just about every country, the percentage of people with access to improved water sources is lower in rural areas than in urban areas.  In cities and towns, it’s pretty easy to reach a lot of people relatively cheaply, because people are so close together.  You can just collect water for everyone and then pipe it to them.  In rural areas, people are often too far apart for this to be an effective strategy.  Even in the USA, this is true.  Many people who live in rural areas get their water from a personal well…that’s what my family does.  So, the task is trying to find the most effective, most sustainable ways to provide water to people in these rural areas.  Over the years, it’s been found that, while community or village water systems sound great in principle, since villages often have a certain amount of inherent cohesion anyway, the majority of these systems are not sustained for more than a few years.  The systems often break down, and they are not repaired.  Part of this is the whole issue that, when something is everyone’s responsibility, each person thinks that someone else will do it, so nobody does.  The other, perhaps bigger issue is that the communities often don’t feel that they truly own and are responsible for the system, because the systems are often put into place by outside organizations and funding sources.  So, there’s a slowly growing movement, called “self-supply,” that focuses on helping rural households improve their own supplies with their own resources.

Gonzaga and me
Now, I think that access to safe, clean water is a basic human right (seeing as we need water to live), so initially I had a little trouble with this idea.  Asking people who already have very few resources to provide for themselves something necessary for health and survival seemed a bit questionable.  But, it’s an issue of practicality and what actually works.  I remember hearing about a mosquito-net distribution program in another country.  If they just gave away the nets, the people weren’t using them for their intended purpose by the end of a year, but, if people had to pay a small amount to get one, then a certain amount of value is placed on the net, and they continue to be used effectively.  So, this concept does make sense, and it has proven to be more operationally sustainable.  When people get their own wells or rainwater tanks, they’re much more likely to repair them if they break, and, as a household’s economic situation slowly improves over time, they can incrementally improve their water supply.  For example, they might start by collecting rainwater with a few buckets and jerry cans, then they might add on a gutter that drains into a ceramic jar, and then they might eventually get a bigger tank to hold the water coming from the gutter.

For this approach to work, local private sector businesses are needed that offer these water supply technologies or the materials to construct them.  If the businesses can turn a profit while providing these technologies to rural households, the approach is truly economically sustainable.  The suppliers will remain in the area, and households will be able to provide their own water supplies.  Brick by Brick fits nicely into this model, because we’re trying to sustain a business that can offer a certain type of water supply.

Of course, it’s not perfect.  The households in the worst financial situations will not be able to take advantage of the approach, because they don’t have the economic resources available to invest in their own water supplies.  We’re starting to explore microfinance options (yet another area in which I have exactly zero experience) so that people who don’t have the cash up front can get a loan and have access to this service.  It still won’t reach the poorest of the poor, but it might expand the range of people who can participate.

Sunday and me
So, I have a lot of ideas coming out of the conference, and hopefully at least some of them will actually happen and be halfway decent.  Along with that, two doctoral students from USF flew in for the forum, and it was really nice to see them.  Both of them were actually presenting papers, so they were pretty important people at this thing.  Anyway, after the forum ended on Thursday, a big group of us went back into Kampala to have dinner at a very good Ethiopian place, and then Patrick, Jake, and I were able to bum a hotel room off of yet another volunteer who was in Kampala for medical stuff.  This time, I was the last one in the room (with 3 beds), and didn’t even feel like making the effort to go down and get a mattress.  So, I was actually on the floor that night…luckily, I had brought along a blanket and a pillow.  Honestly, though, it was kind of fun just bumming around and being as cheap as possible for the week.

On the school side of things, there’s not much going on right now.  In Uganda, schools run on a three term schedule spread out over the year (there’s not really a summer vacation, seeing as there’s no summer), and the final term just ended a week or so ago.  It will start back up again in the middle of January, so most of our projects with schools are kind of at a standstill right now.  Max’s younger kids are home from boarding school, and he’s actually having me work on computer skills with one of his boys, Patrick, who’s probably around 11 or 12.  We usually start with a little typing.  Luckily, the volunteer before me had installed Mavis Beacon onto Max’s computer (remember that blast from the past?), so I don’t have to do too much with that.  Then, once Patrick has gotten tired of that, we’ll go through stuff about what all of the keys do, how Microsoft Word works, etc.  Actually, just today he asked me what all of the top keys (F1, F2, etc.) do, and, honestly, all I really know is that Alt+F4 closes stuff.  So, I just pushed all of the buttons, and nothing happened, so I just told him that I never really use those buttons, except for the combo to close programs.  (If anyone knows any more than this, feel free to let me know…)  Then, Patrick will usually want to end with a game.  I taught him how to play Solitaire, but he definitely prefers this outrageous arcade game demo that came already installed on the computer, I think.  It’s called “Chicken Invaders,” and you basically just fly around in your spaceship and shoot chickens.  They attack by laying eggs in your direction, and when they’re shot, they turn into drumsticks.  I’m actually sitting beside Patrick right now as he massacres flocks of chickens flying in formation with his laser gun.

