Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Water Woes

I’ve been thinking about, and starting to work on, the second “installment” of my little “Changing Perspectives” series, which started with my previous post.  But, seeing as those posts are going to be fairly serious (and because they take a lot of thought and a little bit of research), I decided that it might be nice to alternate those more intense posts with some lighter stuff.  So, this not-so-intense post is simply about something that happened yesterday…

Yesterday morning, Max (my counterpart) and I were walking to a really nice hotel, where Marc, the director of our organization, was staying.  He had flown in the night before, and will be in Uganda for this week, before heading to Rwanda on Saturday.  Anyway, we were walking from the hotel where we had stayed the night before, towards the (much nicer) hotel where we would meet Marc.  My water bottle had run dry earlier that morning before leaving, so I was keeping a sharp eye out for a nice-looking gas station.  You can usually trust that the nice-looking gas stations will have a shop that sells some decent varieties of bottled water.  I found one without too much trouble, and I went in and bought two big bottles of water (1.5 liters each, or about 6 cups, for those who don’t like the metric system), one for me and one for Max.  We continued our walk.

It was a warm morning, and, by the time we reached our target hotel, I had already sucked about a cup of water out of my bottle.  Max’s remained sealed, sitting in one of the side pockets on his backpack.  This is nothing new.  When we’re sitting in our office in Kalisizo, I usually go through almost an entire water bottle during the day, while Max usually doesn’t have anything to drink, except maybe a small cup after lunch.  Getting back on track, it was a long walk, and we finally made it to the hotel about five minutes before Marc expected us.  Security at these nice hotels is pretty intense, unexpectedly so if you’re used to simply walking into a hotel without stopping in the USA.  At the front gate, we take off our backpacks and empty our pockets, and we pass through a metal detector (which may or may not work…it’s a toss-up).  Security guards go through the pockets in our bags, and then, if the metal detector squeaks out a sound as we pass through, one of the guards uses one of those metal-detecting wand things to recheck us.  If I have already put stuff, like my big set of metal keys, back in my pockets, the wand might beep when it passes over those pockets (emphasis on "might").  Sometimes, the guards have me re-empty that pocket, but, other times, it’s just assumed that, well, there’s probably not anything harmful in there…  At this first security checkpoint, no one says anything about our water bottles, and we move on without incident.

We cross the small parking lot, and almost make it into the lobby.  But, wait, there’s another security checkpoint that looks exactly the same as the first one.  We go through the same procedure.  The backpacks come off, the pockets are emptied, the potentially faulty metal detector is passed through, the pockets are filled, the second guard at the end decides that I need to be wanded and goes through that process, the backpack returns to its place on my back, and I pick up my water bottle.  But then, the second guard asks me, “Are you staying at this hotel?”

“No, we are just here to meet someone,” I reply foolishly.

“Oh, then we do not allow you to bring in outside water bottles,” the guard states.

Somewhat agitated by this unfortunate turn of events, I attempt to win over the guard with some impressive logic.

“My friend,” I begin, “it is very hot out today, and I am very thirsty.  I need this water.”

But he parries this statement with the following: “It’s okay. We have water here that you can buy.”

Ah, but I know how much this water is going to cost.  “But the water here is very expensive.”  Indeed, the water at this hotel is likely to cost at least twice as much as the water I bought from the shop at the gas station.  In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a gargantuan sum of money, but it’s the principle of the thing…

Meanwhile, behind me, Max is having a similar conversation with the first guard.

“You cannot bring in this water bottle.  It is not allowed,” says this first guard.

“Oh, but it is still sealed,” retorts Max, “So it is okay.”  Hmm, an interesting maneuver…one that I did not have the luxury of making.  Let’s see if it works.

“No,” the first guard maintains, “Maybe you can put it in your car and then come back.”

Now, I jump in to this conversation.  “We do not have a car.  We walked here.”  There is quite a bit of additional, implied meaning behind this simple-seeming statement.  As I say it, in my head, I am thinking, “Yes, we walked for over a half an hour in the hot sun to get here.  We did not want to spend money on a taxi.  Last night, we stayed at a hotel where the toilets do not have seats, where the hot water does not work, where the light in the bathroom does not work, where the steps are so uneven that I trip every time I climb them to get to my room, where the only thing available for dinner is goat meat with rice and matooke.  In a nutshell, we do not have as much money as the people who normally walk into your hotel, with your gardens, and your swimming pool, and your conference rooms, and your full breakfast spread, and your automatic shoe shine machines (I was marveling at these after we eventually made it inside).  So, I’m not going to pay an outrageous price for a bottle of water if I already have some water.”

