Monday, December 27, 2010
Initially, I was pretty excited. I arrived home energized, loving my new classes. I felt strong, capable, empowered. It didn't matter that I didn't know the steps. I danced in between a barefoot pregnant woman and an octogenarian. They didn't care; I didn't care. My butt didn't look as good as the guy in the spandex pants during spin class, but what did it matter? I was sweating too much. And I had a stupid grin on my face the whole time.
I thought for SURE that my new found joy would find its translation on the scale.
So, what did it matter? Why was I so upset by this? I still had access to the sauna. That dude in the spandex pants' butt still looked pretty good.
But I began noticing (re-realizing?) that I am a terrible dancer. The spin instructor plays Coldplay - for everything, even the uphill parts (seriously? who gets energized by "Yellow"?) Then it snowed. I got a blister. Who can haul themselves to the gym when the couch is such an appealing option?
"What is the point?" I groused to a friend, "If I watch what I eat, I stay the same. If I eat whatever I want, I stay the same. I'm staying on the couch."
My friend replied not unsympathetically: "What are you doing trying to lose weight during the Holidays anyways? Do you like being set up for disappointment?"
During one particularly snowy weekend on the couch, I rented a documentary entitled "America: The Beautiful". It was about the extreme lengths that American women go to - from plastic surgery to injecting ourselves with known poisons. The lose storyline followed a young girl, a super-model at 12 who by 14 was CONVINCED she was ugly. At six feet tall, pug-nosed, blue eyed, dark skinned, she is the closest thing to 'gazelle-like' I can imagine. It was absolutely heartbreaking to watch.
As I put two-and-two together, I realize that its not the scale's fault that I've begun a long-term relationship with my couch. We all start out so blissfully unaware - of our beauty, our capability, even our joy. Then someone or something comes along and we let it tell us otherwise.
And I don't like being told what to do. Even (especially?) by inanimate objects.
Reverse self-psychologizing? You bet.
I'm not about to run out and replace my diet with candy and fried chicken (fried chicken candy? am I onto something here?) but I'm through beating myself up over an inanimate object. I enjoyed Christmas and all its offerings, guilt-free. I am not in danger of becoming morbidly obese from some Dove chocolates. Especially in the "post-Christmas" season when every commercial makes it sound like you're one step away from the Biggest Loser, I think its important to keep reminding ourselves of this.
Do what you love. At the risk of riffing from Michael Pollan's tagline brevity; "eat some, move some more, mostly cardio."
Tonight I went to the gym and ignored the scale like all the cat hair in my car. Tomorrow, I will be back dancing next to that barefoot pregnant woman.
Then I will have chex-mix for dinner.
///and be allllllright.
Friday, December 24, 2010
The Meaning of Christmas is:
- listening to kids at the mall
- paying $9.99 to see Santa (??)
- watching any and everything being turned into That "Perfect" Gift (a roadside sign on the way home: Give the only gift with taste - a Subway Gift card!....) (sheeesh)
- an enormous. exhausting emotional investment
- wondering why you and your sister can get along perfectly in your own houses, but the moment you're back at your parents, everything she does is annoying.
- seeing old friends and laughing until soup comes out your nose
- being hopeful for the new year
- Feeling guilty, fat and/or alone - atleast once, however briefly. Perhaps all three. Hopefully not on Christmas eve.
- Dealing with it, as a matter of course. Just because it's Christmas, doesn't mean life isn't happening.
- witnessing your family growing and changing
- taking crazy photobooth photos at the mall with your dad
- finally having an occasion to wear those tacky socks
- Andy Williams
- expecting to relax
- being surprisingly irritated - at bad drivers (do they get worse at Christmas, or is it just me?) or at everybody
- finding room to forgive yourself for real or imagined flaws
- giving that same grace to everyone else (including those wicked drivers..)
- letting it ride
- seeing everyone around the beautifully decorated Christmas table for one more year, the same way we've done it for the past 31 years, and wondering what the next year will be like.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Worst of all, Winter takes away all my motivation. Aside from my need to consume thick calorie-laden carbohydrates and sleeping in/then wearing my long johns to work, there's not much I can get excited about. In fact, the only thing that is productive in the wintertime is my cough.
Christmas distractsfor a little while by "requiring" me to purchase shiny things and shiny wrapping paper and create more gooey carbohydrates to eat, but that -at best- is only a temporary fix. There should be an interim holiday in January - like "You're Not Even Close to Being Done but Here's a Mandatory Visit to Jamaica Anyway" holiday. Yeah, I like that.
Two weeks ago, I was coming off a terrific trip to Washington DC (where there was no snow, by the way). I came back re-energized, ready to move into 2011 with new ideas and hope. Was it the sunshine? All the walking? Or was it just not feeling like a crusty, chapped, white blob ...? In DC, one can wear cute winter hats and leather gloves - not the enormous, sexless Russell pants with sweater mittens and fleece-lined bras. Perhaps its simply the wardrobe, or perhaps it was residule Vitamin D from my November trip to Zambia.
Perhaps I should make peace with Winter - play with it a little. But playing with winter is a little like playing with a fuzzy kitten who needs its claws cut. Sure, you may get a few nice cuddles and laughs out of it, but eventually your couch will be shredded, there will be hair everywhere and you'll both feel bad.
It's time for winter to go back to the pound. For now, I'll settle on getting out of my pajamas and making a cup of hot cocoa. Now THAT'S a winter tradition that I can wrap my hands around.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
In lieu of working my butt off, I enjoyed every second outside I could - and ended up having a wonderful two months in a fabulous Minnesota fall. I hit my mileage goal on my bike, so in 6 months time I'll (hopfeully) have a fab new road bike. I caught up with old friends. I fell off a horse (twice!) and got back up (twice!)
