Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Art of Learning New Places

I woke up this morning and couldn't believe that I was still in Malawi. I can't believe that I've been here this long (and this short) and how much I've learned (and still have left to learn). Much of this learning is work related, but some of it is just the plain old every day knowledge needed to be comfortable - to live- while I'm here.

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 :)

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