You know, it’s kind of hard to believe that, in addition to grasshopper season, it’s also Christmas season.  It certainly doesn’t feel like it.  Perhaps part of the reason is the lack of department store ads, not to mention the lack of snow and absence of any sort of temperature drop.  I guess, technically, it should actually get a little warmer, since I’m (barely) in the southern hemisphere.  Instead of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, we have grasshoppers drying in the hot sun…doesn’t quite have the same lyrical quality to it.  At any rate, I’ll probably be heading out to the western part of the country to celebrate with some other volunteers.

As I think about the drastic temperature difference between here and home, it makes me realize just how incredibly fortunate we are.  This planet can contain both extremes at the same time…temperatures that are really hot, and temperatures that are really cold.  If it were to get much warmer or much colder, we might have a pretty difficult time surviving…it might even be impossible.  It’s kind of crazy that this planet is at exactly the right distance from a star that gives off heat at exactly the right intensity for life to survive…and not just to survive, but to flourish in a wide variety of ways, from little grasshoppers to blue whales, from microscopic bacteria to the humans who need to visit the Peace Corps medical office because of them.  I don’t know what the probability is for all of these life-supporting conditions to coalesce, but it’s got to be outrageously tiny.  And sure, there are tons of stars and planets out there, maybe enough to make it likely that at least one could support life, but it’s still amazing to me that it actually happened, that life was created where previously there was none, and that life can be so diverse and beautiful.  Find a Discovery Channel show on life at the bottom of the ocean, and you’ll see just how diverse and beautiful it can be.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Considering the holiday that happened back in the US last Thursday, I thought that now might be a good time to talk about some of the reasons I am thankful this year…

…for Nature

Last week, right around Thanksgiving day, Max and I ventured a little ways into the southwest region of Uganda to prepare for the construction of two water tanks at Kutamba Primary School, near a town called Kisiizi.  In addition to Max and me, we also brought along two of our masons, Joseph and Gonzaga, and the press that the masons would use to make the curved bricks for the tanks.  Now, the brick press weighs at least a few hundred pounds, and it takes at least 3 to 4 people to move the thing anywhere, so transport was a bit of a tough issue.  We left Kalisizo in one of the Toyota Corollas that function as taxis, with the press and our masons’ mattresses, pillows, and other belongings all stuffed into the trunk (here it’s called the “boot”…obviously a little British influence).  Needless to say, the trunk was a bit smaller than the stuff that was in it, meaning that it was pretty much completely open, with the stuff tied down somehow.  Due to our massively imbalanced weight distribution, our driver was stopped several times at police checkpoints.  As is customary here, a small bribe was all it took to allow us to keep moving, but these small bribes piled up, and, by the time we got out of this car, the driver had decided to up the price by about 10%...

After leaving the car, we loaded the press and all the other stuff into the back of a matatu (the small mini-buses that are another form of public transportation), and, even though the back didn’t completely shut, it wasn’t quite so bad, and we weren’t flagged down by police every few kilometers.  When we had gone as far as we could in the matatu, we switched again, this time to a pick-up truck, which was probably the most appropriate vehicle for the press in the first place.  Of course, our masons had to ride in the back as we careened down a fairly bumpy road, picking up hundreds of pounds of matooke along the way, but we eventually made it to the town, safe and sound.

