Sunday, December 23, 2012

Split Ends, New Beginnings

Is this a weird thing to do?--Posting a picture of yourself on your own blog merely to show off a bitchin' new hair cut after two years of looking like a cave woman?  Well, so be it.  Ilse: Version 4S.  Does not come with Siri voice feature.  (And should by no means be expected to help you arrive at your destination safely or in good spirits)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sometimes it's time to grow, and sometimes it's time to go.


 I’m officially a returned peace corps volunteer!  Flying above the clouds at 33,000 feet back to America for the first time in 2 years with a nimble laptop at my fingertips and a airplane meal in my belly…it’s quite easy to wax nostalgic.  Am I returning bright cheeked and with a new brisk confident hitch in my step? You’d have to ask me tomorrow.  At this point, I’m returning with wildly inappropriate clothing for a Minnesotan winter and a child-like sense of fear and wonder at what lies ahead.  My journey alone has been bewildering…starting in a dusty African village, then to the urban beauty and elegance of the fancy parts of Kampala, to Kenya airport, to Brussels airport…
I’ve seen a drinking fountain, a starbucks, a whole lot of scandalous outfits (seriously who travels in miniskirts and high heels???) and have said one of the hardest goodbyes of my life. 


I’ve got to get my stock-sentence-long reply ready for when people ask me “how it was.”  Luckily, I have more than a few kindred heart spirits who I can talk to straight from my heart.  But, I’m not an eloquent person, at least not verbally or spontaneously, so it’s something to think about. 


I have no idea how much I have changed.  Up here in the clouds I can make up all sorts of previously-absent noble traits I’ve developed from living with villagers in Africa.  Mostly though, it’s the physical ones that are easy: my hair is a bit blonder, I have dust permanently etched onto my skin, and I walk a lot slower.  Am I less impatient?  More easy going?  Friendlier?  I think like most people on earth, it just depends on the day and the situation.  At least I can say that I may now be more accommodating for my own shortcomings.  Living under conditions of hardship (relative, of course) and stress can bring out previously undreamt versions and sides of yourself, and I want to accept those parts of me, too.  I’m a person who can potentially ignore hungry children who come up to ask me for food. I can say no to an old man asking me for the equivalent of 1 US cent.  Yeah, it’s not pretty on paper, but it’s a part of my experience that I’ll probably remember alongside my montage of pretty moments and accomplishments.  


I’m proud of myself.  If you have done the math, you may realize that I elected to leave a few months before my official close of service date.  Big deal? Not really.  It’s all how you look at it.  I’m still a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and have completed just about 2 years of service.  I left early, not because of something traumatic, but because it made sense.  As of December, us education volunteers were finished with our school year, and had 2 months of vacation until the new school term started.  The thing is, school terms don’t actually start in early February, because there is testing, absenteeism, and ‘slowly-slowly’ mentality.  School may start trucking around March, which is when I would be leaving anyway.  I elected to leave because having my last 4 months in country be idle and potentially mentally-contusive seemed unfortunate.  I wanted to end on a good note, and I’m also not the type of volunteer who will make up for boredom and idleness by drinking or traveling a lot.  I wanted to get home, to start a new chapter, and to start working with refugees and immigrants state-side.  Also, did I mention that Peace Corps is really emotionally hard? So, I left a bit early, but on good terms with the administration, and don’t really see the difference.  I’m proud because I got over my stupid American stubbornness with regards to “seeing something out” even if it comes at extremely negative consequences for you and others around you.  I’d be serving myself (and others) better at this point if I recognized that, yes, I won’t be doing anything the next 4 months, so might be better to pack it up.  I actually listened to myself.  After all, sometimes it’s times to grow, and sometimes it’s time to go.  And, Uganda HAS made me grow.  In all sorts of strange ways.  I’ve done my service, made some incredible friendships, done some work, sweated my face off everyday, and read some books with kids. Success? Yes please.  I'll never forget Uganda and the lovely people.  It would be impossible to even consider otherwise. More on this later, I'm sure, when I've had time to reflect. This is all happening so fast.



Any PCVs reading this will understand when I voice my concern over my potential future behavior in America…I may keep on littering “it’s okay!”, “sorry!” and “yes please” all over the place.  I will most likely see any ride in a vehicle in which I am not sitting on someone else, with a goat on my lap, flying over potholes with 10 people squeezed into 4 seats, as a goddamn miracle.  I will most likely ask people how their families are when they aren’t even acknowledging me.  And I don’t think Ill be able to stop dressing in village clothing cold turkey.  I like that I lived in a place where a grown man wearing a bonnet and cardigan (and who is not being ironic) is an acceptable occurrence. Many fellow PCVs have truly taken to this laxity in appearance and clothing.  My favorite example is my friend Kirk who is most commonly seen in: a spongebob squarepants shirt, a red doo-rag, a dollar sign baseball cap, and black socks with hiking boots.  It’s okay. 


So, please excuse my initial awkwardness.  I haven’t been to bars, am not used to hanging out with groups of Americans, and have spent most of my time sitting outside, drinking tea, and watching animals interact with each other for 2 years.  I don’t know anything about current politics, gadgets, trends in the market, or Korean pop singers.  I can’t handle more than 1 beer at a time, and I will talk about an interesting bowel movement for far longer than it is appropriate or tasteful.  


I’m still in the air, and I’m getting more and more excited to touch down in America.  I’m not sure how the whole frigid-winter thing is going to go for me, but I have high hopes.  Mostly, I can’t wait to see family and friends and walk around without getting stared at.


Thanks to all of you for coming along with me for this journey and being so supportive.  I’m ready for the next adventure. (And this is NOT the end of this blog.  I tend to think that my experience in America will be just as thought-provoking and ridiculous).










Here’s my description of service:


DESCRIPTION OF PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER SERVICE


Ilse Griffin Peace Corps Uganda

After a competitive process stressing applicant skills, adaptability and cross-cultural understanding, Ms. Ilse Griffin was invited into Peace Corps Service.  As part of the language and cross-cultural component of the training program, Ilse lived with a Ugandan family in Lweza for approximately ten weeks and was made to feel welcome and at home.  This home stay assisted Ilse in adapting to Ugandan culture and acquiring local language abilities, thus facilitating the transition into her service in 2011.

Ms. Ilse Griffin began Peace Corps training on February 11, 2011, at the training site in Lweza, Uganda, where she completed an intensive ten week training program encompassing the following subject areas:

Cross-cultural Orientation:       Sessions on the Ugandan people including traditional customs, politics, geography, social values and norms, history, health, and gender roles (40 hours)

Technical:                                A general introduction to the education system in Uganda; a specific introduction to the secondary school system; training in community mobilization, observation and feedback skills; and teaching practice in 3 schools (167.5 hours)

Language:                                Study of the Lugbara language (82.5 hours)
Ms. Ilse Griffin passed her ACTFL exam at the Intermediate Low level.

