October 22, 2012

The Not Evil Empire


I am back in America now and beginning to readjust.  I'm living with Natalie and Elizabeth, two fellow Uganda RPCVs.  I'm extremely fortunate in this regard as both have been incredible resources, confidants, and friends.  Readjustment isn't so bad and I feel good.  My financial situation is pretty ugly but that's because I spent half of my readjustment allowance traveling after leaving Uganda.  No regrets there.  Being in America without a job may be like being in Uganda without a mosquito net, uncomfortable in the near term and likely ruinous in the long term.  So I'm looking for a job and writing the occasional article for the Peace Corps San Diego newsletter because it makes me happy.  Here's October's.

***  

It's the double vision of a people whose hearts don't like what their desires have created.”
-Jonathon Franzen

I found myself in a lovely pedestrian mall in Budapest on a sunny day last August. A Wednesday. I was holding a solitary pre-noon vigil at a bronze statue of Ronald Reagan. I was doing this because I was at a delightful place in life which found me both curious and unemployed. Delightful because this was still a novel thing. Unemployment and curiosity. Nothing says unemployment and curiosity quite like solitary Wednesday pre-noon vigils of bronze Ronald Reagan statues in Budapest. The route leading to this particular collision of time, person and place started with a cheap flight, a Russian Pricewaterhouse Cooper human resourcer, and a late night stroll for ice cream.

I had arrived in Budapest from, well it isn't important, via a cheap flight. That was how I was choosing the destinations for this trip. I was being put up in a gorgeous flat that was inhabited by a lovely young Russian who worked one of those jobs that requires conference calls, business casual, and the deft management of office politics. Her name was Ksenia and she was Russian. The previous nights had been filled with conversation, cold tomato soup and wine. One of those nights we had taken a stroll for ice cream and that late stroll led us eventually to the US embassy located in a busy pedestrian mall.

“I wanted you to see this,” she said to me. The embassy was quite similar to the last embassy I had been to back in Uganda. It had the same high fences, the same drab gray color scheme and the same perimeter of steel pylons. Unlike the embassy in Kampala, the steel pylons here cut through the adjacent pedestrian mall and children's park. It was a bunker surrounded by cheerful and old European architecture.

Near the embassy was a large bronze statue that was...really?...Ronald Reagan? There was an inscription that read, “A simple country boy against the evil empire.” I looked over at the evil empress that was letting me crash on her couch and feeding me cold tomato soup. “I think that means you,” I told her. But that wasn't true. Her parents had probably been a part of the evil empire, but that was probably before she was born. An eighties baby. She was just a Russian now.

The next day she went to work and I went back to the statue. I wanted to see it in the daylight. I didn't know any great Hungarians in history and was fairly certain that there were no bronze statues of them anywhere in America, busy pedestrian malls or otherwise. It seemed odd that Ronald Reagan was enshrined here and that he was accredited with the toppling of the soviet empire. I'm not sure what toppled the soviet empire. I don't think anyone really does. These things are explainable only after the fact. My feeling was that Ronald Reagan deserved a bronze statue in Budapest about as much as Barack Obama deserved the Nobel Peace prize.

If there are two competing empires and one empire is the Evil one than the other empire must be the Not Evil Empire. That would be us. But the Not Evil Empire is still an empire. An empire that needs a perimeter of steel pylons around its buildings. You see, you need a strong perimeter for all the people who don't realize that you're the Not Evil Empire. But evil or not, an empire is an empire. On the spectrum of Soviet Russia to Reagan America, it might be better to find yourself in Switzerland.

I was frustrated with the embassy in Budapest. It didn't seem to represent the America that I knew. The America that was optimistic, hopeful and open. The building was the representation of an America that was afraid, uncertain and closed. When did this happen? When did Ellis Island and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Bill of Rights turn into Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, and Chinese debt?

I sat on that park bench in Budapest thinking these thoughts and working myself into a towering indignation. I decided to do something about all this! I decided to do something very American. I was going to write a letter and complain.

I quickly ran into a couple problems. Not the least of which was to whom does one address a letter about the troubling state of affairs in American embassies abroad? In the weeks that followed I wrote and rewrote my letter but never could think of a satisfactory recipient. Neither could I find the left-right-cross-hook-uppercut to the jaw conclusion for the letter. Without an address, or even really a point to make, the letter languished in my journal.

It wasn't until I got back to America after three years away that I realized that our embassies represent us as a country quite well. To paraphrase rapper Mos Def, sometimes it's easy to talk about our government like it's some giant living up in the hills. But we are the government. So when we ask: What is our government doing? Where is our government going? We should ask: How am I doing? Where am I going? The embassies are how they are because we are how we are.