There's nothing like doing all the things you normally can't, to make you truly truly appreciate them.
Monday, September 27, 2010
The first incident was through an area of town where a friend of mine had been held up at gun point (twice!). We were walking from a cultural center to well-known diverse street with alot of fun and ethnic restaurants. The distance was about six blocks. I expressed my reservations to said date, mentioning my friend and feeling silly the whole time, and he didn't think it was a big deal.
Quickly, I weighed the alternatives - get into car with said stranger (um, that's a big NO) or both get in our cars and drive the six blocks (seemed silly; wasteful). I did this so quickly, in fact, that I didn't even realize it. So, I caved and we walked. Strangely enough, I wasn't worried about said date (he was, as I would later describe to Dave and Susan, 'kind of a marshmallow"), I was more worried about the neighborhood and who we may encounter.
I don't know if said date thought I was being petulant and spoiled by not wanting to walk through a diverse (and also poorly lit - and did I mention it was RAINING?) neighborhood looking for a cute little hole in the wall. I also don't know why I didn't further elucidate on my discomfort about walking in the neighborhood with a perfect stranger. Looking back on it now, I realize that I didn't want him to think that just because the neighborhood was diverse (ie we were the only white people around) that I felt unsafe. Which is, of course, a stupid and dangerous assumption.
The fact of the matter is that I felt unsafe because I felt unsafe. Full stop.
I'm not going to go much deeper in the socio-economic disparity and race gap, because what I've been thinking about the past few days hasn't centered so much on that, but on realizing something very important:
Men do not appear to think very much about situational safety.
I find this not only unfair, but also sad.
When the second guy led me through a parking garage (which give me the heebies anyway) and acrossed a parking lot, it dawned on me again:
Men just clearly don't think about the situations in the same way that women do. That is, as potential danger zones.
(Also, I need to stop letting men lead me down dark alleyways....)
But I digress. It's not like I freak out and head home immediately after sundown (and one friend put to me - "You've shot guns in Rwanda, I think you can handle THIS"). But rather, as a woman, I take calculated risks all the time. I think about where I park in a parking lot (under a lamppost). I check the backseat of my car before I get into it. I hate it when people walk close behind me (this amuses my boss to no end, who often walks in behind me at work in the mornings.) I stop, pretend to fiddle with something in my bag, and let whomever it is pass me.
I think that smart women, who don't want to be easy targets, think about these things. It doesn't have to rule your life, but you don't have to be a sitting duck either. It takes but a second to park under a lamppost or decide to take a well-lit route rather than ignore that little voice in the back of your head.
But I can still begrudge my male counterparts who don't need - and don't appear - to take these few moments out of their day. And when their unobservance puts me in an awkward situation, I get irritated. I'm irritated that they don't have to think about it and that because of this, they don't really think of it at all. In the end, this leaves me with having to be my own safety advocate, and live with what they may or may not think of me because of it.
And to me, its just maddening that we live in a world where one group of people have to take a few moments to ensure safety, and another group can walk blithely along thinking that a dark alley looks like a good shortcut to dinner, wondering: What the heck is wrong with her?
Saturday, August 07, 2010
This apartment wouldn't be so bad if I were staying here for say, three months, and could make an investment in making in "homey". It has four walls and a roof, doors that lock, and is dry. It has a flush toilet. Linens, a bathtowel. It has a kitchen, with some pots and utensils. It has a refrigerator. There is also a woman that comes in a cleans my dishes, makes my bed and sweeps every day.
Because it's an apartment, I'm assuming there is some sort of automous living that should be happening. I'm down with autonomous living, but I'm unsure of what the expectations are. In a hotel, it's easy - everything is taken care of, and that's what you pay for. If it was as true apartment, I'd do everything myself. But in this pseudo-aparto/hotel complex, I'm confused as to what this cleaning lady provides and what I'm supposed to take on myself. For example, toilet paper. It's been getting dangerously low, and, not one to wait around for someone to rescue me, have taken it upon myself to keep my privates clean. But then I find myself thinking, it is really strange to be sent half way around the world and still have to buy your own (may I say substandard) toilet paper.
The longer I stay there the more I find missing, and the more I'm not sure what I need to provide and what is provided. Not major stuff, but little things that make a difference -like dishtowels, or handsoap. Soap is cheap and easy to buy, but should I have to invest in a dishtowel? In fact, I looked into it, but it seemed dumb to invest $5 in a set of dishtowels that I didn't need longer than three weeks, and wouldn't take back with me. So I used the curtains. Then I got the bright idea to steal a dishtowel from the kitchen at work. Not so bad, but I'm not certain it has been washed in the last month. (I figure it's better than the curtains).
While I'm on the subject of towels - I'm not sure if I'm an especially dirty person, but after one week of using the bathtowel it has started to SMELL. I mean, like body odor and dirt and mold and nastiness. I used it on my face last night and smelled myself for the next three hours. GROSS. I'm confused by this, because as I said before there is a woman that comes in every day. She has changed the sheets on my bed - so what about the towel? Last night I resorted to using my kanga (beach wrap) and left the cleaning lady a note this morning that I think I saw a mushroom patch growing out of the towel and can she please provide a clean one thank you very much. What that out of line? I'm not sure, but I took the toilet paper, she can take the towel.