Overlooking Kutamba Primary School
By now you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with nature.  Well, during the whole journey, I was almost oblivious to our current mode of transportation, due to the changing scenery that I saw moving past me as I looked out of the window.  The progression actually reminded me a lot of starting at my home in south-central Pennsylvania and heading up into the northern part of the state, a journey I’ve made several times.  After beginning with the rolling foothills near Lewisberry, the hills grow as we travel north along the Susquehanna, and we eventually reach the round, wooded peaks of the Appalachians, with a variety of colors bursting forth if you’re there as the leaves are changing color.  The Ugandan trek was all green, but the landscapes were similar.  After leaving the rolling, relatively small hills near Kalisizo, we saw the hills get bigger and bigger, until we reached the majestic, green mountains out west.  These peaks were not as heavily forested (deforestation is actually a growing problem in Uganda), they were occasionally dotted with small, jagged rock outcroppings, and I think they might have been a bit bigger than the Appalachians, but the trip reminded me of past vacations, with the days being spent hiking through Pennsylvania’s state parks and the nights being spent in a cabin with a great view of the surrounding area.  I’m thankful for nature because it never ceases to remind me of the grandeur, the wonder, and the harmony of beauty and functionality that characterizes the natural universe around us.  I hope the pictures do a half-decent job of showing you some views from the school that were breathtaking, in person.

…for Friends

Another view from the school, looking down the hill
I wasn’t planning on having a true Thanksgiving meal, this year.  I didn’t have the capacity, with my little gas stove, or the actual cooking skills necessary to pull off turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, broccoli casserole, baked pineapple, corn, cranberry sauce (homemade), rolls, pumpkin pie, apple pie, and other assorted goodies.  (Okay, maybe I could have managed the rolls…)  But, as fate would have it, I was lucky enough to randomly run into another Peace Corps volunteer last Wednesday, and was invited to the dinner she was having with a bunch of volunteers from Great Britain and Ireland.  Granted, there were a few of my Thanksgiving favorites missing (green bean/broccoli casseroles, baked pineapple, and apple pie, for starters), but it was absolutely amazing anyway.  I, of course, did my standard “take some of everything” Thanksgiving tradition (this includes desserts, by the way), and was not disappointed, with the food or with the company.

Yet another view from the school
I also spent last Saturday with some friends in a nearby town.  They had just bought some fresh pork (in other words, the pig was slaughtered that morning) from the butcher down the street, and we made a really, really good stir-fry with pork, pineapple, assorted veggies, and rice.  Then, we spent the afternoon playing games, talking about what we’ve been doing, and eating some of their leftover pumpkin cake.  Yet another great day with great people.

And, of course, I’m thinking about all of my friends in other parts of the world, wondering how they spent their Thanksgiving this year.  I continue to be so very thankful of all of the support coming from so many different places.

for Being Alive

Joseph and Gonzaga, two of our masons, mixing soil and cement

Don’t worry, I have no near-death experiences to report, although our trip back to Kalisizo from the southwest was a little interesting.  Max and I set off back home in a matatu, and we were barreling along at a good pace until we hit a very muddy stretch of dirt road.  It had rained a lot while we were out there at the school, and some workers were adding more dirt to the road to make it a bit more passable.  But, we couldn’t get through.  So, our driver turned us around, and took this crazy, circuitous route in an attempt to make it back to the main road.  I’m pretty sure there were times when he was just making it up, having no idea where exactly he was going, as passengers in the back shouted what I think were suggested directions up to the front.  At one point, we were on what had to be a very rarely traveled “road” (it was more a set of tire tracks that went up and over a big hill) that was not at all appropriate for a vehicle of our size.  After we had reached the summit and were bouncing down the other side, the driver leaned over to me (I was sitting in the front between him and Max) and said, “This is a road.”  I laughed a bit as I responded, “This is a road? Almost…”  Well, we eventually rejoined something that was a bit more road-like, at which point our driver nearly floored in, trying to make up for lost time, which lasted about 10 seconds, as we flew over a large bump that he didn’t see.  I’m pretty sure the minibus, with all of its luggage and its numerous passengers, caught some air at that point.  We went a little slower after that, appeasing the unimpressed grunts from the passengers in back.  Finally, we spotted the main road (it’s actually paved), and rocketed home, this time with our driver successfully avoiding the obstacle course of potholes.

Adding the mixture to the press
Anyway, my life was never really in danger there, I just wanted an excuse to tell that story.  Trying to get back on point, I’m thankful to be alive at this exciting time in history, when the connections between people around the world are so obvious.  Just the fact that I can be writing something in Uganda, which could potentially reach you instantly on the other side of the world, is something kind of crazy.  I think that, in general, people are slowly starting to realize how much we depend on one another, and how much we can learn from one another.  And I’m so fortunate to have the opportunity to live in a completely different place, with people from a different culture.  I think that’s certainly something to be thankful for, and I think it’s really important to have the chance to see the different perspectives and ways of doing things that exist in the world.