Medical:                                   Training in first aid, tropical and preventive medicine, and stress management (20 hours)

Safety and Security:                 Training in personal and road safety issues (8 hours)

Ms. Ilse Griffin entered into Peace Corps service on April 21, 2011 and was assigned to Endru Coordinating Centre in Arua District, through the Ministry of Education and Sports.

As a primary school teacher trainer, Ms. Ilse Griffin served within the Ugandan educational system, assigned to the local Primary Teachers’ College, as an outreach coordinating tutor serving in a rural community outside of Arua, sher helped provide training and support for teachers and administration in areas such as literacy, life skills, and student-centred teaching methods.  Ms. Ilse Griffin and her Ministry of Education counterpart were responsible for planning and carrying out workshops and professional development for the teachers in the school catchment area, and also for providing support and guidance to head teachers.  Their duties included lesson planning, developing instructional materials for learning and teaching, supervising teachers, and hosting workshops for their colleagues (teachers) in order to improve teaching methods and learning environments. Ms. Ilse Griffin carried out the following activities during her/his Peace Corps service:

CCT Duties
  • Facilitated workshops alongside counterpart. Topics include new Primary 5 curriculum roll-out, student-centred teaching methods, special needs education, alternatives to corporal punishment, teacher professionalism. 
  • Taught classes alongside primary school teachers. Subjects included English and life skills.
  • Helped develop, create, and encourage the use of learning aids for primary school teachers
  • Encouraged and assisted in organization of primary school libraries
  • Encouraged girl education by coaching girl’s football at primary schools
  • Taught literacy to Primary 7 students.
  • Encouraged literacy through extracurricular activities such as the implementation of pen-pal programs, reading clubs, poetry contests, essays contests, and spelling bees in the catchment area.
  • Counseled teachers on alternative methods to corporal punishment and the benefits of student encouragement.

Life Skills
  • Emphasized the importance of sexual health including limiting one’s sexual partners, getting tested for STDs, STIs, and HIV, using protection, and practicing abstinence.
  • Counseled girls on the importance of staying in school and delaying early pregnancy and marriage.
  • Introduced reusable menstrual pads in a Women’s Day Celebration for both primary and secondary school girls.
  • Started a drama/life skills club at the secondary school, that met for three sessions.
  • Taught weekly life skills classes to Primary 6 and 7 students alongside a Ugandan co-teacher
  • Used football (soccer) as a tool to teach life skills through a weekly intervention program called “Grassroots SKILLZ soccer” at both the primary and secondary level, with the parish priest as a counterpart.

Other Projects
·         Counselor at 2012 northern Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World).  Worked with girls ages 15-18 for a week-long girls’ empowerment camp with emphasis on life skills, healthy living, creativity, leadership, and decision making.
·         Counselor at 2012 Girltech camp.  Worked with girls in senior 1-senior 3 who demonstrated interest or talent in the sciences. 
·         Coached primary boys’ soccer and introduced primary and secondary girls to football.
·         Planned and directed a Women’s Day Event at the local secondary school for primary and secondary school girls.  The event included life skills, RUMPS, yoga, and banner creation.
·         Team-taught English for senior 2 students at the local secondary school, and mostly assisted with devising student- centered activities in the classroom.
·         Started a female adult literacy program in community with the parish priest as a counterpart.  The group consists of three separate parish-sized literacy circles composed of 30 women.  Three women were selected to be the Community Literacy Facilitators and the program focuses on teaching functional literacy. These groups are flourishing and have started income-generating activities.
·         Planned a training for the female adult learners in the community by inviting fellows PCVs to come facilitate sessions.  Sessions included hygiene, nutrition, tippy-tap making, and entrepreneurial skills.
·         Held individual tutoring sessions during the weekend for students interested in improving their reading comprehension and English.
·         Taught literacy classes in two different schools to primary 7 students.  In these classes, focused on listening, speaking, reading and writing, and did activities such as autobiography creation and small-group reading. Invited out local musicians to speak on the importance of reading and writing in their lives, and also invited fellow PCVs to lead student-centered literacy activities such as book creation.

Cross-cultural Exchange
  • Taught primary and secondary students how to play ultimate Frisbee.
  • Hosted visitors from America.
  • Implemented pen-pal programs with three different schools.
  • Corresponded with friends and family at home to share experience and knowledge of Ugandan culture
  • Everyday discussed issues with Ugandan friends and teachers on politics, economics, and law of the U.S. encouraging a greater understanding of the differing views between what is experienced in Uganda and the United States, especially how women are viewed and treated in each culture.

Peace Corps Leadership
·         One of three editors for the Spirit of 61.

Ms. Ilse Griffin completed her service on December 14th, 2012.

This is to certify in accordance with Executive Order 11103 of April 10, 1963, that #####(name) served successfully as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  She/He is therefore eligible to be appointed as a career-conditional employee in the competitive civil service on a non-competitive basis.  This benefit under the Executive Order extends for a period of one year after termination of Volunteer service, except that the employing agency may extend the period for up to three years for a former Volunteer who enters military service, pursues studies at a recognized institution of higher learning, or engages in other activities that, in the view of the appointing agency, warrant extension of the period.

Pursuant to section 5(f) of the Peace Corps Act, 22 USC 2504(f), as amended, any former Volunteer employed by the United States Government following her/his Peace Corps Volunteer service is entitled to have any period of satisfactory Peace Corps Volunteer service credited for purposes of retirement, seniority, reduction in force, leave, and other privileges based on length of Government service.  Peace Corps service shall not be credited toward completion of the probationary or trial period or completion of any service requirement for career appointment.


Friday, December 7, 2012

Hakuna Matata


Did you know that the words “Rafiki,” “jambo,” and “hakuna matata” are actually used in Tanzania?  Like, all the time.  At first, I thought it was some sort of conspiracy, but then I realized that The Lion King had to have gotten their cool African lingo from somewhere, and Kiswahili was probably a legit linguistic source.  Anyway, it was really cool being in a country where you greet people with “Jambo” and you throw around “Hakuna Matatas” like it’s nobody’s business. 