And the apartment itself comes with its own interesting kinks to work out as well. I get that in most countries outside the US that you need to flip a switch to get the hot water heater running - but it would be _helpful_ if that switch had a label (and was in the bathroom, as opposed to say, the living area). There is also a switch to the stove, which took me a long time to figure out (and almost aborted a friday night cooking marathon). Most interestingly, there is a card slot for the cable box, which sometimes trips, leaving you with only one all Malawian television station. Although I only get four viable channels on cable (the rest being 40 channels devoted to ESPN's Cricket coverage in Sri Lanka), this made my heart palpatate until I figured it out. (You have to remove the card, which has as SIM like device embedded into it and insert it back into the cable box).
It's similar for the wireless connection - everything is done by top up cards. I spent a frustrating evening trying to set up a login/password online when what I really needed to do was go by a top-op card. Which is also difficult to do, by the way, because the apartment is not within walking distance to any marketplace, nor the office. I went to buy a top up card, and was charged the price of units plus a surcharge. I thought I was getting ripped off until someone explained to me that the price doesn't equal the units you buy (as it does it most places).
There's also various amounts of "wildlife" around my apartment. The first night, it was the dog(s). I've written before about the feral dogs in Malawi and, in fact, my old coworker was bit by a dog when in Malawi (as well as one of my friends - Hi Kim!) so I am very careful around them. Most places keep them as guard dogs; my place being no different. Except the dog is tied up RIGHT behind my back door. He's been pretty good ever since (if you like having a feral dog outside your door), but last night I was actually awoken by a dog FIGHT outside my street. It sounded like Cujo and his buddies were taking on a pack of wolves. Strangely, I wasn't really concerned about it, but man. Welcome to Malawi.
There are also huge blackbirds. I thought nothing of them until I woke up one morning hearing what I thought were rats or wild cats on the roof. With most rooves in nice places made of aluminum (you see grass out in the bush), sound travels easily. I heard a very heavy large claws scratching their way across the ceiling. Not being able to fathom how cats could get up there (I've seen few of them) and unwilling to contemplate the rats, I've decided it must be the blackbirds. They are enormous, and have ready access to the roof. From time to time (both at the apartment and the office) I hear them land and scrape their way across the roof. I wish I was a braver person, and had a bb gun, or a broom. Mostly I just hope they don't take my lunch.
Most times, I take these things in stride. A dispassionate traveler, I realize that this is all temporary. As an employee though, I find three and a half weeks is a long time to be inconvenienced - harder still to focus on work when you smell like a rotten towel. I'm reticent to share my troubles with the staff, as they are so solicitous towards my overall comfort, and I've relied on them (I hope) sparingly to explain the mysteries I couldn't figure out on my own.
Mostly, I laugh and shake my head. I've got so much more than most people here, it's shameful to even compare. If the electricity goes out (which it does), I've got two hours of laptop battery for movies and a flashlight for books. If I get sick (which I have), I've got medecine. Keeping things in perspective, this too shall pass. And the perks, while I sit in my spare apartment, is that it makes me desire my new townhouse even more, and dream about all the decorating possibilities.
Inclusive of matching dishtowels :)
Saturday, July 31, 2010
I am currently in Malawi. It's winter here, which means it's chilly, but not freezing. The sunshine (when it's shining) reminds me of early fall in Minnesota, and I half expect to see the leaves changing. I'm taking this as practice, for when I return to Minnesota, "real fall" will be upon me very quickly. Today was cloudy in Lilongwe, but sunny and warm by the lake.
I'm here for work, which is unsurprising to the careful reader by now. It's a promotion of sorts, but feels like an exile. Either way, it's different from the last time I was here, (2006), as a graduate student. That was for three months, this trip is for three weeks. I find that I've come back just a little too late to find my old friends here, although our public haunts still exist (Chez Ntemba, Buchanan's, Harry's bar (although it's moved...)
There are some new buildings (namely, the new Parliament built by the Chinese) and old favorites (Four Season's). There are more advertisements, more cell phone kiosks, and more banks than I remember. The people are still friendly, warm and laugh when they don't understand you, laugh when they do, and well, laugh in general. There is still so much need, but this time I feel more mature, more equipped to handle it.
This time I come back alone, but with more courage. Today I rented a car and drove out to Lake Malawi, weaving between goats and bicyclists, avoiding the steep drop off where the pavement has eroded. I sat in the exact spot I was four years ago, contemplating nearly the same things: life, love, change and kids playing in the waves. Everything feels different, but exactly the same.
Which leaves me wondering - did I ever really leave this place at all? Do we ever, I mean, leave the places we once inhabited? I might have to get another G&T to contemplate that.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
I have a few opinions about this.
First, the pirate issue. Somalia has been without a functioning goverment for NEARLY 20 YEARS. And, last time I checked, if you are sailing around Africa, you have to go by the Somali coast. Geographically, your options are to continue on or turn around. (You may also go out into deeper waters where the pirates can't get you, but not being a sailor I'm not sure if this was an option for the yachter's). A person can be warned all they want, but if you need to get around Africa, a simple warning isn't going to magically rearrange the Somali coast for you. (Please don't get me started on those ridiculous travel warnings. I think Kansas is probably on there by now. I mean, they might gain more traction if they weren't so busy peddling fear.)
Secondly, did you catch the part about Somalia being without a government for nearly 20 years? It seems to me that the French yachters, by being forced to pay their own rescue costs, are being penalized for a failed state, which to me, should be dealt with on a state level. Why are citizens paying for the lack of action on the part of their state? Isn't that a breach in one of the clauses of the social contract?
