Monday, August 28, 2006

Best . Labor Day. Ever.

To celebrate the last officially official weekend of summer, my HMF surprised me with a flight back to Minnesota to take part in that superslice of summer, that harbinger of heartburn, the ten-days of tackiness, the deep fried the goober of good taste: the Minnesota State Fair (known to Insiders as the "Great Minnesota Get Together").

I. Am. So. Excited.

What makes this even sweeter, is that he went behind my back to email all my good friends (see Kate's blog entry) and let them know we'd be in town.

He even swore them to secrecy.

So now we're going to be able to get together afterall, complete with a Labor Day BBQ.

Life is good !

But next time, honey, wait until I've been off the plane for atleast an hour before telling me we'll be getting back on it :)

M is for MN State Fair!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Photos from Pilansburg Game Park, South Africa

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Home-Again, Home-Again, Lickety-Split.... the saying my mom would say everytime we pulled into the driveway back home. To this day, I have to fight the urge to say it when I come back.

I actually toyed with writing a whole long diatribe about international travel. Such as, when you board a plane, please refrain from announcing that you're looking for the "tequila train." Or explaining in loud form how you got so "effed up" the night before that you don't think you'll make it through the flight without ten beers. (Sadly, one of these blokes had a camoflauge MN hunting cap...) When the lights are off, stop shouting.

In fact, stop shouting. Full stop.

But, I thought that this type of entry would just come across as sour grapes. Especially as the list of complaints grew longer and more petty as the flight progressed (really, MUST you stand in the aisle and hover over me like the Hidenberg? Yes, please take your jacket off and hit me in the face...)

As for the increased security measures, well, it caused a few delays, but not many. When I initially boarded the plane, after the xray, they went through our bags and took away water, juice, etc. Even though I'd taken great pains to throw away my lotion (do you KNOW how dry those flights get?), they didn't even check my toiletry bag. But then, no one ever suspects the blonde...

I spent the rest of the flight trying to sneak my way into the first class toilet just to get ahold of their lotion...(really, what's the point in having a first class toilet in the second class? Does it have gold gilded seats? Does the toilet flush quietly? Are there actually towels to wipe your hands? Does it stink any less like urine?)...and pestering stewardesses for more water. Really, it made no difference to me. But those stewardesses seemed pretty haggard by the end of the flight.

The side trip to Johannesburg was absolutely terrific. I was warmly greeted and taken care of by a woman who had met me as a child twenty years ago, when she was an exchange student of my cousin. She and her husband used to farm in Zimbabwe until they got pushed off by Mugabe's "land reform" five years ago. They took me to a nearby game reserve, where we scoped lions, giraffe, rhino, hippos, impala and zebra from the relative safety of their '89 Toyota Carrolla. The next day, I had the opportunity to go to the Apartheid Museum. I never knew how little I knew until I went there. Fascinating.

Anyway, I have every intention of going back to South Africa again. It's beautiful and the people all think my american accent is hilarious. (In SA, it's pronounced "Amirican"). I hope to bring a whole bunch of friends or family next time.

Now I'm back and the first thing I noticed was the muggy, sweaty, swampy, luscious smell of the DC lowland. My skin feels alive again and I'm wearing shorts for the first time in nine months. It feels terrific. I feel kind of bad that I missed out on summer here, but I have every assurance from the HMF that it was pretty boring.

And that, I take to mean, is that there are no giant spiders. :)

Over and out,

Thursday, August 17, 2006

You Know It's Time To Go..

When you've started asking the spiders in your kitchen how their day went!

I'm taking off for some R&R tomorrow - will soon be back in the States and back to work!

Thanks for listening,


Monday, August 14, 2006

Old and New

Alicia, Belinda, Ruth, Kim, Desola and Alyssa

Wine and cheese party

Malawi is a revolving door of people, especially in these development circles that seem to recycle young people at three month intervals. You see it alot in Washington, DC as well.

At this stage of my life, I tend to find it exciting. Don't like your job? Wait three months, someone is bound to leave. Don't like your housemates? Wait three more months and the real kooky ones will get their mother's to buy them townhouses. There's always an opportunity to meet new people and almost everyone passes through eventually (ok that's slightly more true for DC than Lilongwe, but you'd be surprised - last week a few of my old coworkers showed up).

After a year, you're considered an old-timer and can look with derision at those people who squat for a few months. Thus, the dichotomy between old and new is created.