I’m too excited, and I need to start over, from the very beginning.  A very good place to start.  In the beginning, there was an elephant.  Until a speeding night bus driving from Arua to Kampala crashed headlong into it.  This is essential for the rest of my rambling story.  The very next day, Tom and I had to get on a bus to Kampala to catch a plane.  Unfortunately, we had purchased tickets for the very same company that had recently become too close with Ugandan wildlife.  We thought, “psshh…buses crash all the time. It can’t affect our trip.”  So that morning we walked to the KKT office and found out that our bus had been canceled.  And all other bus companies had full buses.  As a huge stroke of luck, the KKT company had decided to run ONE bus that day at 1 pm, which we were able to get on.  Little did we know that after that one bus, the company would be forced to close their operations down completely.  So we got really lucky, considering.  We got there in one piece, but our bus had severe issues and halfway into our ride, essentially stopped working.  It would completely turn off every few minutes.  We somehow rolled into Kampala late at night, even with our bus shutting off every few minutes, and then once we were in the dark suburbs of Kampala, the bus decided to break down completely.  We stayed on the bus waiting for them to fix it because we had no idea where we were and didn’t want to traipse around in dark alleys.  Once we got to our hotel, we felt pretty lucky.  And, the next day we went to Entebbe and got on a plane to Zanzibar.  The plane had propellers, which I felt luke-warm about, but it was okay.  The plane stopped at Kilimanjaro airport, and I think we may have seen this allegedly large mountain-looking like Mount Doom shrouded in mist- but when we asked our Tanzanian flight attendant about it, she didn’t really seem to know either.  Then we went to Dar International Airport and I had a hernia.  Why?  Because we were dropped in the middle of this airport as transfers and were told to wait by a desk for someone to take us through a magical transfer hallway that would allow us to forgo going through security and all that again----but 15 minutes before our flight, a really stuck-up airport dude suddenly looked at us scornfully and told us we needed to get our visas there, fill out all these forms, and why hadn’t we done it yet?  I was so mad.  Did I mention that we had asked 5 times before what we were supposed to do and no one helped?  We scribbled out our visas, and tried not to listen to the guy ask me if I was a “crazy mzungu” and “are you sleeping together?”  After all that, we flat out sprinted through the airport, re entered security, and were the last people on the plane. 


I have to interject into my monologue to note that the Tanzanian countryside is BEAUTIFUL and just how I imagined Africa to be.  We were flying low enough to see the Serengeti.  We also flew very low into Zanzibar and the flight only took 20 minutes. 


Okay, so we made it to Zanzibar.  We waited around for our ride for a while.  We had set up to couchsurf with a Dutch girl named Evy, but it wasn’t really a traditional couchsurfing situation. Rather than staying with her in her own home for free, she had hooked us up with a cheap house to stay in (the same as her) where the main guy let out rooms for a low price and all the profits went towards school fees for his children.  In theory, a really cool thing.  In reality, we arrived in Stone Town at night, bedraggled, and were shown our room by the brother of the owner of the house, because the owner and Evy were both away in Madrid? Our room was up two ladders (instead of stairs), the shared bathroom didn’t close or flush nor was there water, and we were just dropped in our room, and left.  We felt so degraded; the whole point of couchsurfing is the spirit of showing someone around a cool place and spending time together, but instead we were just in someone’s attic at night, hungry, thirsty, and with no idea where we were or if it was safe to walk around at night.  Anyway, not a great start.  We made the best of it the next day by getting up early and walking around all day.  And we decided to stop being gypsies and actually book a hotel room for on our way back through Stone town.  There’s no point in courchsurfing if it completely misses the point. 

I’m not going to talk that much about Stone town.  It was really beautiful and chaotic.  Winding alleys, soaring white ottoman architecture, women walking around in fullblown traditional Muslim dress, mangoes and coconuts everywhere…and the ocean of course.  We decided to leave for the beaches pretty much straightaway because we weren’t feeling relaxed in Stone Town.  There are about a million people who come up to you hawking tours, deals, music, and you constantly have to dodge cars inappropriately speeding through the tiny streets.  We have enough of that in Kampala.  At one point, we sat down in a quiet area to watch the sunset over the Indian ocean, and just as it was getting dark, a group of large men with lead pipes in their hands came up to us.  We both swallowed and answered their friendly greetings nervously when they reached us, thinking, “holy crap, so this is how it ends.” Of course, they were just a group of ridiculously friendly men who happened to have lead pipes with them, but all the same…we needed to get out of an urban area. 



Beaches?  Awesome.  Whitest, smoothest sand you have ever seen.  Turquoise, clear water the temperature of a warm Jacuzzi.  Fresh fruit juice everyday.  Local fisherman hauling in sea creatures the size of children. Coconut milk in curries.  Children playing soccer on the beach.  A beer under the full moon.  All in all, two weeks of hanging out on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  Funny thing about Zanzibar?  There are Masai EVERYWHERE, walking around in their traditional red cloaks with spears in their hands, hawking jewelry.  (There are also a ton of Rastas and Bob Marley paraphernalia). A lot of them come to Zanzibar for tourism school.  Really friendly, tall, and majestic, but by the end of our time on the beaches, we would literally run away from them when we saw them coming.  Ah, we felt so touristy.  Whenever anyone sees a muzungu in Zanzibar, they go up to them and try to sell massages, jewelry, tours, food, etc. It’s always hard to tell when someone is genuine or not.  It’s a lot different from Arua.  I’m really glad I live in a place completely devoid of tourism.  I think we had worn out our welcome by the time we left, because we had turned down SO many people and offers and ‘cheap deals’, like any good peace corps volunteer should do. 


While we mostly just relaxed by means of doing completely nothing, we decided to do one stupid touristy thing: swimming with dolphins.  We went with a bunch of rastas (literally had livestrong bracelets that said “Rasta Man”) in a little boat and hunted dolphins for a few hours.  They also let us out to snorkel for a while.  It was so goofy though.  I envisioned myself reuniting with the wild as I swam cheek to jowl with a pack of dolphins into the great deep.  Instead, we flew across the choppy sea hunting down dolphins, our captain exchanging news about their whereabouts with other boats filled with tourists, and then finally all the boats converged on them at once.  The minute we saw the dolphins skim the surface, everyone would start running, gun their engines, and speed right ahead of the dolphins and yell (or push) at us to jump off the boat right into their path!  So, what it looked like was this: A navy seals operation gone horribly wrong with 10 boats of tourists wearing snorkels and swim suits jumping off speeding boats right on top of dolphins (a lot of them belly-flopping) and then spending a few bewildered moments trying to look down under and see them.  In my case, after jumping off a boat in snorkel-gear at high speed, I would be much too excited and full of adrenaline to do anything useful, and would instead just bob around in the huge waves and nearly drown as I looked around me frantically for dolphins.  I DID manage to see them under me one of the times I jumped off.  Pretty awesome.  There was one boat full of really sophisticated looking European tourists who were fully clothed and wielding cameras who just looked at us with complete disdain during this spectacle. I guess they just wanted good pictures, and not to belly flop on a flock of dolphins?  I choose to leave you with this image of me in Zanzibar; snorkels on, nearly-drowning, and hyperventilating as I look for dolphins. 