On the flip side, there will _always_ be stupid tourists that think that the host government's rules don't apply to them. They will wander whereever they want, smoke/drink whatever they want, fornicate with whatever they want, and think they'll somehow get off the hook. (Case in point: I went to a salon/massage place in Lilongwe this weekend and there was very prominent signage that said "Massages requested to become sexual in nature will not be tolerated and the police will be called." Ew. Could you imagine having to put up a sign like that in a salon in the US? Never.) Even though it pains me to say this, however, I still believe that even they are not exempt from the social protection (they should stay away from me, however).
It sounds as though that, if passed, there will be concessions made for folks like me, who "have to" travel to weird and wicked places for work. But even if this law is meant to "discourage" adventure tourists from taking off to do crazy shit (did you hear about the guy on a tourist visa in Pakistan hunting down Osama Bin Laden?), I have two comments: 1) realistically, what percentage of the population are we talking about and 2) if they are already crazy enough to hunt down Osama bin Laden on their own, and a travel warning didn't stop them, do you really think a fine will impede them?
You might want to invest in a Craze-O-Meter instead.
I also received a donation from an old friend, which unearthed a myriad of complicated feelings. I see it forthe nice gesture that it is (thanks) and wish you well, but I want you to know I'm not ready. I'm ok - happy, even - but I'm not ready to forgive.
PS does your pregnant wife know you that you read my blog?
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
So here I am.
Realizing that I may have bitten off more thant I could chew, I decided to actually try trainining for it. Not heavy duty, mind you, but follow a mileage schedule, and atleast get out on a bike every few days.
This would've worked out perfectly, had this little trip to Rwanda not come up.
It being Africa, bikes are plentiful here, but not the type you'd want to spend a long time training on. One gear. No pedals. Shoddily made. Break pads made out of used up tires. I had emailed our country manager before coming, asking if there were spin bikes available at the hotel gym. He didn't know, but he did offer to put me on a specially designed milk bike (to carry up to 40 liters of liquid milk to market) and let me ride around the hills of Kigali.
When I arrived, it turned out the hotel fitness center was closed for renovation.
Me: "Where's all the equipment?" I asked.
Hotel clerk: "Storage,"
Me: "Could you pull out a bike..?"
Clerk: "No madam, it's in storage."
Me: "Are there any other hotels nearby with fitness centers?"
Me: "How far?"
Clerk: "You could jog there in 5 minutes."
Me: "Can I use it for free?"
Clerk: "No madam, you'll have to pay $5"
Me: "Could I just jog there and back for free?"
I did manage to sneak in to the neighboring gym, under my co-worker's name, using his room number (he took pains to tell me that I couldn't actually stay there with him. That was one weird conversation).
Unfortunately, for all that effort, those bikes were crap. I managed a few piddly workouts, but overall, nothing good.
This week, my female coworker introduced me to her local gym. It has torn up carpet on the floor and no airconditioning, but the spin bikes atleast spin (although their seats leave something to be desired). On Sunday I managed to get in a whopping awesome ride, but I nearly did myself in.
I am a woman of the prairie. Kigali is 5,000 feet above sea-level. My first week, it felt like my wisdom teeth were trying to gnaw their way out my ear drums every morning. It's just one of those things I've noticed when in higher elevations. My body literally DOES NOT COMPUTE. But still, I completely forgot that I wouldn't be nearly as efficient with my oxygen as I normally am, and proceeded to wind myself into stars (and a few stripes). I managed to continue, but received no sympathy from my colleagues at the pool, who pointed out that I hadn't eaten much that day, either.
Ok, so I'm clearly not a training expert.
And then there's the clothing. Bikers aren't exactly known for their loose clothing. Knowing I'd put long hours in, I brought my spandex shorts with the padded crotch but covered myself with an appropriately loose tshirt, thinking this would hide me from prying eyes.
Tonight, I wandered into the same gym to meet up with my coworker, who was running late. Unwittingly, I walked into a gym full of African men, who were very pleased to see me (and my spandex shorts!) Not to be deterred, I pretended it was perfectly normal for a mazungu women to be wearing next to nothing in a room of men, marched directly over to the bike, and let it kick my ass. My co-worker arrived a bit later and laughed at me, the lone piece of dough in a sea of delicious chocolate chips. "That guy next to you is staring at your butt", she whispered.
"That's not all they're staring at!" I told her.
So, please, support my pitiful efforts and donate to fight MS on my webpage. I'll keep updating you on my adventures in training - my idiocy has got to be worth something, right?
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Interestingly enough, I was patted down for firearms and made to go through a metal detector before entering. I asked the security guard if that was a problem and he just shrugged "You'd be surprised." Sadly, I'm not really surprised. From what I hear and read, there is still much healing going on within the government and among civilians. Few individuals have been convicted of perpetrating the mass slaughter of 800,000; most live in the same area, same region as those they tried or supported killing. There's still alot of work to do.
The museum itself walks through the history of the region, of Rwandan colonialisation and the activities leading up to, during and after the genocide (including the inaction of the UN). Done in three languages, it was informative without being overtly graphic, and factual without inciting futher debate.
The most difficult room for me was the children's memorial. Here they had chosen to larger poster size photos of beautiful children affected by the genocide, under which was listed:
Likes: chocolate milk
Personality: Outgoing, smiley
Last words: UNAMIR will come for us
Died: Tortured to death
(PS UNAMIR came too late)
Personality: shy, kind
Best friend: her sister, Antoinette
Died: machete to head
Imagine a whole room of that, accompanied by smiling faces, shy smiles and chubby cheeks. I was in despair. I went outside to the surrounding gardens to catch a breath of fresh air. Each gardne has their own meaning. A rose garden stands to commemorate the victims, three gardens outlined Rwandan Unity, Discord and Reconciliation, respectively.