America is a place where too many people don't know their neighbors let alone their farmers. It's a place where 24 hour cable news manages to turn debate into farce while the rest of the world grows and turns and sometimes burns. That's why I couldn't find anyone to address my letter to—there's no embassy czar in charge of all this. The embassy and it's high walls in Budapest is the sum total of the ambitions, triumphs and fears of the 300 million or so people that call America home. To change the embassy requires a change in us.

February 6, 2012

a handle bar mustache bandit rides into the sunset

Yes.  This is from THE DAY.
This is the speech I delivered to my fellow PCVs at our Close of Service conference, the last gathering attended by everyone.  During and since the conference I've felt that same feeling you feel in your stomach when you are young and in love or when something really awful happened to you or when someone has died.  A heavy, dull ache.  I'll write about that later.  Anyways, I lot of inside jokes here.  Don't worry about it.

I watched Lukas as he stepped away from the podium having delivered his Swearing In “MUZUNGU!” speech. He had something or other about our role as proverbial Boda Men (and Women) asking people where they're going and how we can help them get there.  I marinated on that for a minute and after several other event formalities we broke into fragments of small talk, photos, and hors d'ouvres.

It’s worth noting that this scenario now terrifies me.  Small talk.  I don’t know how to talk about much outside of literature, metaphysics, the doings and transpirings of The Group, and, well, poop. 

(It was pencil thin, though completely solid, and very lightly colored the other day.  First time in two years it’s looked like this.  It’s incredible!)

Anyways there I am in a linen suit peering through the fog of a hangover and out from a Beatle-ish mop top and over a handlebar mustache which I had carved the previous night.  There I am.  I saw the Ambassador schmoozing his way in my direction.  He paused, gave me a once over, extended his hand and said “When the going gets weird, the weird get going.”  Yes sir they do.  That is indeed what they do.  It did get weird and we did get going and now here we are.

 And we are weird.  Really weird.  Not unique, special, different or any other euphemism.  That would neuter the description.  We’re weird. 

Just agreeing to come here and do this whole thing is weird enough.  How many of your friends took this ever so scenic route after college or retirement?  Can you count them off on one hand?  We are a self selecting banditry of weirdness, as weird as a troop of monkeys.  More weird than a troop of monkeys.  We started out weird and for better or worse we’ve gotten weirder.

For the worse we’ve become painfully frugal.  I’ll just say flat out cheap.  If it’s free we’ll eat it or drink it or pack it home on the six hour bus ride.  We’ve developed questionable hygiene practices.  Like the opposite of immaculate…de-mamaculate if you will.  We’ve pooped (see there it is again: poop talk) on shoes, buses, river beds, caveras, and Lake Victorias.  We’ve pooped in so many places and so many circumstances that hovering over a hole in the ground seems normal rather than cause célèbre.   And after two years in the mosh pits that pass for lines here, we often confuse boorishness with assertiveness; long ago having determined dignity exchanged for “fairness” to be a reasonable bargain.

But our little band has become weirder for the better as well.  Perhaps you’ve become savvy to the complicated truths of the world.  Maybe you’ve become more disciplined in some regards and less uptight in others.  Or maybe you’ve learned to cook or garden or raise a dog.  You know your specifics better than me.  There isn’t much that’s universal about the Peace Corps experience.  It’s a fit custom tailored for you.

But here we are a clan of 29 goofballs, husbands, hippies, warlocks, pilgrims, poofs and gurus sharing 29 iterations of one common experience.  We’ve been away from all those influences from back home.  Away from the family and friends, the career, the culture, the comforts; we have been forced to muddle through this whole thing as best as we could. 

As only we could. 

The things you’ve said and done and thought these past two years are Who You Are.  It’s been two years.  Nobody can fake it that long.  I’ve never felt more true to myself than I do right now and that’s the Grand Universal Peace Corps Truth.  And while that authenticity shouldn’t be weird it certainly seems to be and that’s something we all share. 

So I hope we all hold on to what we’ve found in ourselves.  And I hope we don’t stop exploring just because we’re finishing with our service.  I’ve got the emotional sophistication of a 15 year old boy with a Victoria’s Secret catalogue but I hope that if you feel like crying you’re not doing it because this is the end and you’re going to miss pooping in a hole and talking to your friends about it.  Even if the end is hard, you don’t want to be in Peace Corps forever.  Of that I am certain.

Rather I hope that we can all cherish the past, accept the present and embrace the future.  We’ve got some heavy hitters in our group and I’m so excited to see where we all end up next.  I know we’ll still travel around…meet people…get into adventures…you know, wander the Earth.  Be thankful for the experience but don’t linger too long looking back.  Look forward to all the awesome things coming our way.  Keep going forward, straight on ‘till dawn.