Our travel back to Uganda went smoothly.  We left after a final two days in Stone town, in which we saw the Arab Fort, went on a spice tour, and visited the old Slave Chambers under the cathedral we were staying in.  We might have seen Kilimanjaro, which brings it to two times that we maybe saw the biggest mountain in the world.  All in all, a success.  We both had a growing worry in our stomach about our travel back to ARua, but neither of us could put word to it.  The presentiment turned out to be spot-on.  Again, it all starts with one elephant.  Because of this elephant, KKT had completely shut down because they had to pay back the wildlife authorities the FULL cost for the elephant that they killed.  I think it came to like 300 million shillings?  So, they probably won’t open for a long time.  And because KKT is one of four bus companies that goes from Kampala to Arua (really three, because one company overturns more frequently than it doesn’t), it had put a bit of stress on the transport situation. Not to mention that at this time of year, the school year has just ended, and EVERYONE is trying to get home to their villages for Christmas.  Long story short, the buses were all booked for days.  Even the awkward buses that leave at weird times, and the companies that you never really would take.  ALL BOOKED.  I was in a weird situation where I was DESPERATE to get on a bus home and was willing to do wild things to get on a California bus-which is certainly saying a lot.  So our options were: 1. stay in Kampala for an indefinite period of time and watch our bank accounts drop and despair accumulate 2. pay 1 million dollars for a private hire  3. pay 1 million dollars to take a plane  or 3. tear out our hair and set our clothes on fire.  Turns out there was a fourth option that we exercised the following morning.  Namely, bribery.  So thanks to some extra shillings delivered in a firm handshake, Tom got us two seats on a Gaagaa bus to Arua!  And although our bus DID break down in the middle of the game park in the formerly most dangerous area for LRA  bus abductions, we made it!  While on the road, we were passed by no less than 4 other gaagaa buses coming from Kampala that had left hours later than us.  




I don’t really like to talk about what happened when we got back to the village, because it’s still sort of happening right now…too soon, you know?  The truth: we came home to a thriving and gigantic bee hive in our kitchen.  You may be thinking, ‘oh hey, but can’t you peacefully coexist and all that?’ but I’m telling you that it doesn’t work that way.  I live in a small, damp cave and currently (although it’s getting better) I am sharing this cave with thousands of angry African-killer bees.  And I can’t get into my kitchen to cook or get water or do any other normal human thing.  The situation is improving, but I can tell you that Tom and the kids next door spent the better part of yesterday engaging in guerilla warfare.  There was smoke, there was fire, there was ritual humiliation, there was hot water, there was a whole strategy to it.  And I hate the idea of killing or harming these bees but they keep on coming back.  Just now they are reentering our kitchen.  But, there are some good memories I guess.  Like when the kids removed the honey comb and ate it.  Or when Flavia dressed up in a cloak, motorcycle helmet, and gardening gloves, to run and firebomb the bees. 





I’m exhausted. 

Love and Lobsters,
Ilse

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Oh, the books you'll read!

I think that when Peace Corps recruits for jobs, they should also emphasize the sheer volume of printed word that you will devour over your service.  You will read books you have always wanted to.  You'll re-read old favorites that will take on new and significant meaning to you.  You'll even find yourself reading books that you never imagined or wanted to read.  You'll come to, after a two-day bender of book reading, to find your kindle open to a book on theoretical physics or a biography of Macchiavelli, and spend the rest of your day blinking wide-eyed and bewildered in the African sun.  Oh, the places you'll go and the books you'll read!  That should be the catch line of the Peace Corps.  For those of you who know me, you'll realize how often I am in heaven here.  I can spend many a day curled up inside or on my hammock reading away.  Sure, this can often be the sign of idleness or unhappiness with work, but really, it's just a sign of being a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural village.

This post is a celebration of my passing the 100 book mark!  My friend Liz inspired me by doing a similar post awhile back.  Up to this date, I have read 103 books.  And, I only started reading books about 3 months into my time here in Uganda.  I actually think that, if I were unsupervised and isolated, I would have read 200 by now, but because I'm so often with Tom, I've been a bit more moderate with book-eating.

So, the best or most impressionable books from my list:

The Power of One by Bruce Courtney.  This one was set in mid-century South Africa and is the dramatic tale of a young white boy during a tumultuous time period.

The Ishmael Series: The Story of B, Ishmael, and My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.  These three books are interrelated and all are getting at the same thing, idea, or philosophy.  Whatever you want to call it.  It's as if the author had an INCREDIBLY important message (which he does) and wanted to make sure that every reader would be able to receive it, so he wrote three books that used different methods and styles to carry across the same message.  The most well-known of the series is the first; Ishmael.  I can't possibly describe these books to you, but you must know that these books, and this philosophy, have come to exemplify and colour my experiences here in Uganda, and entirely challenge my way of thinking.  One author said something to the effect of, 'there are the books I read before Ishmael, and all the books I've read after', meaning that reading these books has forever altered his way of thinking and his view of the world. I liked these books, not because of great writing, but because they present a direct challenge to the reader's perception of the world and way of thinking.  It was unlike anything I'd ever read or thought of before.

Game of Thrones Series: A Game of Thrones, a Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, a Feast for Crows, a Dance with Dragons: by George R. Marten.  Duh.  I read all of these books straight through in a feverish few months of adventure, lust, adultery, sabotage, plotting, murder, intrigue, and magic.  I could never remember which book I was on or what they were called, so I merely referred to them as "Dragon Porn."  Which they are.  So awesome. Marten totally captures the need and lust for human drama.


 American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  Have you ever noticed that when you have read a book that really stays with you, you happen to find similar threads or connections to books you read after?  That's what happened to me after I read the Ishmael books.  This is a dark book about the lost gods of the world, and it somehow related to one of the main ideas in Ishmael; that is, before our predominant 'taker' culture we would place our lives and fate in the 'hands of the gods' but now we live in a society where we have become the gods ourselves.

The Passage by Justin Cronin.  Ah, such a good vampire/zombie book.  Please sir, can I have another?

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth.  This book reminded me of my brother Neil, because he writes in a similar way and seems to really enjoy this type of book.  It was written in a satirical Dickensian style and was absolutely dry, goofy, and long-winded with bizarre plot-twists and constant uncomfortable fumbling and gaffes executed by the clueless protagonist.  It was hilarious and I haven't read anything like it since my Dickens class in college.

1984 by George Orwell.  This was one of the books I have always meant to read, and finally had the time to do.  It was so much  more engaging and terrifying than I thought it would be.

11/22/63 by Stephen King.  I guess you are either a Stephen King fan or you're not.  I grew up reading his books and freaking myself out.  I loved this book because it demonstrated how versatile he is.  There is nothing stale about this book and it was completely engrossing.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.  So good!  I love reading a biblical-age story from the perspective of a woman. I love the traditions the women had together. We have lost that.

Suicide by Edouard Leve'.  Thanks Neil for this suggestion!  Not exactly uplifting but all the same, I really liked the writing style.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  I felt like I had climbed Everest after reading this.  I thought this would be a huge struggle but I enjoyed almost every part of it, and couldn't put it down.  I thought it would be the sort of pretentious book that gets joy out of being difficult to read, but it was some damn good storytelling and I loved all the different interlinked stories and characters.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.  Timely read as I am a foreigner in Africa. Just another book to challenge me and make me question why I am here. 