To stereotype: old timers have been around the block, made their friends, know the best bars, the best deals, have done all the touristy stuff (ostensibly) and can be extremely jaded, like old war vets. New comers are fresh, excited, ready to party, do touristy things, talk to anybody and go through crappy experiences (generally, the first few times) with a huge, dopey smile on their faces.

Not surprisingly, smart new comers glom onto older timers to show them the ropes.

Equally unsurprising is the old timer hesistance to let them.

And why should they? What with the revolving door policy, what sense does it make to create a friendship with someone who will be gone in three months? My college buddy Alonzo, who was from Mexico City and consequently had alot of foreign exchange student friends, once complained to me how painful it was to open up to someone only to see them leave. After the fifth semester of saying goodbye to his "best" friend with promises to email that never came to fruition, he felt burned - and alone.

I sympathize with this. It's hard to say goodbye to people. There have been a few awesome folks that I've met here in Lilongwe that I would've loved to have gotten to know better, except for this old-timer/new comer divide. They already had a circle of friends. I could quite clearly see their dance card was booked. Yet, I felt those were the ones who could provide perspective, keep me grounded, and engage in meaningful reflection. I found it alot easier to make friends with the other three-month interns (who then, consequently left before me! ha ha justice..)

Nevertheless, however painful the goodbye, it doesn't justify the shutting up of yourself. I've never operated like that; I secretly think it's impossible for me to do. My general philosophy is that people come and go into your life when you need them; some stay, some don't. It's not any failure of our relationship if we don't keep in touch - it's enough for me to know that we shared pieces of our lives for awhile. Besides, I have a fairly good track record of "re-meeting".

To those generous old timers who opened themselves up to me during my time here, thank you. Kim, Alicia, Belinda, Alex; I'm sorry I have to go. You have graciously touched my life.


Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Accident

The funny thing about having a blog is when people know you have one and see you on a regular basis, and crazy stuff happens to you when you're with them, it garners comments such as "I smell a blog entry!"

Which is what happened to me last night. Originally, I was so frightened, sobered and angry that there was no way I was going to share it. But then I received the aforementioned comment this morning from my friend. Now I feel a bit compelled and well, wiser to the complexity of these events, which I feel may be of interest.

Last night I went out with some friends to a bar. It was me, my Lutheran missionary buddies, my UNHCR friend who liked the hippos, my pal Al and Canada Jim , who had just returned from some R&R back at home the day before.

About 12:15, we decided to drive across town to the Old Town section to go dancing at another club. I hopped in the back of the Lutheran ambulance, a bit peeved that we had parked so far away because I've contracted tendonitis in my ankle due to all the flip flop wearing and it hurt to walk. This sounds silly, but it's important.

So, four of us got into the ambulance, while Al and Canada Jim take off in their own vehicles. Somehow, we start singing show-tunes (ok ok, it was just ME and no I didn't have that much to drink...) and rumble off down the road. Just as I was getting to the chorus line of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria" we came across a terrible, fresh car accident.

It's Canada Jim. As he was crossing a bridge, the car coming towards him drifted into his lane. He narrowly avoided a head on collision (or worse yet, being pushed into the ditch) by swerving into the opposite side of traffic and clipping the guy on the passenger side (remember, British system = driving on the left, meaning the passenger side is really what we would consider the driver's side for all you Americans, Canadians and Continentals out there...)

Anyway, the accident must've happend just seconds before we arrived because Canada Jim was wandering around, disoriented (he had hit his head on the steering wheel, but was wearing his seatbelt - thank god- so only his left eyebrow was cut open). The driver of the other car, not so lucky. I didn't get out for a good look, but he was in the car, unconscious when we arrived. He was driving a low sedan and the entire front end looked like a meat grinder had been taken to it. Canada Jim's Pajero didn't look much better.

As luck would have it, we are a) in an ambulance with a nurse and b) about five minutes by car to the nearest hospital. The nurse, Kim, (who incedentally was the one who told me to write this in a blog..) jumps out of the car and runs to check on the other guy. He's alive and breathing, but she can't tell the extent of the damages. The three of us left in the car go to the hospital to wake up the nurses and get a stretcher.

Here's where it really hit home that we were in Malawi. Now, I haven't been in too many accidents in the US, or really even witnessed any gory ones up close, but I would imagine that within minutes the medics arrive and the police and everything is taken care of in a somewhat orderly manner. That expectation is morbidly laughable here.

The only thing that arrived within seconds was a) a crowd and b) a traffic jam. When we returned with the stretcher, the other driver was out of the car (dislodged by our courageous nurse and a few Danish high school students), lying on the pavement and gurgling. You could tell he was breathing, but there was blood everywhere. Kim has got it all over her hands.

