Sunday, August 28, 2011

Stars, Dreams, Bucket Baths and Pit Latrines

All right, finally, the first post from Uganda!  I’ve been in this country for almost two weeks now, but it feels like it’s been much longer than that.  Our group got in late on a Thursday, and Peace Corps people drove us to this secluded little conference center thing, called Banana Village, which was about a half an hour away from the airport in Entebbe.  After being greeted by a bunch of Americans and Ugandans, we hit the sack, only to wake up at 7 AM to have breakfast and start our first full day of training.  The first week, we stayed at Banana Village, sleeping in rooms with a bunch of bunk beds.  Quarters were tight…I was with five other guys, but the ladies had it much worse.  The first few nights, 20 of them were together in a big room, with one bathroom, and it didn’t take long for someone to get sick, which ended up meaning that about half of the people in that room got sick.  The first Sunday, we went into Kampala (Uganda’s capital city) and walked around.  For lunch, our Peace Corps volunteer guides took us to a place they refer to as the lady’s living room (which is exactly what it is), where the female owner of the apartment cooks and sells Ethiopian food out of her kitchen.  The food was amazing!  In the afternoon, we walked through a taxi park (the taxis here are actually what we would call mini-buses), which was, simply put, utter chaos.  It’s basically a huge parking lot, with hundreds of taxis going every which way, playing a very crowded game of bumper cars, without any collisions actually happening.  It was kind of fun navigating through that craziness.

After that first week at Banana Village, we moved north to a town called Wakiso, where we will spend most of the remainder of our ten weeks of training.  We now all have our own host families in and around town, and we walk to our training center, a nice place called Raco, every morning.  We spend about 9 hours (8 am to 5 pm) at Raco every weekday (and some Saturdays), learning about Ugandan culture, traditions, and current events, and we also spend a lot of time on language.  We’ve now been split into 5 groups, with each group learning a different language.  All of the people in a group will be going to the same region of the country after training.  My language is Luganda, which is spoken in the central region of Uganda, which includes Kampala and Entebbe.

My homestay family is very nice, and we’re getting along well.  I’m actually the 5th PC trainee they’ve hosted, so, really, I’m nothing incredibly new or special to them.  We have electricity sporadically (it generally goes out for at least a few hours at least once a day) but no running water, so I’ve been learning how to take bucket baths (which might be something to try back in the states.  It saves a tremendous amount of water – I probably use between 1.5 and 2.5 gallons – and you can still heat up the water beforehand so that you’re not freezing.), how to wash clothes completely by hand (which takes quite a significant amount of time), and how to use pit latrines.  Now, I’ve used pit latrines with seats before, but the ones over here consist of four walls, a roof, and a hole in the ground.  In other words, a completely different technique (squatting instead of sitting) is required, and one’s aim is quite important.  I’ve successfully made it through my first case of diarrhea in Uganda, so I think, by now, I should be getting the hang of using this thing.  (As a side note, apparently, bathroom activities become a relatively frequent topic of conversation among PC volunteers…just a warning for the future.)

I’m also getting fed quite well (my homestay family has a farm, with pigs, chickens, cows, and vegetable crops).  Last weekend, I got the full treatment, since I was at the house all day.  This includes breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, and supper (and the tea times include food).  Normal meals, especially lunch and supper, consist of as many different forms of starch as possible.  (The way I normally eat, I kind of feel like I’ve been training for this my whole life…)  The main staple is called matooke, which is basically made up of green bananas are mashed up and cooked.  I think that pretty much anything in the banana that is not already starch is converted to starch during this process, and matooke doesn’t have all of the nutrients that a ripe banana would have.  But, they also make this peanut sauce that goes really well with it, so I still like it!  We also eat something called posho, which is basically a white clump made from maize flour.  Again, pretty tasteless, but good with some kind of vegetable or meat sauce.  And then we have rice, potatoes (called “Irish” here), cassava (another root), and occasionally pumpkin.  Along with that, we’ll also have beans, vegetables (eggplant, carrots, cabbage, and greens seem to be popular), and maybe a little meat stew a couple times a week.  I’ve had cow intestines a couple of times as well…they’re incredibly chewy and have kind of a weird taste to them, but it wasn’t all that bad.  There are also lots of peanuts (called “G-nuts” here), and I’ll get a healthy pile of those at tea times.  At breakfast, I’ll usually get porridge made from maize flour, some bread, and a hard-boiled egg.  And, with almost every meal, I’ll get a banana.  This seems to be the most common fruit right now.  We’ll also have pineapples, avocados, and melons sometimes…the mangos aren’t in season yet (can’t wait!).  This diet might seem pretty heavy and starchy for the average American, I know, but, as my host mom said, most Ugandans work hard out in the fields for many hours each day.  All of these foods with lots of complex carbs give the long-term energy needed to get through a hard day’s work.