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  This was also the best opportunity to read this book.  I live 2k from the Congo, and the images and scenes painted in this book definitely echoed with my experience. 

Rabbit, Run. Rabbit Redux. Rabbit is rich. Rabbit at Rest by John Updike.  I got pretty attached to these books, even though I disliked almost all of the characters.  That's some good storytellin'.

2666 by Roberto Bolano.  Hmmm. I think I'm just putting this one up for bragging-rights. I can't say I understood the big picture (or the small picture) but it was an interesting read.

Cloud Atlast by David Mitchell.  What a lovely and bewitching tapestry of stories. I think I'm a sucker for books that have montages or quiltpieces of different stories.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff by Christopher Moore.  Wanna hear the story of the bible and Jesus through the eyes of his annoying, unflattering frat-brother friend?  Yes please. 

Coraline by Neil Gaiman.  I love young adult books and this one was creepy and wonderful.

Warlord 1: The Winter King, Warlord 2: Enemy of God, Warlord 3: Excalibur by Bernard Cornwell.  I believe these series are called the "Excalibur series."  Cornwell is a mediocre writer but a damn good storyteller. I think I'm starting to realize the value of good storytelling over esoteric prose.  His books are historical fiction, based off Arthurian legend.  So, you know, druids, Merlin, Arthur, swords, England. Pretty awesome. YOu learn a lot about pagan England and it provides a GREAT escape from christian Africa.


I think that's a good snapshot of some of the great Peace Corps reads thus far.




Love and Lard,

Ilse









Monday, November 5, 2012

Sriracha, amongst other things

For this blog, I wanted to share two articles that I put together for the last edition of our PC Uganda-wide newsletter.  The first I wrote entirely by myself, which will become very obvious to you once you read it.  It's an ode to Sriracha; my elusive and cruel red-haired mistress.  The next one was a group effort.  I wanted to have an article that gave a glimpse into the daily lives of Peace Corps volunteers around the world.  A lot of our time here in Uganda is spent imagining how glorious life must be in Peace Corps Thailand or Peace Corps Colombia, so I wanted to actually get a better idea of what the daily challenges are of volunteers from other countries (and times!).  I asked a smattering of friends, colleagues, and current PCVs here in Uganda who have previously served in other countries! I think the result was pretty interesting and eye-opening.  It's easy for us to assume we have it hard in the country or situation that we are in, so it was a good reminder that it's not easy living in ANY foreign country for two years as a PCV.  Or as anyone for that matter.  Thanks to all who contributed!



Sriracha: a way of life.




If you have ever met me, you will know that I’m a woman of exquisite taste and passion.  Obviously.  The apex of my passion naturally goes towards the following things: fat animals and sriracha.  It would be difficult for me to tell you the story of how it all began.  Sriracha, that is.  The greatest invention of our time.  Please prepare to be educated.

Sriracha is a type of hot sauce (some would argue THE type of hot sauce).  There are approximately 2 types of hot sauces: Sriracha and everything else. Sriracha is named after a coastal city in Thailand.  It is comprised of:
Chili peppers
Distilled vinegar
Garlic
Sugar
Salt

All of these simple ingredients are then cooked and blended together into a heavenly melody of sensations and flavors.  Sweet! Tangy! Spicy! Sour!  Previously uncharted territories of taste! Although in Thailand, Sriracha is frequently used as a dipping sauce, it can also be used for pretty much anything else, and I choose to push that idea to its complete limits.

How we met:  Noodles and Company, as a divine and seductive accompaniment to my Penne Rosa and Pesto Cavatappi.
How we fell in love: When I realized I could purchase Sriracha at most grocery stores and then proceeded to use it on 96 % of the food I make/eat.

The difficulties/adversities I have encountered:
 -Convincing my mother that Sriracha doesn’t take away the carefully-produced taste from her food, or discount her labors as unfruitful.  Rather, it ADDS, and ENHANCES, and is completely necessary under most circumstances. 
-When in college and AmeriCorps with little to no income, I resorted to stealing sriracha from various Noodles & Company restaurants, with none the wiser. Stick it to the man!
-Living in Uganda and relying on the kindness of friends and family to supply me with Sriracha via the air mail.  Subsequent dry spells and the inevitable despair that follows.
-Having to forfeit a half-finished bottle of Sriracha in the airport in Rome, after fully exhausting my abilities to plead, cajole, and coax the security guards otherwise.  I hope the first and last time that I see a half-full bottle of sriracha put into a garbage. 

The memories: Throughout my short 10 year affair with Sriracha, I have done the following things as tributes of my devotion:
            -Dated the manager of Noodles & Company on State street in Madison for 1.5 years with the obvious benefits received and enjoyed.    
            -Participated AND won in a sriracha shot-contest at a bar in Madison, Wisconsin
            -Dressed as a bottle of sriracha for Halloween 2011 in Uganda (a sad but true tale where my ride to town and subsequently to Gulu fell through, and I ended up staying in the village with my friend Tom who was dressed as Germany, and all we did was hop around to some music and then fall asleep at 8:30 pm)
            -Paid the equivalent of 35,000 UGX or $15 USD to buy off-brand Sriracha in Rwanda. 
             
Interesting anecdotes:
-As a child, I was often ridiculed for my wacked-out name. One way I was ridiculed was by being called “Salsa.”  I now see this as very significant towards the rest of my life, as I developed into a salsa and hot sauce-guzzling young woman in a family of Norwegians. 
-My current rate of consumption: 1 bottle/2 weeks.  If used sparingly. Sometimes this leaps to 1 bottle/week. In times of desperation.
-You CAN find a weird but acceptable cousin of sriracha in Nakumatt and apparently the real deal at some elusive Italian supermarket in Kampala that I have yet to find.
-My obsession has been noted by many, but characterized by my friends in college as my need to make “all of my food bleed.” 

The best foods to pair sriracha with:
-PESTO. Seriously.  Pesto was missing its partner for much of its highly celebrated existence until Sriracha came around.  The Ideal dish: Any type of pasta with fresh store-bought or homemade pesto, sautéed mushrooms and onions, fresh shavings of parmesan, lightly cooked spinach, and then layered thickly with sriracha.  Make it bleed.
-ANY Indian/thai curry.
-PAD THAI
-Any creamy dish; such as Macaroni and Cheese, four cheese pastas, gnocchi al gorgonzola, Fettuccini al fredo, the list goes on. 
-Pizza.  For a really delicious idea, mix a bit of sriracha with some mayonnaise to make a creamy, spicy dipping sauce. 


Test your commitment, and your willingness to go the distance for what you believe in.  Don’t settle for Tobasco or, god forbid, top-up.  This would be like the equivalent of drinking a Senator when there are Primuses available.  Set your standards high.  