I have to admit, the absolute first thing I thought (after I saw the passenger alive) was: AIDS.

My friend and I set the stretcher down and Kim starts coordinating people to help shift this guy onto the gurney. She catches my eye when saying this and all I could think of was "Pleasedontpickmepleasedontpickmepleasedontpickme". I feel like Peter, in the Bible, when he denies Jesus three times before the cock crows. I am a rotten human being; I won't even pick up a perhaps dying man from the road. I swear I heard a rooster crow in the distance.

Kim, perhaps sensing my split second hesitation, sucks in her breathe and says "Men." Catching her voice again, louder she says "Men! I need men to lift this guy!" I back away, grateful, and about twelve hundred onlookers surge forward. Kim is polite yet firm, manages to stabilize his head while arguing with one particularly beligerant sexist Malawian. I don't remember what about, but it's kind of gratifying to see all these fatsos being bossed around by a 115 pound nurse. They obviously wanted to do it their way, and she quite firmly wasn't going to let them.

After more arguing (the dudes wanted to put the guy in the PICKUP TRUCK while Kim wanted to wait for the ambulance, which was parked mere feet away, to swing around) they finally got him loaded into the ambulance. This was more than a normal undertaking, as the guy was easily 250 bils and there were five 110 lb bags of maize already occupying the back of the ambulance. Malawi: where ambulances become grocery stores.

I notice that there is very little interaction with the wazungu and the Malawians crowded around the accident. It was eery, really. We whiteys crowded on one side of the road and they crowded on the other. We barely spoke. I asked one Malawian guy if he knew the driver, but he just shook his head, which just made me madder. What the hell were you doing here then? Don't you have something better to do? To me, it was like rubbernecking to the nth degree, and it was tacky.

One Palestian guy stops his car in the middle of traffic, gets out and walks around the mangled car for about ten minutes. Frustrated, angry and scared, I finally ask him to move his car because he's going to cause another accident having it parked in the middle of a dark highway like that. "I just wanted to see if this was my friends car," he says, drunkenly.
"It's not," I snap. "He's Malawian. The other guy is my friend. Mazungu. Move yer damn car."

It's not until the morning that I realize it was completely within the realm of possibility that this Palestinian guy could've been friends with the Malawian, or even Canada Jim.

I also remember that in Malawi, those pesky onlookers that crawled out of the woodwork - the ones I assumed were there just for the blood and gore - were really the transportation safety net of Malawi. In a country where EMTs are unheard of, if strangers didn't come to help during an accident, no one would. These guys were just doing their civic duty. Both of these revelations conspire to make me feel like the biggest racist ever. Cock crow number two.

I talk Al and my UNHCR friend into driving me home to grab an ice pack and some water for Canada Jim, as his eye was swelling quite rapidly and he complained of blurred vision. Sadly, I had no aspirin in my house to speak of and it was too far to go to the other's houses. When we return, the police have just arrived (this is about 1 hour after the accident!).

Canada Jim tells his story, and the onlookers start arguing. To give Canada Jim some support via proximity, I cross over from "our" side of the road. I hear some discussion about skid marks. One particularly beligerant onlooker claims that the skid marks prove that Canada Jim was in the wrong. He concludes that the entire mess was Canada Jim's fault.

I am boiling. I start yelling about that's physically impossible if you examine the impact points of each vehicle and that the skid marks mean nothing. Secretly, I'm surprised because everyone stops to listen to me rant. Then the asshole tries to cut me off by saying "Are you done now sweetheart? Can I share what really happened now?" but I talk over him, louder, getting very shrilly. Not really making sense, just wishing I had a good comeback to his condescending "sweetheart" talk. The only thing I can remember saying is, "Sweetheart? Did you call me sweetheart? Listen here SIR (trying as hard as I could to put a sarcastic twist on that - and failing miserably), I know what I see and you're wrong."

I catch my breath and know there's still alot of yelling I could do. A lot. And some punching to the face, but I remember Canada Jim and swallow my pride. I think that arguing in a foreign country in front of police is a great way to get arrested, and that's the last thing I wanted to have happen, so I shut my trap. Yet, inside, I feel like I've just lost a major battle. Why couldn't I stick up for myself? Why couldn't I get this guys respect? What gives him the right to belittle me just because he has a penis?! Forget Jesus, I hear Susan B. Anthony rolling over in her grave.

I slink back to "our" side of the road while the jerkwad was just starting to accuse Jim of being drunk. I hear the third rooster crow.