Further on, below the main hall, are large slabs of concrete and a wall of every growing names. These are the mass graves. Over 250,000 people are buried at this museum. As they are exhumed from other places, they are brought here. Some are identified, some not. The museum is a tribute to educate, but also to honor those who were so disquietingly dishonored.
I left with a heavy heart, needing a hug, but glad I came to pay my respects.
In the years following, while the memory has faded for us in the west into the stuff of great heart-wrenching hollywood films, its aftermath remains very real, and very painful, for everyday Rwandans. Today, one is not allowed to identify themselves by ethnicity, and it is not allowed to deny that the genocide exist. However, it's not something you bring up over coffee either. Its certainly awkward for an outsider like me to ask around the office "How was your life affected?" but little dribs and drabs come out.
I discovered from one of our expat staff that in one way or another, everyone has been affected. A few staff take the entire Memorial week off, to spend with what family they have left, or just to mourn. Our country manager had lived in Rwanda during the 1980's, returning home before the genocide, and shared with me his frustration on being unable to help his Tutsi friends escape.
But the story that gave me goosebumps was that of Sebastien.
Our country manager met Sebastien's father in the 80's, they kept in touch, and became close friends. During the genocide, he called every single day to find out if his friend was still alive, and what was happening. Some day's, he couldn't get through. Other times, they described their increasingly alarming situation. As interhame stormed the streets of Kigali, they had to find food wherever they could, often going hungry. They lived in the shadows, in fear. One day, he stopped answering his phone. Our country manger feared the worst.
Year's later, back in Rwanda, our country manager began looking for his friend. The ICRC and other international agencies had set up registration processes and photo boards to help individual's reconnect (think about it - without a cell phone or a photo, or a home to return to, how would you find your family?). Eventually, he found a friend of his friend, who confirmed the worst - he had killed on April 28th, his body most likely dumped in one of the many shallow mass graves around Kigali, or left to rot in the sun. (Interesting side bar: there are few dogs in Rwanda. After feasting on the dead bodies, dogs were systematically hunted to prevent the spread of disease).
However, a son - Sebastien - survived. He was found, and convinced to come and work for our company. It's not clear to me how he survived, but he is a delicate fellow. He's bright, but there's a shadow behind his eyes. I'm told he only made it through because everyone thought he was crazy. Our country manager happened to have photos of his parents from when they were friends in the 80's and Sebastien broke down. He didn't have a thing left to remember them. The interhamwe had destroyed - obliterated - everything.
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Like most of our projects, we help dairy farmers collectively bulk and sell their products through training, cooperative development, and small grants. We spent the day visiting bits and bobs of whom we've helped in the past two years. First,we visited a milk collection center, whose compressor struggles to cool all 5,000 liters of milk when it arrived at once (apparently, they are made to take it a little at a time).
Next, we visited a group of entrepreneurs - small grants recipients - who sell molasses to farmers, which they sprinkle on their fodder, making it more nutritious to the dairy cattle. Their shop was a tiny, windowless storage until at the corner of the open market in Matimba. A group of predominantly wazungu walking through any African market draws attention, and this was no different. Talking with the shop keepers, we were instantly surrounded in a fishbowl of curious onlookers. Nonetheless, I was able to break away and walk around the marketplace, which sold everything from tiny anchovies fresh from Lake Muhazi to women's undergarments (no packaging).
On the outskirts of town was Elias, a Muslim farmer who lived on a large plot of land and had a thriving family. Our project gave him an inkind grant of napier grass, and he choose to invest some of his own money (besides land and labor) to purchase more. As we walked through his impressive banana grove, we could glimpse the scrubby Ugandan countryside across the valley. We had just missed meeting his cow, who had gone into heat that morning and was rushed to find the nearest bull. I shook his hand and offered my congratulations. He laughed. A successful calf would double his dairy production, and was good news indeed!
We stopped for a simple lunch at the Savannah cafe in Nyagatare. Our choices were starchy - rice, mutoki (banana), chips (french fries), mashed cassava or sweet potato (the white kind, not what you'd find in the US). For protein, there were eggs, beef, beans or mashed up ground nuts (peanuts). I got the rice and groundnuts, and was surprised only for a moment when a bowl of purple mush showed up, until I realized that they'd blended the nuts without the shell, but with the skin on. So basiclaly, I had purple peanutbutter rice for lunch.
(My colleague got so much rice that the waitress actually came back and "reposessed" some of it for another lunch order when she wasn't looking. No explanation, she just plopped her spoon right in the rice when Gretchen wasn't looking and took it away... kept a firm hand on my peanut butter mush after that...)
After lunch, we visited a very friendly lady and her neighbor, both living with HIV/AIDs. She had used our small grant to create silage to feed their only cow. Although there was a language barrier, we sat and chatted in the shade of her house for several minutes. She was embarassed that we were sitting on (essentially) her stoop, and it wasn't very clean. I liked this woman the best, because she took our hands and laughed with us. Plus, she asked alot of questions, and was clearly excited to have us see her cross bred cow, which provided nutrition and income for her family. Cows in Rwanda (and Uganda) tend to be either Ankole (local), Freisan (Holstein) or a mix.