Never judge a PCV until you’ve walked a mile in their Chacos.

PCV Perspectives Across the Globe



What was the staple food situation like?  Or what food was actually available to you?

Staple foods in Paraguay include Mandioca which is a root vegetable.  It is eaten at almost all meals like bread.  People boil it or eat it fried.  They drink mate, a hot tea made from the mate plant or terere which is a cold tea.  Friends and families sit around in circles.  There is a server of the tea.  They pour the hot water into a guampa which is holding the tea leaves.  Then there is a metal straw you use to drink it out.  You drink all the water in the cup in one turn, then you return it to the server who fills more water for the next person.  All people share the same straw and cup. 
Sarah Galanter-Guziewski, Paraguay 2001-03

In Mali, where I served as a PCV in 1987-1989, the matoke dish, or staple dish, was called to. It is pounded millet and then cooked to a doughy consistency and normally pulled and eaten from a communal bowl by hand … dipping it in a green ( Baobab leaf ) or red ( pepper ) sauce.  Another popular and somewhat routine dish was rice with a peanut sauce or onion water sauce … although rice was at that time often considered a bit of a luxury and would be found certainly at a special event such as a wedding dinner, etc… also was found available at taxi parks and hole-in-the-wall restaurants for a cost of about 50 cents.  For my breakfast I often got an egg sandwich from the “egg lady” who cooked fried eggs in an inch or two of the hottest oil ever seen ( when the egg was scrambled and dropped in it would boil up a couple of inches and be done in a matter of seconds ). The egg lady cooked next to the street close to the Mali Regional Chamber of Commerce office in which I worked.  By the way the egg sandwiches, served on a baguette, were great!  … despite the sometimes found street grit in them.                    
.Gary Vizzo, Mali 1987-1989

The staple food in my community is cassava bread, which is the most bizarre staple food ever because it takes like 2 weeks to prepare.  It requires picking it from the fields obviously, then peeling it, then sitting it out in the sun for a few days so that it ferments and smells god-awful, then smashing it up into little bits with a hammer, then smashing the tiny bits up into tinier bits until it becomes a powder, then mingling it with a goliath-sized loofa (mixer) that literally requires an Olympic athlete to manage.  Also a strange staple food as most forms of cassava are highly poisonous, and fatal if eaten uncooked.  It is also highly known for its wondrous adhesive qualities.  It’s like a viscous bulgy glue when in bread form.  Bon appétit! 
Ilse Griffin, Uganda 2011-13

Well, I shopped at a combination of the town bazaar for veggies and herbs, and the town grocery store for pasta, and a handful of corner stores and kiosks for everything else. I’d buy a lot of bulk stuff and make stuff to last, like tomato sauce. Over my two years teaching in the Macedonian town of Kumanovo, I ate a bizarre amount of greek salads, pasta, and omelets.  Everyone in the Balkans eats a pepper pate called Ajvar, and it can be added to just about anything. 
Frank Hennick, Macedonia 2007-2009

During an evening of too many vodka shots “that’s what she said,” morphed into “that’s a sheep’s head,” which is a perfect introduction to Kyrgyz cuisine. Tradition foods are all rooted in their nomadic pastoralist past, so some sort of animal boiled or preserved served with starch. For most people sheep is the common meat, but beef and horse pop up in the springtime when there are lots of parties. The role of starch is played by rice, potatoes, noodles, and/or bread. Because of the dry Siberian winters and mountainous sites, many volunteers go without vegetables from November to March. A normal winter meal will be sheep boiled with onions served with ramen noodles and bread. It will be placed on a platter in the center of the table, and everyone eats off of it with their hands. Breakfast the next morning will be the leftovers, reconstituted with a weak broth. More modern families will likely have silverware and separate plates, but it still doesn’t add flavor.
Alex Bush, Kyrgyzstan 2008-2010

Malawi has even more boring food than Uganda, if you can
believe it. Their staple food is basically posho (called nsima), but
cooked so it’s a little softer. Most common sides are beans, greens,
or cabbage.
Leslie Stroud-Romero, Malawi 2003-2005

Guyana is made up of Africans, Indians, Amerindians, and a handful of Europeans and Chinese.  That means that we have a really wide variety of foods.  Because I live in a primarily indo-guyanese community, all I eat is spicy Indian food.  Lots of curry, rice, daal, and deep-fried deliciousness.  Also, plenty of soda, which they refer to as drink.  I live in a rural farming village with a weekly market, but I get a lot of free vegetables from generous neighbors.  Callaloo or bhaje (spinach), pumpkin, okra, tomatoes, bora (string beans) and squash the size of babies.  Plus the usual array of tropical fruits since we’re practically squatting on the equator.  Things the average Guyanese do not eat- and I’ve asked many a Guyanese- pumpkin seeds, cats, dogs, yogurt, alligators, frogs, and placenta.  I’ve finally adjusted to the spiciness and enjoy the intensity of the flavors I find here.  Cooking it, however, it another matter entirely.
Beth Bai, Guyana 2012-2014


What were the daily challenges of living as a PCV in your country?

The pace of life is very slow.  It is very important for people to sit and drink tea and sometimes it takes a long time to create change.
Sarah Galanter Guziewski, Paragauy 2001-2003

I don’t think I’ll ever get over being a Minnesotan living on the equator.  The sun is my greatest challenge, shortly followed by trying to do anything productive while in the sun. Ilse Griffin, Uganda 2011-2013
As a teacher, a lot of the challenges are the same as anywhere---kids not listening, being weird, etc.  That said, in my country I think the challenges for urban PCVs could be really different from those facing the village PCVs. For my part, it was tough to become recognized as a neighbor, colleague, or normal friend---as oppose to “that american guy”. It sometimes seemed that the PCVs in villages, after a rough start, became better ingrained in their communities.
Frank Hennick, Macedonia 2007-2009

There were 18 female PCVs in my region. By the end of my first 10 months at site all had been sexually harassed (at least groped), there had been three attempted kidnappings, and one successful rape. My area was notorious for having aggressive men, but the rates were similar in other regions.
Alex Bush, Kyrgyzstan 2008-2010

Mosquitoes, heat and sand everywhere.                                                                          
 Gary Vizzo, Mali 1987-1989

The biggest challenge for me as a PCV in Malawi is
probably not a challenge anymore. We were just on the cusp of the cell
phone revolution, so hardly anyone had phones, and certainly no
internet. We had to go to the capital to email or to access technical
resources. So the isolation and difficulty getting things done was a
big challenge.
Leslie Stroud-Romero, Malawi 2003-2005

The usual- sipping (catcalling), the language/culture barrier and slow work pace, feeling like what you’re doing is picking up starfish along the sand only to see them get eaten by octopi.  Also, hearing the same Rihanna song since I’ve arrived in country, 8 months ago.  
Beth Bai, Guyana 2012-2013



What was your work situation actually like on the ground (not on paper or in theory)?