“Well,” the first guard replies as these thoughts rumble through my head, “you will have to dump the water out.”

Oh, that did it.  That was a mistake.  She shouldn’t have said that.  She doesn’t know what I do; she doesn’t know the reason I’m here.  “No,” I say with significantly more force, “We are NOT dumping out our bottles.  We are NOT wasting all of this water.”

I am about to continue my sermon on the importance of not wasting water, when the second guard says, “Ah, but it is not allowed.”  And then he concedes, “Okay, don’t drink from it when you’re inside.”  I walk forward at almost a run, adrenaline surging, triumphant.  My message of water conservation and frugality has won the day.  We plop ourselves down on a comfy sofa, I notice the automatic shoe-shining machine, which someone is actually using, and we wait for Marc.

Later that afternoon, we travel to Masaka and stay at a pretty nice hotel.  Not nearly as nice as the one from that morning, but certainly a few cuts above the places where Max and I normally stay.  That night after dinner, I proceed to waste several liters of water taking a long, hot shower…

Endnote: In retrospect, I have to say that I do feel pretty bad about steamrolling over the security guards like that.  They were just trying to do their jobs and follow the rules set down by the hotel.  It’s not their fault that I don’t agree with the hotel’s policy.  In fact, they probably do understand the importance of each drop of water.  Security guards in Uganda are, in general, not paid well at all (I think the average salary across the country is something like $40 per month, although at a nice place like this one, it’s probably significantly higher than that), so maybe they can’t afford to waste anything at their homes.  Indeed, as I was taking that nice shower later, I felt the sting of hypocrisy and realized that sometimes I am part of the problem as well.  If I ever see those guards again, I should probably apologize to them…

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Changing Perspectives 1 – Rethinking Black and White

In an effort to post blogs on a more regular basis, I’m going to try something a bit different.  I’ve got a fairly broad theme in mind – trying to look at the world from fresh perspectives, ones that might challenge or call into question ideas that we think of as “normal” or that we take for granted – and I’d like to explore it through several specific subtopics.  As you can probably tell from the title, I’m calling the overall theme “Changing Perspectives,” and the first subtopic I have in mind considers the connotations of the colors black and white.

“He saw things in black and white.”  This expression, in one form or another, is fairly commonplace, and the expression itself might seem relatively harmless.  It’s often just a figurative way of saying that someone places things in strict categories of right and wrong, or of good and evil.  The symbolic use of the words “white” and “black,” or, in some cases, “light” and “darkness,” in place of “good” and “evil” can be seen all over the place.  Just think of one of the passages that Christians read every Christmas Eve, as candles shine in darkened sanctuaries: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).  Think of all the books and movies in which the struggle of good and evil is portrayed as a battle between light and dark.  In The Lord of the Rings, for example, we have the black orcs, the black gates, and the black towers of Sauron pitted against the white city, the white horses, the white clothes, and the white hair of figures such as Gandalf and Galadriel.  Is this simply a harmless way to add a splash of color to epic conflicts of good and evil, or could the use of these shades have potentially dangerous consequences?

The sentence at the beginning of the preceding paragraph was taken from a book entitled Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author who died last year.  Things Fall Apart was Achebe’s first novel, and most of it chronicles village life in his home area, before the influences of colonialism.  Near the end of the story, however, white missionaries come into the picture, along with colonial officials, and some things, well, start to fall apart.  A major cause of the problem stems from the fact that the colonizers saw their ideas as “right”, or perhaps “civilized”, while the native people were seen as “uncivilized”, and possibly even “savage”.

In one of the last chapters, Achebe describes the mindset of a white district commissioner using the figures of speech that we see as commonplace, and, in doing so, he shows how such language can be dangerous: “He saw things as black and white.  And black was evil.  He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.”  In this context, it becomes obvious that the expression “the children of light” refers to the white colonizers, while the phrase “the sons of darkness” corresponds to the Africans.  As we all know, this view of superiority, reinforced by our use of certain figurative language, lasted for many, many years, and it has caused terrible pain in the lives of so many.  Its effects are still seen today.

In The Economist’s obituary about Chinua Achebe, one of the Nigerian author’s essays was discussed as a way to highlight his impact on literature, and on worldwide perspectives.  The essay focused on Joseph Conrad, the author of the book Heart of Darkness:

“The real question,” [Achebe] wrote, “is the dehumanisation of Africa and Africans which [an] age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.”  Re-reading “Heart of Darkness,” he explained, it became clear that he would never be on Marlow’s boat steaming up the Congo. He was one of the Africans Conrad described jumping up and down on the river bank, pulling faces. He realised how wrong it was – “terribly, terribly wrong” – to portray his people, any people, from that superior floating-past point of view. His essay changed Conrad’s place in English literature.