In general, things have been going very well so far.  I think I’ll wait until at least the next post to write more about Uganda itself, once I’ve had a bit more time to experience this place and to learn about it.  As for me, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know this group of 46 Peace Corps trainees, even though I might not be offering my thoughts and opinions as much as I could be within the group.  Part of that, obviously, is due to the fact that I continue to be a staunch introvert, but I also think that some of it might be related to my surprising ability to actually take this experience one day at a time and to simply “be”, so far.  Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is something I’m not sure about.  Although the thought has crossed my mind some nights as I write in my journal, I have not been dwelling on the fact that I’m here for 27 months, away from many of the people I care about.  Even as I write that sentence, I’m not starting to tear up, even though I think it would be perfectly acceptable to do that.  You know, maybe it just hasn’t sunk in yet…probably because I’m still seeing 45 cool people from America every day.  We’ll have to see what happens once training is over and we’re all sent off to our own, individual sites.  That might be a major reality check.

With that said, there has been one day that was kind of difficult.  It was actually the day we moved from Banana Village to Wakiso, so quite a lot was happening, and I didn’t really have a chance to dwell on my emotions.  Anyway, the night before, I had a dream about spending time with a very close friend.  It was nothing overly exciting, but it’s someone I love very much, and this is made even more significant by the fact that I actually remember some of this dream more than a week after it happened.  I generally don’t remember dreams at all.  Anyway, it was hard to get out of bed that morning, because I wanted to go back into the dream, and I was thinking about and missing this friend all day.  But, thinking back on it now, I’m also reminded of something else that happened on the flight over…

Support from the Stars, Support from Afar

The first leg of our flight out of New York City was an overnight flight to Brussels.  For some reason, I wasn’t able to sleep very much.  As the sun set on one continent, and as I waited for it to rise again on another, I looked out of the window and saw the Big Dipper.  During the entire flight, that constellation barely moved, and I remembered that, even though this world seems so big sometimes, it’s really a pretty small speck in the universe.  In other words, if we think about how huge the entire cosmos might be, we’re really all very, very close together.  Even if the night sky in Uganda looks a bit different, at least some of the stars in it are also visible from the USA.  The sun that rises in Uganda will also rise back home a few hours later.  Maybe one afternoon, I’ll look up to the sky and glance at the sun as someone I love back in the US wakes up to see that same star.  In that moment, our eyes are connected across thousands of miles, even if we don’t realize it.  We are not as far apart as we may seem, and I know that I am loved and supported across that distance.

This experience reminds me of a poem I wrote for a few friends a little while back, which I think is pretty applicable right now.  Here are some lines from the end of that poem:

Somewhere in the world out there,
She sees the same starry sky,
She sees the same sun start to rise.
The song of the birds is ringing,
And the same rule still applies.
Whether here or there or anywhere,
Our hearts are closer than geography implies.

All I have to do is think of you,
And the light returns to my eyes.

(Just a side note…my internet access is going to be outrageously sporadic, at least through these 10 weeks of training.  I'm mooching off a friend's modem right now.  So, I have no idea when the next post will be coming!  This lack of daily internet is kind of nice, actually.  Also, I am taking some pictures, but I probably won’t be posting many of them online at this point…they take up a lot of space, and they take a long time to load.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to get a couple up every now and then…)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

One more for the road...

I just wanted to post a quick update before we leave the country tomorrow, mainly because I want you all to know that we were told today that we probably wouldn't have access to internet for the first couple of weeks over in don't worry if I don't post anything on here for a while.  (If you do feel an overwhelming need to see if I'm okay, Peace Corps will send a mass email to a family member of each volunteer going over in this group, once we reach Uganda safely.  So, Mom will know that I'm alive!)

Today was a long day, full of orientation-type meetings and meeting a whole buch of really wonderful, diverse, and passionate people.  There are 46 of us all together, with some people right out of college, some people in the same master's program as me, some leaving jobs after a couple of years in the "real world", some folks in a somewhat higher age range, and some married couples.  And they're from all over the country.  No one else from Pennsylvania, as far as I could tell, though.  I'm definitely really excited to get to know this group of people.  We've already had lots of fun tonight at dinner, and I think the next ten weeks, as we all train together, are going to be a blast.

Sorry that there's nothing overly profound or thought-provoking this time...just wanted to let you all know the situation!

I think I'm ready...trusting, letting go, and just allowing myself to be present and experience the moment.  All remains well...