Once home, I don't know whether to laugh, cry, sigh or just forget about it. I lay awake for a long time digesting the evening and then slip off into sleep.

Canada Jim's car is totaled, and he is shaken up, but ok. The passenger - who tested negative for HIV/AIDs - is in stable condition. Turns out the only thing of damage he did was bite his tongue pretty hard (that's the rumor at this point anyway). The police are still filling out their report and Jim will probably be dealing with this for a while yet, but everything has turned out much, much better thant it could have.

Remember how I was annoyed that I had to march the extra fifty feet to the parking lot to get into our car? Canada Jim had a better parking spot and therefore got to leave those few seconds ahead of us, causing the whole chain of events to unfold. The really funny thing is, we almost took that parking spot.

Wear your seatbelts.



Friday, August 11, 2006

A Story About Postcards

Yesterday I mentioned how every afternoon, around 3pm, I like to cross the dusty parking lot beside my office building and buy a cupcake from the grocery store. I go, one for the cupcake and two, for the excercise but I usually get three, hassled by this one guy URGENTLY selling batik postcards.

It goes something like this:
Me: (big white girl minding her own business walking across dusty parking lot, thinking about cupcakes)
Man Wearing Stocking Cap: (makes a beeline for me regardless where his is - usually from the grocery store steps)
Me: (still walking, pretending not to see him)
MWSC: Madam, Madam, you see I am very hungry. I have children. We have not eaten in four days. You see I am very hungry. (Takes out postcards)
Me: (I glance at him)
MWSC: I am very hungry, I haven't eaten in four days. I make these cards to sell.
Me: No, thank you.
MWSC: But Madam I am hungry! I made these myself!
Me: Not interested, thanks. (Kind, but firm)
MWSC: Hungry! (Pointing at mouth, expectantly)
(He trails me across the parking lot until I walk out of his jurisdiction (for some reason he won't follow me into the store or out of the lot))

This has happened atleast six times. Same scenario, same outcome. If at one time I was interested in buying his postcards, I most certainly wasn't after the following:

Once, I stopped and asked him how much for a postcard and after going through the hullaballo of saying stuff like "I'll give you good price", he quoted me an outrageous sum (like 4$) for one postcard. I'm sorry to say but I started laughing at him, and told him I'd seen those same postcards at a hotel for fifty cents. He played incredulous. "But Madam, I made these myself!" I peered at the cards, they were photocopies of batiks pasted on a single slice of cardboard.

He was obviously giving me the "mazungu" price, trying to squeeze as much money as he could from my pockets. I smiled politely and walked away. (Rule 1 of bargaining: if you engage in price haggling in anyway, then you are verbally bound to purchase the said product. It's the height of rudeness. I once got kicked out of a Bedouin marketplace by the heels of a screaming merchant for doing it. I wasn't about to rile up this guy.)

So, now knowing for sure he's not on the up and up (if he was atleast a nice guy I'd chat with him, but he mostly just yells and breathes down my neck), I feel no obligation to even look at him.

But still, I give the guy credit for persistence. Yesterday he approached me again by saying "Madam I am very hungry, I haven't eaten in four days." (I wonder if he thinks a) I can't distinguish who he is from all the grifters or b) he can't distinguish me from all the wazungu. Little does he know his opening line gives him away)). I stopped at poked him thoughtfully, "You ask me to buy these postcards every day. If you haven't eaten in four days you should be dead by now!"

Without missing a beat he said, "Well then, give me some money."

Cheeky bugger!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Dog Days of Summer

Every day I remind myself that this is August, the dead heart of summer. I should be laying on the beach, sweating my mind off, drinking gin tonics and planning a 'mini-break' with the HMF.

Besides the last two, you'd be way off the mark.
Yesterday morning, it was 9 C (48 F). That's cold!

This past week I've been tucked away in my office, frantically trying to finish this 40-page research paper that's sucked away my entire summer and afforded me some pretty cool opportunities (can anyone say "Malawisaurus" without grinning?). But all I'm getting is squinty eye syndrom and the worst backache in the world, which means my back hurts, my eyes hurt, my brain hurts. I'm terrified that when my boss reads this he's going to say "We paid you to do THIS?! Give us our money back..."

I'm also planning a brown bag lunch (why was thisa good idea to do my last week here?) to aid in my thesis research, which should be good (lots of pizza) but that I have to pull together a presentation for. On what? I have no idea. I've got four days to figure it out.