We walked up the road to a small milk shop, where this woman sells her milk every day. Betty (the milk shop owner) buys 15 liters of milk a day, and sells it to other neighbors after boiling it. There doesn't seem much incentive to sell to Betty, but community members do it, rather than sell directly to their own neighbors. (I didn't quite understand that, but there must be a reason). Next door is a women's sewing cooperative, which decided to buy a cow and collectively care for it. I enjoyed watching them work on the old fashioned Singer sewing machines (pedal pump) circa 1890 (and in good condition!)
We stopped for a sunset beer on Lake Muhazi on the way home, but it was clear we were all knackered. Overall, it was a great way to spend a day, but I was happy to hit the bed when I arrived 'home'.
However, this time around, the weirdness was also doubly stuffed with dynamics brought in by an important conference, and some surprising staff changes back home. Add dusting off some underutilized French skills while worrying about an ill mother and a newly purchased home (what if it burns down while I'm away?) and you've got a week that not even a gin and tonic can fix.
The conference ended yesterday, and I celebrated by crawling into my hotel bed and pulling the sheets up over my head.
There are things about Rwanda, though, that have not escaped my stressful orbit. One, there is very little garbage. Smog, yes; garbage, not so much. Paul Kagame apparently runs a very tight ship around here, and it's appreciated. It is also very hilly - they weren't kidding. Watching the cloud shadows play through the numerous valley's in the early morning sunshine is a pleasure worth taking.
Two, any mention of ethnicities is completely forbidden. In the wake of the Belgian's requiring culutural identification on national identity cards in the early 1900's, contributing to the bifurcation that precipitated the 1994 genocide, it is now illegal to openly discuss one's ethnic background, for better or worse.
Three, Rwandan French is much, much easier to understand than West African French.
Four, I am three degrees below the equator and should've packed more sunscreen.
Five, the universe still conspires to find goodness, even amongst stress.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
As usual, from our friends over at Wiki:
The Republic of Rwanda, known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, is a landlocked country located in the Great Lakes region of eastern-central Africa, bordered by Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. Although close to the equator, the country has a cool temperate climate due to its high elevation. The terrain consists mostly of grassy uplands and gently rolling hills. Abundant wildlife, including rare mountain gorillas, have resulted in tourism becoming one of the biggest sectors of the country's economy.
Rwanda has received considerable international attention due to its 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed. Since then the country has made a recovery and is now considered as a model for developing countries. In 2009 a CNN report labeled Rwanda as Africa's biggest success story, having achieved stability, economic growth (average income has tripled in the past ten years) and international integration. The government is widely seen as one of the more efficient and honest ones in Africa. In 2007 Fortune magazine published an article titled "Why CEOs Love Rwanda." 
The capital, Kigali, is the first city in Africa to be awarded the Habitat Scroll of Honor Award in the recognition of its "cleanliness, security and urban conservation model."  In 2008, Rwanda became the first country to elect a national legislature in which a majority of members were women. Rwanda joined the Commonwealth of Nations on 29 November 2009 as its fifty-fourth member, making the country one of only two in the Commonwealth without a British colonial past
Monday, May 03, 2010
Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.
Friday, April 23, 2010
As one of my coworkers said " At some point the developing world is going to tell us to stop bothering them….learn this, do that, poop in this…"
Sunday, April 11, 2010
I was lucky enough to be on a panel with two other smart, much more experienced women, so I learned alot just by being there. Echoing my experience earlier in the week, the women asked alot about money (how did you manage to follow your dreams when the bills are knocking at the door?), juggling family and dreams, and what I've come to acknowledge as the Baby Issue.
Ah yes, the Baby Issue. One that every woman must contemplate (some longer than others), or maddeningly, is contemplated for her. My my uncle said the other day that he and our hometown pastor had talked and both agreed: I'd better "hurry up. The clock is ticking." My uncle is one thing - he actually understands these issues - but I find it more than a little creepy that my pastor is thinking - and has an opinion on - my babymaking junk!
Admittedly, this gets even trickier when you throw an international trip (or three) in there. How does one even begin to date, let alone start a family, when you have to leave for Pakistan in a week? My male (and also perpetually single) colleague and I contemplate this often. One, it's very hard to find someone who can locate Pakistan on the map and two, is cool with you running off there (where you might not come back).
The answer: it all comes down to choices. I personally don't see this as just a male/female issue, as both genders have to make -and are beholden to the consequences of - their choices. It will mean my partner and I (or just me, who knows?) making the choice to stay home and enjoy toddler hugs rather than work on a grant that brings fresh water to Iraqi widows. At some point, that flexibility of being able to stay in Sri Lanka for six weeks is gonna have to give (which is why I'm enjoying the crap out of it now). It also means supporting my female colleague who have to leave at 2:30 because their children are sick, even though you had an important meeting with them at 3. (In this case, I hope the flexibility I'm paying in comes back to me...)
One of the panelists mentioned that she had many professional female friends who were workaholics really struggled with dating, marriage and the Baby Issue. "And some of these women," she warned, "Have decided to go it alone, either biologically or through adoption, thus becoming single mothers on top of everything else!"
To which I thought to myself: Since when did becoming a (gasp) "single mother" become a pejorative term? But that's another story for another blogpost.
What I wanted to tell these women is what I mentioned at the end of my previous post: be comfortable with the grey areas. Make friends with not getting everything you want and not pleasing everyone all the time. I don't know what the answers are, only that I know much like the earlier non-baby part of my life, choices will have to be made - and lived with.
The strange - and frustrating - thing about the Baby Issue, is that everyone seems to have an opinion about it, when in actuality, I'm the only one who has to be comfortable with it.