For a white person, like myself, it’s easy to look at expressions that use “white”/“light” and “black”/“dark” to represent “good” and “evil” and to see only a colorful figure of speech.  The idea of skin color might not cross my mind at all.  But, for someone whose skin is a darker shade, the expression might conjure up a long history of perceived inferiority and exploitation at the hands of the supposed “children of light”.  How does it feel for the color of one’s skin to be associated with one of the most common metaphors, if not the most common metaphor, for evil?  Personally, I don’t know, but some people just might.  Maybe we should think about adjusting some expressions…

P.S. – For the full article about Chinua Achebe in The Economist, click here:

P.P.S. – I love The Lord of the Rings.  It’s just the first example of white vs. black that came to mind…

Monday, January 13, 2014

Are We There Yet?

Well, I finally made it back.  After about a month and a half of rest, good food, music, and friends, I left the US on January 7th for another eleven months in Uganda.  I expected to get back to Kalisizo by the 9th.  Almost a week later, I’ve finally reached my destination.  Obviously, a few things happened along the way to slow me down, but, for the most part, it actually turned into a pretty comfortable several days.  At a few points during that time, some interesting things happened that made me think, “Huh, this might make a good story for a blog post.”  So, I’m starting the whole blog-writing thing up again.  Hopefully, it lasts…

January 7th: It’s the last morning at my family’s house in Pennsylvania, and I slowly, somewhat reluctantly, pull myself out of bed.  I have to wake up early (8:00 am, ouch), so that we can make it to the airport in time for my flight later that day.  In a partial daze, and shivering from the outrageously cold temperatures, I get myself together, pack the last few things into my backpack, and cocoon myself into my family’s van as we pull out of the driveway.  About twenty minutes later, my hand shoots into my pocket and I confirm that, yep, I left the ATM card I need for Uganda at the house.  After a few frustrated grunts, I inform the family, and we speed back home to grab the card.  We still end up making it to the airport in plenty of time, where I say goodbye to Mom and Dad and head into the airport, which is not busy at all.  I wait for about a minute before checking in and checking my two bags, mostly full of research supplies and presents, and then I wait for about another 5 seconds before getting through security.  I’m at the gate for the first leg of airborne section of my trip with time to spare, and it turns out that, according to the people at the gate, our flight from Baltimore to Detroit would be full.  Although, this is actually not the case, as the seat right next to mine ends up being empty.  It might be the only empty seat on the plane.

This first flight goes off without a hitch, and I land in Detroit with some time to find my next gate and to play around on the internet for a bit.  Actually I end up having several hours to do this, since this flight, from Detroit to Amsterdam, is delayed.  At first, it’s delayed by about 2 hours, which makes me a bit concerned, because my layover in Amsterdam was only supposed to be about 2 hours.  I’m thinking I may need to sprint through the huge airport in Amsterdam, but then the two hour mark comes and goes, and we’re still sitting in the airport.  Finally, after almost three hours, we board the plane.  It turns out that the weather outside was so cold that the catering company was having trouble loading food and drinks onto the planes.  The trucks use hydraulic lifts, which were not working, or were working very slowly, which caused all of the flights in the airport to be delayed.  Once on the plane, we wait for another half an hour before getting clearance to take off, and then the ocean-crossing flight finally begins.  As I sit in my window seat, trying to get comfortable, one of the flight attendants notices my Bucknell sweatshirt, and it turns out that her family is from Williamsport and that her son is a freshman at Bucknell.  We talk for a bit, and I tell her that I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer heading back to Uganda.  This statement causes a couple people nearby to become interested.  The young man next to me seems pretty interested in what I’m doing, and the young lady across the aisle says that she also served as a volunteer.  Amazingly enough, she was in Nicaragua, a country that was a pretty big part of my life while I was at Bucknell.  We talk for a while, and then settle in to watch our little movie screens.