I've managed to make friends with all the athletic people in Malawi who like climbing and running marathons, neither of which I can do and thus am reduced to cheerleader status (boo). I am in an office and have not gotten any real exercise in well over a week (last time I took a jog, I stopped after a little girl threw her arms around me in a big hug. How can you run after that? I was smiling too hard). We keep going out for "last dinners" with friends and keep eating my weight in mashed potatoes, then they go out and have kickboxing matches til dawn. I roll over and pretend it's Thanksgiving or Christmas. This has got to stop.

On top of that, I've become addicted to what I believed were corn muffins that sell for like, 25 cents at the grocery across from my office, only to find out today that they're actually cupcakes.
So now not only have I been cooped up in my office all week growing my ass, but I've been stuffing CUPCAKES into my face all day! Crap.

I need some endorphins and some vitamin D - soon. Every once and awhile I hear the crickets chirping and the light is just right (that mid afternoon that turns into a long dusk at home). It's only then that I realize it's actually August. Somewhere in the world people are sweating down to their eyelids and surfing.

I think it's getting time to go home.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Everyone thinks they own Africa.

First it was the colonists, then it was the Africans themselves (for it was we who taught them the idea of “ownership” in the first place) and now it’s the donor agencies, Peace Corp volunteers, travel-writers and Diaspora communities. Each group lays claim to the fact that their experience is the true experience; they understand the true essence of Africa. They know how Africa works.

We all do it. We all carve it up and take it away in little chunks, marketing it as validity in empirical form to our friends and family back home. We pander to church groups and editors, professors and politicians – yes, yes, this was My Africa. This is what it was – why don’t you hear, feel, taste, smell, touch, grade, evaluate, process, examine, scrutinize, accept, buy what I have brought back for you.

Put two Afrophiles in a room and watch the game of one-up man ship. You ate goat? I ate snake. You got scabies? I had gout. You broke your wrist? I was in a monkey knife fight. You rode a matola across the Serengeti? I pulled an oxcart. You lived there for ten years? I lived there for twenty. You married a local? I married three.

This territoriality – this fight for proof of capturing the “genuine” Africa is nearly impossible to overcome, even when you are the one doing it. On a personal level, this ranges from merely annoying to mind-bendingly frustrating (great, good luck with your three wives). On a professional level, of course, it can get downright dangerous.

I pretty much expect that everyone I know has had a more “genuine” experience than I have. In fact, I lay no claim to ever having an Africa experience in the first place. I concede; you win. You’ve interviewed more people (probably knew what you were doing when you did it, too), you ask better questions, you have been to more countries, you live in the village, you speak more languages, you eat goat, you like it.

I will not marry a local. I will not live here for ten years. I hobble to hospital when I sprain my ankle in a drunken wrestling match. I steer clear of the snake. And while I have tremendous guilt for this, I cannot change who I am.

Too many things have been taken from Africa. Too much gold, too many people, too many carvings, too many reports, program designs, project evaluations and power point presentations. And really, they are all genuine in their own way. I mean, come on, Africa has strip malls, too.

I have a resolve to bring. But in casting around, the only thing that I can bring is myself; a woman who likes hot water and dances “like a black woman” (true story, I was actually told this. I don’t know if it’s true or just the best pick up line ever); someone who hates rain spiders and only reads English; someone who makes faces at little kids to get them to smile; someone who has absolutely no talent except laughing at the wrong moments and arguing with government officials.

I guess my point is that there is nothing that is mine, there is nothing that I will bring back. By all accounts of those Afrophiles, this experience is not genuine, or the true Africa.

But it is there and so am I.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

I Refuse to Have A Quarter Life Crisis

That's just it. How can I be in a crisis already? I haven't even DONE anything yet!

Sure, I can wonder around not know what the heck I'm doing most of the time, but I don't see this changing when I get to mid- or end- life, so it's not something I'm going to get worked up about.

I can also see myself stressing out about life decisions......but then ultimately trusting myself to make the right decision at the time, given the information that I have, for my own health and well-being. Not to get all wishy-washy philosophical about it, but life is my canvas and I'm going to paint it any damn way I please.

I understanding walking around asking questions about myself and others "Why is that child sick? How come this family doesn't use fertilizer? Where are the doctors? Are you going to sterilize that? Why isn't development working in Malawi? Would pirates or ninjas win in a battle to the death?"

But I'm not worried about it. As I said, I see myself doing this throughout my entire life - not just now. Not only at 26.

I mean, come on, twenty-six? I've barely had time to learn how to tie my shoes. How badly could I have screwed up my life by now? Not much. And even if I did, I'd still have time to reverse it, mitigate the damage.

People need to chill out. Quarter-life? Pfft. I've got my eye on the other 75 %.