I spent a lot of time drinking tea.  I was in education and did a lot of workshops, but actually had most success teaching in the classrooms and connecting with one teacher who was really interested in learning abut how to do preschool.  I taught a lot of English classes as well.
Sarah Galanter- Guziewski, Paraguay 2001-2003

Basically it was a workaday life, walking to the local high school and backs.  Lots of stray animals.
Frank Hennick,  Macedonia 2007-2009

I had a supervisor who was not really engaged, was politically connected to the Malian President and was not considered by many to be the most honest guy;  my counterpart was great although he often was away on side activities to earn money as he routinely was behind 6 months or so in receiving his salary from the Chamber.  The Chamber of Commerce was not even close to the model that we would know in the states ( largely the daily business was only to issue import / export licenses ) but we did develop and had running evening classes for small shop owners, employees of larger concerns and unemployed to learn accounting, inventory management, project planning, etc.. Fortunately, these activities were in part supported by some USAID funding direct to us as the small business development sector was just being launched in PC countries with the encouragement of USAID. We later developed a small business persons’ group and a credit fund specifically for this group that, I was told, eventually was modeled in other towns. Goats, flies and chickens were routinely heard and/or entering the office ,,, there was a connected grain warehouse owned by the supervisor and connected to the office … the government paid the supervisor rent on the office as he owned the building … conflict of interest with this setup was not really discussed : )                                       Gary Vizzo, Mali 1987-1989

The work situation for an education volunteer in Kyrgyzstan is similar to that of Uganda, but for the opposite reasons. In KG there are no materials and the classes are overfilled, but that’s because the buildings are falling apart faster than the population is decreasing, and the materials are gone because no one’s printed them since the fall of the Soviet Union. The students were committed to learn, but with the air of desperation that this was their only way out.
Alex Bush, Kyrgyzstan 2008-2010

Malawi has health, education, and environment volunteers. Health
volunteers are associated with a health center, so most go to the
health center on occasion to help weigh babies or give nutrition
talks, but most of their work is intended to be within the general
community. They aren’t (or at least weren’t, when I was there) put at
a certain organization, so you really have to work to find your own
project. It gives a lot of nice flexibility, though, to pursue things
you’re interested in. I taught Life Skills and helped organize a
carpentry school for orphans, Aaron worked with vocational training
for former commercial sex workers and also did mud stove
demonstrations, and other volunteers worked with youth or PHA groups
or on income generation activities.
Leslie Stroud-Romero, Malawi 2003-2005

I go to school every morning and attempt to do literacy intervention work.  Play a lot of “hokey pokey” and “I spy.”  Type up stuff for my school so the paperwork will look pretty if the ministry visits.
Beth Bai, Guyana 2012-1014



What is something unique about your site or country?

My site had had several PCVs over the past 30 some years.
Sarah Galanter-Guziewski, Paraguay 2001-2003

My transport to town usually makes me unwillingly complicit in the Uganda-Congo smuggling business!
 Ilse Griffin, Uganda 2011-2013

KG does have its moments though, which are hard to duplicate or convey. The way the cotton tree on your walk to school covers with ice and bends low over the road. The way the hills burst into green with the thaw, and then red with poppies in May. Picking ripe figs in the garden. Riding over glacier topped mountains. Perhaps the thing I miss most is the way the country forces PCVs together. There are no NGOs or missionaries and you live with a host family your full term. You can go days without speaking a word of English, and you forget you look different. Going to town, meeting other PCVs, you look forward to it like Christmas morning or a family reunion.
Alex Bush, Kyrgyzstan 2008-2010

One unique thing about Malawian culture is that they have a
couple of different “secret societies.” These are kind of like
religions and sort of like a men’s club. The initiated men meet at
night at graveyards and drum and dance. They also “take on” the spirit
of certain animals or people who have died and dance when possessed by
these spirits on special occasions in the village. They have really
elaborate masks and outfits, and are kind of scary and cool at the
same time.
Leslie Stroud-Romero, Malawi 2003-2005

Malian’s, even the different ethnic groups ( although not as many as in Uganda ), grouped themselves by family names and cousin family names and seemingly all got along fairly well in a good natured way because of this … even across ethnicity.          
Gary Vizzo, Mali 1987-1989 

 People tend to be almost aggressively hospitable in Macedonia, especially in the villages.  So many casual conversations with strangers can end up in you being sat down in their living room, drinking Turkish coffee or rakija (grape/plum brandy) and visiting.  That, and Spanish telenovelas are oddly popular; you’ll find the occasional middle-aged woman who speaks a little Spanish (with a vocabulary that disproportionately emphasizes themes like murder, lust, and scheming)                                                                              Frank Hennick, Macedonia 2007-2009

We get Muslim, Christian, and Hindu holidays off.  I think my life here looks like something out of Jurassic Park (and do morning yoga to the theme song).  We have the highest single drop waterfall in the world, though like most tourist attractions, the locals have never been and can’t tell you much about it.
Beth Bai, Guyana 2012-2014



What is the strangest thing that you have ever experienced as a PCV?

I was serenaded for my 30th birthday.  Apparently you are supposed to knock back to let them know you like it or they stop and I didn’t know what to do. 
Sarah Galanter-Guziewski, Paraguay 2001-2003

When there was a week-long funeral outside of my house. And, not having a latrine or bathing area for my first 4 months of service.   
Ilse Griffin, Uganda 2011-2013

One of my coworkers’ daughters got married while I was there, and of course there was a staff party for the young couple. A sheep was slaughtered that morning, and the guest of honor, me, was presented with the boiled head for carving. Citing my inability to dissect it according to the required customs they let me slide on most of the job, but they insisted that I chop up the ear, sample some, and then pass the rest around.
It managed to be chewy and crunchy at the same time, with the odor/flavor of wet sheep. The flesh of older sheep absorbs the smell, so if you wonder what it tastes like just smell a musky ram.
Alex Bush, Kyrgyzstan 2008-2010
 
Maybe staying overnight at a monastery with my girlfriend at the time and having the priest remind us “no love”, because “god is watching”.  That, or having a seizure on my last day of work.
 Frank Hennick, Macedonia 2007-2009

Killing three bats in one night- one with my eyes barely open.  i’m not sure if that means I’m integrating or just turning into a serial animal killer.
 Beth Bai, Guyana 2012-2014

There are a number of things that come to mind … as I’m sure is the case with PCVs here in Uganda. From my experiences, there was one time when I took an end-of-the-year trip up the Niger toward Timbuktu with 5 other PCVs and we took an 8 person cabin so two beds were taken or given to two military police guys.  During the trip, these two guys would rent the floor space in the cabin at night to deck passengers and sometimes we would wake to go to the WC or in the morning to find maybe upwards of 20 plus people in this fairly small cabin.          
 Gary Vizzo, Mali 1987-1989

Final Reflections on the differences between PC Uganda and other countries

 Other random differences: 1) they don’t have small car taxis, and
instead people travel in the back of small pick ups or lorries (most
longer trips are made by minibus/matatu), 2) when we were there they
had Coke products only…no Pepsi, 3) people eat dinner at a normal
dinner time instead of midnight, 4) we had a “transit house” in the
capital for PCVs to stay at when they were in town, 5) Peace Corps
vehicles and the office were all marked with the PC logo.                                         
 \Leslie Stroud-Romero Malawi 2003-05

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A series of fortunate events


Happy Halloween!