And the part that I really, really struggle with is not the Baby Issue, it's finding the grace to just smile in the face of everyone else's opinion's about my babymaking junk. That just gets harder and harder with time.
Through various twists and turns, contacts and networking, two different folks asked me months ago if I would consider speaking on generally the same topic: my job, and being a woman working in the international arena. Being a raging narcissist, in love with her job and used to shooting her mouth off in public, who was I to say no? :)
It just so happened they both fell on the same week. For the first one, on Wednesday, I headed down to the MN arboretum in Chaska for the Minnesota Agricultural Leadership Conference. (PS the Arboretum is AMAZING). I hosted a breakout session on my job, my company and what we're doing to help women around the globe. The audience were farmwifes, FFAer's, Farm Bureau and Farm Credit employees, and a host of other women involved in agriculture.
I alternatively love the agricultural community, and am at odds with it. I grew up on a conventional small-grain farm, of mid-size. We are not organic, although I follow the organic argument closely (as evidenced by my earlier blogs). I love the smell of the soil, field full of amber waves of grain (no lie!) and combines moving slowly across the plains at dusk, in a haze of chaff. I am drawn to people with a no-nonsense, hardworking, dry-humored, self-effacing personality. I find Ole and Lena jokes hilarious.
Although I enjoy - and even love - these things - I don't think I'll ever be apart of this community. First, I am most decidedly not a Republican. I see taxes as a necessary part of our Social Contract (I've seen what happens in countries where no one pays them). I read the New Yorker. I love high heels. Hogs do not make my limbs tingle. (One woman I met told me that she'd love to travel more, but she's marrying a hog farmer. I had to suppress the urge to take her aside and tell her to RUN. RUN FAST.)
It's so strange. I was drawn in at the conference; these women are strong, educated, competent, living their passion, just like me. Aside from the politics, we're pretty much the same. Then why is it that the agricultural community gets such a bad rap for being stupid hicks? When I lived in DC, I would often get the remark that I "didn't look like I was from a farm". (WTF?) My stock answer was that I only broke out my overalls for special occasions.
My brother received a book for Christmas called Hollowing Out the Middle, about the brain drain and subsequent decline of small towns. This is a real problem, as towns get smaller, but still need city clerks, smart mayors, and a tax base to keep themselves alive. So, how do we stop people from leaving? How do we invigorate smalltown communities where memories of Lick m' Sticks at Ben Franklin's and DQ ice cream after swimming lessons still live?
How can I even contemplate this without looking at my own choice in lifestyle? It's very painful to realize you want to fix a problem, but you don't want to put forth the skin to be part of the solution. I could never, never move back to my hometown. I am often in awe of my brother, who did just that, and is now doing his part to find grant funding to keep our community alive. I am in awe of my best friend, who farms with her brother, in the adjacent community. I am in awe, and I find myself lacking. They've got the guts, and I've got...a speaking engagement.
What's even funnier is that my friends in DC look to me as the agriculture "expert". I laugh, ruefully.
So, I'm stuck. I'm stuck working for an agricultural conglomerate in the big city, visiting my dying hometown for Christmas, Easter and the occasional funeral, and speaking to the community as if I know exactly what they're going through. I thought by moving back to Minnesota that I'd finally marry my two passions, but it seems, I'm just as mixed up as before. As I grow older, I am finding that it's not enough to recognize the world is not black and white, but to be comfortable with the very large grey part in the middle.
Monday, April 05, 2010
Enter the Humane Society.
My friend Kaydi helped me pick out Ruby, aka Angus Destroyer of My Couch. She has quickly turned into my loud, complian-y, carpet-shredding, fuzz-leaving, feline mother. In the end, I swapped being in love with one hairy animal for another.
Today, she woke me up at 4am by sneezing in my face.
Despite all these drawbacks, Ruby has wiggled her way into my heart. To honor her contribution to my household, I am walking in the Animal Humane Society Walk for Animals. Our team is named the "Faux Paws". This year, we're walking for my friend Kaydi's dog Hank, who was recently diagnosed with cancer (yes, they can get it!).
Please consider making a donation on my website so that animals like Ruby will continue to find good homes.
Monday, February 22, 2010
For the most part, I’m able to fly under the radar. I pack light (avoiding baggage restrictions/fees/checked luggage), grasp the concept of the 3 oz. rule, and can get in and out of security in less than one minute – shoes and laptop included - if there’s no line.
However, not only is each country different, but each airline also has different rules. Getting on the aircraft is only half the battle.
Once on, you’re in “their” territory and they way they treat you depends strictly, on classism, (and, I believe, more and more on the fickle attitudes of flight attendants).
First, if you can afford, literally, a higher class ticket, then you’ll have a better seat. You’ll get a bit more room, free alcohol (US domestic flights), actual silverware, and a private bathroom near the (gasp!) cockpit (apparently, first class passengers couldn’t possibly be terrorists, or terrorists haven’t yet scraped together enough clams for these exorbitantly priced seats).
Secondly, the flight attendants, who have got to have the worst jobs I the world, have obviously caught on. They are, for the most part, very grumpy individuals (except for those beautiful Singpore airline stewardesses, but I’m convinced that they’re fembots). It’s their job to enforce baseless, fickle rules, such as keeping your electronic devices shut off until you reach cruising altitude, lest they interfere with the plane’s operation.
Speaking as a person who has both a) accidentally left her phone on for an entire flight and b) once called her sister, who’s phone rang (and she answered!) while in flight, and I call complete and total shenanigans on this one.