…for Trials

Starting the compression stroke...
All that I’ve said so far has been very good.  These are things that are easy to be thankful for.  But I’ve also had my share of frustrations, disappointments, and other assorted trials and tribulations.  I’m not going to go into these in detail, but I want to say that, I think, trials are also something to be thankful for.  Certainly, some things are just too terrible and might not have any sort of good value to them, but many of the things that go wrong and that frustrate us can be very important in our development.  I have to try to remember that each of these frustrations, each of these disappointments is a veiled opportunity to grow and to become a better person, to confront some of the aspects of myself that might not be so good or effective, and to try to improve them.  Just as a quick example, you might remember my frustrating encounters with the little kids who live in my compound.  Admittedly, sometimes, they are still pretty good at ticking me off.  (Yesterday, for example, one of the little ones bit my shirt, and now the shirt has a nice little hole in it.), but things have definitely gotten better.  I’m not sure how much of this is me improving or if it’s just random ebb and flow, but we’ve spent some fun time playing together.  They like it a lot when I pick them up and swing them around a bit, and the youngest boy and I have started doing this thing where I hold his hands as he walks up my legs.  When his feet make it up to my waist, he gets a little reward, as I swing him around, turn him upside down, and help him to perform other acrobatic feats.  Of course, I need to be wearing clothes that are already really dirty, because, if he has not had a bath five seconds ago, the little guy is invariably covered in dirt (and he hasn’t yet learned the benefits of blowing his nose…he gets some nice snot buildup around his nostrils…anyway, I’m sure you wanted to know that).  So, we’ve been having some fun, and I hope things will keep getting better.  I’m thankful for this opportunity to improve.

…and finally…for Family

Finished compressing
Thanksgiving is one of the days of the year that I look forward to the most.  And that’s not only because of the food (although that certainly plays a significant role).  Every year, I would get to see a whole bunch of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and cousins’ kids (whatever that relationship is called).  On Thanksgiving Day, Grandma (and Pop-Pop, before he passed away) would come to our house for an amazing meal, after which we would probably hang out down by the fire, talk, watch some (American) football, take naps, and then start chowing down on the leftovers in the evening.  The next day, we would get together with the Trimmer side of the family, traditionally at the Trimmer farm, but now the gathering rotates between various members of the family.  And we’d have another big feast, with the ladies usually providing the majority of the talking while the quiet Trimmer guys stuffed large amounts of food and gallons of milk into their mouths, possibly stopping occasionally to interject a few carefully selected words into the conversation (possibly).  Then, we (again, mainly the ladies) would talk some more, catch up on anything we haven’t yet covered, and reminisce a bit about Grandma Trimmer.  Finally, we’d all take our large assortments of leftovers back home, and I’d probably chow down a bit more that night.

The first two finished products
The past several years, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my family would go and pick out a Christmas tree over at Haring’s tree farm, since it was likely to be one of the only weekends Luke and I would both be around before Christmas.  I always enjoyed this, even though Luke, Dad, and I might have played it off as if we didn’t really care what the tree looked like, as Mom would carefully examine every branch, occasionally pulling out a chart of proper Christmas tree dimension ratios (okay, that was a bit of an exaggeration).  But really, it was always a good feeling when we finally formed a consensus and picked one out, after which I would kneel down on the usually frosty, occasionally muddy ground and cut it down.

Even though I’m never the most talkative or the most exciting to be around during these family events, they have always been something I’ve looked forward to.  The anticipation of coming home from school for Thanksgiving was always huge, even when I was (relatively) far away in Florida last year.  Nothing was going to keep me from coming home.  And, this year, I’m realizing how much I love this time with family, how important it is to me.  Don’t get me wrong, hanging out with some Peace Corps friends over the past few days has been great, but it cannot possibly replace that feeling of being completely at home.  As much as I want to feel at home wherever my life takes me, there’s something special, something irreplaceable, about being with a family, both an immediate and an extended family, where there is so much love, warmth, and care.  To all the Trimmers, Houseals, and Shericks out there who might be reading this, I miss you and love you very much.  I’m so thankful for you, and for your infinite love and support that is always there.