Monday, August 1, 2011

Time to Go, Time to Be Still

All right…one day until this journey begins.  Here’s what will be happening for me and the other incoming Peace Corps volunteers serving in Uganda (I think there are about 50 of us): on Tuesday, we’ll all meet up in Philadelphia, and we’ll spend the day in a hotel, going through some basic orientation-type meetings and information sessions.  After spending the night in the hotel, we take a bus up to New York on Wednesday, where we’ll fly out of JFK Airport.  The flight leaves around 5:30 in the afternoon and will take us across the Atlantic (which will be my first time away from the Americas).  There’s a stop in Brussels, and then we head on to Uganda from there, landing at the Entebbe Airport in the southern part of the country, near Lake Victoria.  It’s a total flying time of about 17 hours or so, I think, and, with plane changes and time changes, we’ll get into Uganda relatively late on Thursday, if I remember correctly.  After that, the group starts a ten-week training period.  About half of this time will be spent on technical training, where I’ll learn about the work I’ll be doing (something health-related), and the other half will focus on language and cultural training.  During those ten weeks, I will be staying with a host family, and I am definitely looking forward to that!  I think that experience could definitely be a huge help as I try to get some kind of a handle on Luganda, which is the language that most volunteers need to learn.  Then, once we get past the halfway point of training, I think we might start hearing some details about our specific assignments…

This morning, as I slowly woke up and realized that I now only had one more night in this bed, I had what I am going to call a “What in the world am I doing?” moment.  I think I finally started to understand just how big of a change this is all going to be, how much of a leap of faith it is.  Admittedly, at that point, I felt pretty helpless.  As much as I think the next two years are going to be full of great and important experiences, I just don’t know what is going to happen.  There are so many unknowns, but one thing I do know is I’m going to be missing friends and family so much.  This past week has been full of time being or talking with a bunch of people who I really care about, from great high school and college friends, to the swimmers I’ve coached for the past five summers, to loving relatives, and they will all be on my mind during my time overseas.  Maybe I’m finally actually coming to terms with the fact that, yeah, this is going to be hard…

Well, I didn’t have too much time to dwell on these feelings, since I had procrastinated and still had quite a few things to take care of before tomorrow.  And yet, I’ve had another realization since this morning.  As I rushed to fill out paperwork, run errands, and say some last-minute goodbyes to a couple friends, I also was fortunate enough to spend a little time with both of my grandparents.  My grandma came over after lunch, and I’m so glad that I was able to hear her words of encouragement.  She had undoubtedly realized a long time ago that this experience was going to be hugely challenging for me, but her confidence that I would be able to handle it (with support, of course, from those in Uganda and from those an ocean away) was definitely reassuring.  Later in the afternoon, I stopped by my grandpa’s farm.  He was inside the house, probably taking a rest after a long day of work, and we talked for a few minutes.  Sometime during that conversation, a very slow and deliberate conversation between two people who are often content to keep speech to a minimum, a conversation that ranged from the time I was leaving tomorrow to a comparison of the behavior of cows and pigs, I looked around the farmhouse and suddenly realized that time had seemed to slow down in this place, that it was okay to simply sit and “be.”  Instead of worrying about what might happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the next year, we took the time to enjoy the flowers along the path outside as we walked back out to my car.  We examined the tomato vines growing next to the porch, we watched the butterflies hovering over the plants to the left of the path, and Grandpa mentioned that it might be time to trim the hedge on the right side of the path.  After giving him a hug, getting in the car, and waving to Grandpa one last time as I turned out of the driveway, time seemed to slowly return to normal, but the feeling that had developed in my heart, a feeling born from the unspoken wisdom of a much more experienced man, remained.


It seems to me that so many of us are looking for some measure of inner peace…and I am included in this group.  I often like to think that I am an active participant in this life, always trying to answer the question, “What can I do?”  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I think that doing is incredibly important, but I’m not sure if inner peace is something we can achieve by doing more and more.  Perhaps more importantly, I don’t think that I should see my own inner peace as the end goal here.  Rather, I’d like to think that it is more of a starting point, and then, with a personal sense of peace in place, our actions can flow from there.

Let me stop for a second as I recognize that this is a difficult balancing act.  I do not think that we should first focus completely on cultivating inner peace, waiting to act until that goal is totally achieved.  At least for me, I would probably be waiting a long, long time to do anything!  Rather, I think a combination of doing and being is needed from the start.  The issue is that I might go overboard on the doing part, possibly losing the all-important sense of why I do what I do.  Sometimes, I just need to take a step back, be still and present in the moment, and listen to the beautiful world that is all around me.  I realize that the world is bigger than what I make it out to be, and I realize that, although I may feel like a small speck on the surface of this huge planet, I am not alone.  I am never alone.  At this point, I think my vision becomes a bit clearer, and my mind and heart become a bit more open to what this world needs and to how I can best show love to this world.  And so, my being becomes my doing.  My actions can flow out of this inner peace that I have been so graciously given.

So then, for now, I can stop worrying about what I will do during the next two years.  It will be challenging, it might be frustrating, and many things will almost certainly be out of my control.  But this is not a reason to despair or to become incredibly nervous.  I just need to remember to step back, to be silent, to fully experience the moment, and to trust.  In the quiet, beautiful stillness of my grandfather’s farm, I hear a still, small voice:

“Everything will be all right, my son.  Go, experience each day with an open heart. All is well.”

(Some of the ideas about “being” and “doing” are based on an excerpt from No Man is an Island, by Thomas Merton.)