For Halloween last year, I was intending to go to Gulu town and celebrate the holiday appropriately with a bunch of inebriated, costumed Americans.  Like many things, it didn’t go as planned.  I waited for a mythical ride to town for hours, because I am a stubborn mundu who does not boda (motorcycle), and when it finally seemed like all was lost, I remained in my sriracha costume for a few hours and hopped around to music for a half hour before I fell asleep at 8:00 pm.  True life: I’m sort of a dork.  A lot of things are embarrassing in my life now.  At least for now.  But, I’m hoping that these embarrassing tendencies (like being in bed by 7:30) will evaporate once I hit the sweet soil of America. 

This year Halloween is looking a bit more promising.  No, I’m not going to meet the scores of inebriated Americans in my PC group in Jinja to celebrate appropriately, because that just ain’t my style these days.  Also, it requires like 10 hours of enduring Ugandan public transport.  Instead, I’m indulging in a series of fortunate events that have befallen me.  Firstly?  Both my friend Tom and I got packages in town yesterday, on old Hallows Eve.  The contents are nothing short of marvelous. Fake candy teeth! Zots! Pop rocks! Chocolate pumpkins!  Goodness!  In Tom’s box, we received legions of fancy tea, hand sani, and other such mysterious contents.  So on this fair day of Halloween, I have so far enjoyed fancy orange-chocolate tea, chocolate, and a high heart!  A fortunate event to receive packages indeed, for these last few weeks have been challenging for me. 

Besides these goodies, I have also done some strange things today.  I tried exercising to a super lame exercise video called “Insanity.”  If you know me, you know that this is absolutely something that I wouldn’t do in America.  Well, I’m not in America, am I? So yes, I moved my tables aside and sweated and struggled to a series of improbable and physically impossible exercises, all done seamlessly by host ‘Sean T.’  But, the end goal was achieved: of being sweaty and tired.  I have missed physical exercise and sports probably more than I have missed most other things my 1.5 years here.  It feels so nice to be sore and tired- even though I did all of the exercises obscenely wrong and with horrible form.  Things got pretty insane.  At one point, I looked over at Tom to see that he had completely given up on doing the specific exercise right, and was instead just flopping around like a jellyfish and smiling.  Then, I drank some red wine with a delicious spaghetti lunch.  Also, a strange thing.  The rest of the day will include more wine, curry, and a scary movie enjoyed while eating candy with good company.  I mean, it’s no state street in Madison, but it’s a good second.  I was supposed to go to work today, but because it’s been raining 98% of the time recently, I literally couldn’t walk on the roads-at least without serious risk to my rapidly diminishing dignity- and was told by several concerned community members to stay home.  I love that the weather here actually affects you. 

There have been some other unusual events occurring that seem worthwhile to explore.  Mind you—no Hurricane ‘Sandy’ or presidential election.  Apparently, around the border in my village, a teacher witnessed two grown men fighting over a grasshopper.  Violently.  This may seem even stranger than it’s intended to be, because since when do adults fight over grasshoppers?  Well, here, grasshoppers, along with ‘white ants’ are a valued food group.  And, now is grasshopper season.  The teacher watched for a few minutes, and then left the men still fighting to come to school.  So, on the eve of the jealous and surly Hurricane Sandy, this was my most valuable news.  Did I mention that I lack a certain quality of stimulation here sometimes?  I think that’s why people stare at me so much and are so fascinated when I sit outside and read; there is simply nothing else to do or talk about.  Gossip is golden.  Whenever ANYTHING vaguely interesting happens here; like news of a volunteer buying a fan, or a local goat getting into a fight with a dog, or a woman who may have turned into a serpent due to the treachery of a Sudanese witch doctor, it’s pretty much all I talk about for a week. 

Speaking of vaguely interesting, I got a haircut from the one person in West Nile who knows how to cut mundu-hair.  It turned out to be a reclusive Indian woman who stays in her apartment all day because she isn’t allowed to talk to other men due to her religion.  It all went well, until I came home and realized that she had cut my hair into a mullet.  Luckily, Tom handled that crisis by cutting off the offensive back-portion of my hair, and now I have really short hair again.  Then, I cut off Tom’s entire ponytail in a fit of boredom, and now his hair looks like a super trendy hipster hair cut, without me even trying. 

I have saved my favorite unusual event for last.  Yesterday when we went to town, we really struck gold.  It happened to be the exact day when the Arua police have either run out of money/are bored enough to bring the smackdown on all of the men and women who are illegally driving or operating un-registered or smuggled motorcycles.  And let me tell you, there are many.  Most people who have motorcycles smuggled them from Congo.  Most boda boda drivers are young men without licenses.  SO, on this particular day, the police set up a road-block in the middle of Aruatown and stopped/run down every motorcycle to check licenses and registration, and then impound or confiscate the motorcycles.  It’s really fun to watch because most drivers don’t see the roadblock until they are right by it, and then either a. slow down with a resigned look in their eyes due to the inevitable confiscation of their motorcycle and loss of income, or b. awesomely and casually abort their mission once it dawns to them what is happening…this usually results in a sudden 180 degree turn and slightly increased speed as they high-tail calmly it the other way.  I saw a father, mother and son on one motorcycle that turned around right before the roadblock, the dad grinning at his cunning. Or, c. as one brave soul did, upon realizing the immediate danger in their future, dodged the police by executing a series of daring and wild zig-zags and then hightailed it away with a cop running after him.  The funny thing is that police doesn’t even attempt a good chase; they just kind of shake their fists and wait for their next victim.  The best is the moment of realization that dawns on the faces of the motorcyclers when they drive right into the jaws of the lion: a real “Oh shit” moment.  Lorries of confiscated motorcycles make their way to the jail, others can be seen driven by the very same policeman who confiscated them.    Eventually, you notice the quiet, as most boda-boda drivers have now been alerted and the road is completely clear of motorcycles (which NEVER happens).  It becomes rather pleasant to cross the street, rather than the usual exercise in existentialism.  Anyway, it’s great entertainment, with everyone stopping amidst all of their errands and buying and selling to sit back, laugh, and watch the drama enfold.  

I'm sorry to say that this blog has been largely influenced by the single glass of wine that I have consumed over the last 6 months.   

And here's a SPOOKY and random photo of Athena eating a rat:


Love and Larks,
Ilse