January 8th: I’m not great at sleeping on planes, especially when I have a vast assortment of movies at my disposal, so I am awake for almost the entire flight.  We land in Amsterdam around 11:00 am local time, which is an hour after my flight to Uganda was supposed to leave.  It did leave, and only one flight goes from Amsterdam to Uganda every day, so I am stuck for a day.  This actually turns out to be quite nice.  The airline seems to run into this sort of thing all the time, and they get me set up at a nearby hotel, with my room and all my meals paid for.  In not too long, I am on a shuttle bus heading to the hotel.  I’m kind of excited to see a bit of Amsterdam, but it turns out that the hotel is not in the city.  It’s about fifteen minutes from the airport, and the city is also about fifteen minutes from the airport, but they’re in different directions.  So, we drive down a fairly rural highway, and I get excited again, because I see wind turbines up ahead.  “Oh cool, they have wind turbines!” I think to myself.  Renewable energy has been an interest of mine for many years…

I get to the hotel, which is humongous, around 1:30 pm, and my room is ready.  The room is, of course, very nice, and I take a few minutes to get on the internet and let people know what’s happening to me.  Then, I realize that I only have a few more minutes to capitalize on the free lunch, which lasts until 2:00 pm, so I hurry down to the restaurant.  After lunch, I send some more emails, take a shower, and then it hits me.  I feel incredibly tired, and I decide to take a short nap.  It’s about 4:00 pm by this point, so I set an alarm to go off in an hour and climb into bed.  The next time I open my eyes, it’s 10:00 pm, and I’m still feeling pretty tired, so I just allow myself to fall back to sleep, which is not hard at all…

January 9th: I finally get out of bed around 5:00 am, which would normally be unbelievably early for me, but, having gone to sleep at 4:00 pm the day before, it doesn’t seem quite so early this time.  I take my time getting breakfast, and then pack up and take the shuttle back to the airport a little after 7:00 am.  At the airport, I ask no less than five different airline employees about my checked luggage, since I’m not sure if there’s anything I need to do to make sure that the bags are on today’s flight.  It turns out that I don’t need to do anything, and I continue on to the gate, which seems to be at the very end of the airport, pretty far removed from all the other flights.  This flight hops from Amsterdam to Rwanda and then to Uganda, and as I sit on the floor reading my book, I realize, through a bit of eavesdropping, that I’m sitting next to a group of Peace Corps Volunteers who work in Rwanda.  A little later, I get up and walk around, and someone else recognizes my Bucknell sweatshirt.  It turns out that he lives in State College…  Crazy, right?

This flight ends up being delayed by about half an hour, but we eventually get moving.  I really luck out with my seat assignment this time around.  I’m at the very front of one of the Coach sections, and I’m in the aisle, meaning that I have a ton of leg room.  The weird thing is that the movie screen and tray table set up is completely different, and this takes all of us in the row a little while to figure out.  The screen comes up from under the seat, while the table folds out of the arm.  After making sure I understand the setup, I settle into the movie world once again.

We land in Uganda around 10:30 pm, and, after getting through immigration, I wait for my two bags, still wondering if they actually did make it onto the flight.  The big camping backpack comes relatively quickly, which makes me hopeful.  After another half an hour or so, that hope is dashed as it becomes clear that no new bags have been added to the conveyor belt for several minutes.  It turns out that a number of people were missing things, so there is quite a line at the baggage office.

January 10th: After a long wait, I get to the desk and am told that the bag should be arriving on the next flight.  I let them know where they can deliver it once it arrives, and I finally leave the airport around 1:00 am.  After being swarmed by the taxi drivers who hang around the exit doors, I find the Peace Corps driver, Rashid, who by now has been waiting for me for at least two and a half hours.  Of course he is very nice about it, and we drive off toward Kampala.  I find out that I’m going to be staying at Ann’s house.  Ann is an American working in the Peace Corps office, and she oversees Peace Corps Uganda’s administrative and financial stuff (that’s the technical description of her job).  As expected the house is very nice.  Her husband, Lou, lets me in and shows me to the bedroom downstairs, where I will be staying.

After sleeping for several hours, I wake up and have breakfast with Lou, since Ann has already gone into the office.  Ann has been working in the country since July, but Lou only came about three weeks ago.  We talk about some of the things to do in the country, some of the national parks, and about some of the stuff he did when he was a volunteer in Fiji.  In the afternoon, we go out for a bike ride.  First, we stop at a wood-working shop, where Lou is having a table made, and then we stop at a market.  We lug back heavy bags of potatoes, eggplant, greens, and avocados, and Lou is also carrying a little pumpkin.  The way back is really steep, and I am going really slowly.  At one point, I lose sight of Lou, and this is, of course, when he turns onto another street.  I miss the turn and end up searching for several minutes to find the right street.  Finally, after going back and forth across roads that all look pretty similar, I get back to where I need to be, I see Lou, and we go back to the house.  I’m pretty tired after this extended ride, so I relax for the rest of the day, expecting to get a call the next morning about my bag.

January 11th: The call doesn’t come.  I end up calling the airline myself, and I find out that now it’s expected to come on today’s flight.  I make sure that they know to deliver it to the Peace Corps office when it does arrive, and I proceed to spend almost the whole day relaxing.  We go out to dinner with Paul, Peace Corps Uganda’s director of programming and training, and his wife, at a restaurant with Ethiopian and Italian food (kind of an interesting combination).  We’re all pretty tired when we get back to the house, so we call it a night.