Ipods pose a particularly interesting problem, as they have no on/off switch. There’s a “freeze” button, but you can certainly “freeze” it in the on position as well as off. Furthermore, overseas, they’ve mostly dropped this rule – it’s only in the hyper sensitive US that we still believe this baloney.
(Save the South African airways attendant who insisted that I take my earbuds out my ears, even though my DVD player was no only off, the battery was completely dead. I was keeping the buds in to drown out the noise of the engines. I tried explaining this to her several times but she stood fast. I was tempted to tell her I had a hearing condition, but being that my desire to get home superceded my desire to make a point, I took them out. )
But that’s just it, no matter what you do, the airlines have the trump card: they can throw you off. Not only that, they can throw you in JAIL. So you have to take out your earbuds, sit up straight, stow your tray tables, do jumping jacks – whatever they require! Somehow, I missed the forfeiture of my rights in the fine print.
In the US, if you’re leaving the country, you can take as much water/liquids with you as you want. Woe be the person returning, however, with so much as a bottle of water for a sixteen hour flight. I find this downright inhumane. The human body NEEDS water. How can the US government deny us this need? What’s next, air?
Aren’t we more secure?, you may be asking, What about the Greater Good? I agree, to some extent, an airplane ride may be tantamount to a social contract. We are all, literally, headed towards the same goal. It makes sense that we have a basic modicum of expectations and rules. When I get on a flight, I don’t expect to be able to act like I do at home; I am, in fact, in public.
However, airlines are taking this too far, all in the name of profit margin. While the US government has upped security requirements, they’ve lowered services, and the only one that gets pinched are THE PASSENGERS. They’re pinching their steady revenue source, and ultimately, shooting themselves in the foot. They’ll soon fine that this “steady” revenue source is more price sensitive than they thought. The more they push us cattle-class to the margins, families and other casual traveler’s will switch to other, more affordable, less Machiavellian forms of transport - like walking across hot stones.
With the advent of global telecommunications, more and more businesses will choose to stay at home, and hop on their WebEx instead.
I want to sympathize with the global airline industry, I really do.
But I also want to keep my earbuds in.
In fact, during my trip to Italy in November, my friend had asked my opinion about it. A fan of the Slow Food revolution (which started there), she was eager to see what I thought. I sheepishly mentioned something vaguely about not being able to “get into it” and noted that she, mercifully, is not a big follower of my blog.
This, plus upcoming long flight to South Africa, lead me to slip it into my back before I left. Plus, I reasoned, it’s soft cover. My general travel M.O is to bring softcovers and leave them behind when I’m finished, thus lightening my load. (This does not apply to hardcovers, library books or anything I haven’t finished). So, if I finished, or got bored with Mr. Pollan, I could leave him behind.
Somewhere between Livingstone and Lusaka, while waiting for my internet connection to work, I pulled it out. (I find that distracting myself while things “load” lessens my desire to chuck the entire computer out the window). At any rate, I kind of got into it. He outlines the food chain for three types of meals: corn fed (industrial agriculture), grass fed (for lack of a better word, alternative (?) agriculture) and hunting/foraging.
Yes, he gets a little over philosophical - and down right weepy - in parts, especially about hunting. The chapters on industrial agriculture, where he uncovers the insidiousness of corn and how it has transformed our food chain was actually really interesting. I’d always wondered how corn was refined into High Fructose Corn Syrup, for example. Similarly, his outlining of the rise and dissonance between “Big” and “Little” Organic farming was quite revealing, and refreshing. Overall, the book was informative, if slanted under a liberal gaze. (Being a liberal myself, I didn’t so much mind this, but it was quite obvious in places, which I found annoying. I skimmed.)
My favorite passage was near the end, when he muses that it wouldn’t be possible to eat all meals like the first one (McDonald) or all meals like the last (foraged all by hand), but that there had to be some ground in the middle.
I still have criticism though – my book states it was a history of four meals: Corn-fed, grass-fed and foraged. That’s only three. Was this a printing typo, or was I supposed to make a meal of the book, too? I left it in the seat pocket of my flight from Lusaka to Johannesburg for the next person to figure that out.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Monday, January 18, 2010
Now, I'm not critcizing these establishments. In fact, this was a tactic that I, in my fundraising years, found terribly effective. I get it, but it smacks of "slacktivism". Let's pull out wikipedia:
Slacktivism (sometimes slactivism) is a portmanteau formed out of the words slacker and activism. The word is considered a pejorative term that describes "feel-good" measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts also tend to require little personal effort from the slacktivist. Examples of activities labeled as "slacktivist" include signing internet petitions, the wearing of wristbands ("awareness bracelets") with political messages, putting a ribbon magnet on a vehicle or joining a Facebook group.
I understand that donating does make an actual difference. But so does volunteering your time. Again, after the fifth store, I was kind of apathetic to those hungry/homeless/handicapped kids. A dollar here, a dollar there, bada-bing, bada-boom! Problem solved.
It just felt a little too...easy.
Shouldn't one take time to know and understand the issues at play? Why is childhood homeless a problem? Why isn't there enough food? What is happening in these neighborhood's that kids aren't safe to live? Who took all their toys?? Perhaps I'm just a purist. Perhaps I think about things too much (this charge has been levvyed against me before). But throwing money at a problem, signing an online petition, or becoming a "Fan" on facebook, seems - well, sad.
I realize that this may be untenable for most. For those, go ahead; give your dollar - I'm sure it will go towards good. But don't you want to get engaged in the world? Then get some skin in the game. Get active. Be curious. Find a cause and throw your weight into it.
Speaking from experience, personal investment has a higher rate of return than anything else.