January 12th: Again, no call, but I check online, which tells me that the bag should have come on the flight the day before.  So, I spend another relaxing day waiting.  In the afternoon, I get a call from Paul, who had gone into the office, letting me know that the bag was delivered.  Tomorrow, I’ll be able to go in and get it, and then I can finally travel back to Kalisizo.  I have to say, though, that this very gradual re-introduction back into Uganda has been quite nice.  In the market, when you buy a bunch of stuff, they might give you a few extra tomatoes or something, and they’ll call it a “bonus”.  I feel like the past several days have been kind of a vacation bonus.

January 13th: I wake up pretty early, pack up everything, and go into the office with Ann.  My bag is right where it’s supposed to be, and I take a quick look inside to make sure that things are still in there.  We seem to be in good shape.  I send Max a text message, letting him know that I have the bag and that I will be heading back to Kalisizo later today.  Max’s response: “Thanks be to God.”  I spend the morning hanging out in the volunteer lounge, talking with some other volunteers, saying hi to some staff members, and writing most of this thing.  A group of us walk to a nearby restaurant for lunch, and I’m starting to feel like I’m almost back to being a normal Peace Corps Volunteer, and I realize that I’m very glad to be back.  (Of course, it helps one’s mindset when one is eating really good food at the time.)  After lunch, we head back to the office, and a few of us get a car to head back into town.  The car drops the other two volunteers off at the hotel, and I continue on to the taxi park.

Now, I’ve been thinking about the best way to travel back, with my three bags.  A bus would be the most comfortable, but it’s hard to find one that would go the whole way to my site.  I want something that will get me the whole way there, because otherwise at some point I would need to shove myself into a little car, which I’d prefer to avoid.  So, I take a look at the coasters (mini-buses that seat twenty-some people), but none of them are more than half full, and it takes them a while to fill up.  So, I continue on to the matatus (big vans that seat 14 people), thinking that they could put at least one, hopefully two, of my bags in the back.  Nope, they are putting other stuff back there.  I’m pretty much committed at this point, so I climb in, and one guy does take my big camping backpack to put in the back.  But, he doesn’t actually put it in the back.  He slides it up under the seats, until it’s right beneath me, giving me very little room to position my feet.  The other two backpacks are sitting with me, one shoved down as far as it will go between my seat and the back of the seat in front of me.  It gets stuck about halfway down.  The other backpack sits on top, and I pull out a book so that I can read on top of this mound of backpacks.  Now, admittedly, sometimes I use sarcasm or exaggeration to provide some comic relief in these posts, but I am completely serious when I say that I am in pain the entire way home (3 hours).  With the backpacks piled up in front of me in my seat, my legs are basically pinned into two specific spots, and once someone sits next to me, moving my legs is not really an option.  My knees are pressing into the corners of the seat in front of me, even though I’m sitting as far back as I can in my seat.  There is not much cushioning covering the metal frame of these seats, especially on these corners, so my knees are basically shoved into metal the whole way home.  Maybe the matatu was not the best choice…

As we near Kalisizo, the lady sitting next to me makes sure that the conductor knows exactly where I want to stop, which is very nice of her.  I like to think that I can do all of this stuff myself, but I have to admit that it’s a nice feeling to know that others are looking out for me as well.  After disassembling my backpack mountain and stumbling out of the vehicle, a guy comes up on a motorcycle and immediately recognizes me.  “Brick by Brick!  How are you?”  A few people in Kalisizo identify me so much with our little organization that they sometimes call me “Brick by Brick”.  Our office is much closer than my house, so I walk there first, so that I can drop off the two bags I don’t need right away.  On my way there, someone else recognizes me, and this guy, who spends his days making boxes from scrap metal, actually calls me by name, and we talk for a bit.  He seems happy to see me.  It’s evening now, so no one is at the office.  I open it up, drop off the bags, and walk home.  On the way, I pick up some bread at my favorite shop in town, and I talk to the owner’s daughter for a minute, who is home from school and is watching the shop.  Finally, I make it to my compound, and as soon as I step inside, I hear kids starting to shout my name.  They seem fairly excited to see me…

So, here I am, several days later than expected, but here safely and soundly with all of my stuff.  It was a very gradual process of moving from Pennsylvania back to Kalisizo, with some unexpected, yet nice, stops along the way.  I wasn’t completely sure if I was ready to come back, but, now that I’m here, I’m happy to be, and I am ready to get back to work tomorrow.