In his swearing in speech, Lukas told us that we were Boda Men (and Women) and our job was to ask people where they were going and how we could help them get there.  I think that we’re spaceships.  Really weird spaceships.  Tearing through the heavens at the speed of light.  And space ships don’t come equipped with rearview mirrors.
These people.

December 3, 2011

and it all briefly comes together


Words words words.  I don't know how to start.  It's becoming the dry season now, daily rains giving way to long hot dusty days.  The school is deserted, the teachers and students moving back into the deep village for harvesting.  It's quiet.

I've found that my frustrations and cynicisms and despairs pile up over time.  Like shoots of tough savanna grass they grow green and fresh in isolation and a fertile disposition, before they turn brown dead and dry as time marches on.  Like an unkempt garden these frustrations grow into a prickly thicket, eventually obscuring even tomorrow's limitless promise and possibility.  The process is gradual but the effect is cumulative.

But the clearance happens suddenly like a flame front across the plains.  Instantaneous.  An experience, a good experience, sometimes only a moment, so powerfully good that it wipes out weeks of the thorny nagging underbrush leaving behind only fresh scorched earth.  Clean fertile earth to try it all over again.  The lows are powerfully low, but the highs are intoxicating in their intensity.  Cycles of despair and euphoria.

We finished up the term.  And it finished.  

Before we as a staff collectively broke huddle for the year we congregated for one last event, the end of year staff party.  The event started late and there were long speeches from bloviating politicians (or rather their junior emissaries) and blah blah blah.  That's not important.  We ate a tremendous spread of fried chicken, cassava, pasta, rice, goat, beef, fish, salad and then Got. It. On.

A sound system was hired and several crates of beer were ordered and we started doing togetherness.  In the past I've been hesitant to linger too long at these get togethers, perhaps equal parts sober concern for my reputation and a middle school boy's fear of the dance floor.  The music is a reggeton/afro/acholi quick beat that made me look exactly what you think a white guy dancing with a bunch of African's would look like.  Enough to shatter any delicate male ego.  

With a single beer's assistance I set sail on those turbulent seas, trying to find paths of rhythms and the crests of bass lines.  Mr. Okema saw me swimming (sinking) and came to my aid.  "Uh huh, good!" as he choreographed  "Now do like this."  And I started to get it kinda.  Either that or more likely I picked up another bottle of assistance.

(Digression: I don't know if there's a name for it but the night's weapon of choice was a big 500ml bottle of Senator beer spiked with a shot of Waragi gin.  For the home bartender: buy a bottle of the cheapest high octane beer you can find, leave it in the sun for a day or so and then, still warm, open it and add some vodka or gin (any kind that comes in a plastic bottle will do) and drink it.  Hooray!)

The tribal dance here is incredible.  The Acholi school children win the national dance competitions on the regular and for good reason.  Hips neck feet and drums in a flurry of coordinated contortions and culture.  It's a joy to live in this region and witness these things.  What would those bored screen addled American suburbanites give to have a culture like this, all they own?  

So there I was.  We were.  The syncopated bouncing mob.  Boozy, happy, dancing.  Gaining confidence and BAC I was beginning to surf the lines of music.  First was the school secretary Filda, maternal, unusually exuberant, though characteristically dignified as she approached and bounced and danced, circling around ululating.  She flipped off back into the mass of now sweating bodies but she had opened the floodgates.  Some recently graduated A level students, staffers, teachers, wives of teachers, children of teachers, students of children of wives of teachers (just kidding) all had a go at me.  

One young woman came at me gale force in a hurricane of confidence, hips and vitality.  A thick woman in an ankle length dress and covered shoulders who radiated a sexuality more fierce than her thin designer jean gym toned counterparts in college bars across America.  She was a force.  FORCE.  I've never felt anything like it.  As she trailed away she glanced back over her shoulder looking like "I just launched you into outer space, huh." Raised eyebrows and a noiseless whistle was my only reply.  Because I had already torn past the moon and Mars and was zipping by Neptune.  

At three thousand feet per second.

As I made the solitary walk home from the party, head still buzzing from cheap alcohol and the peculiar electricity that I imagine is only felt among the flirtatious youth, I realized that this had been the best party I had ever attended.  It wasn't the food, the dancing, the drinking though they all played their part.  It was the sense that I had finally found the people around me and that they had found me.  For one night we punted everything out the window and just became people.  People with faces and fingers and toes.  I didn't feel like a white guy, an American, a math teacher, any of that.  I felt together.

And just like that weeks of frustration were razed to the ground and I get to start fresh all over again.  Two days later and I'm still glowing.  I chased off three people who thought I was away and had come to rob my house.  I fished a dead rancid rotting lizard out of my sofa cushions when I noticed the horrible smell.  I ate beans and rice for three hundred and eightieth sixth time.  But I don't care.  I love it here.  The highs tower above the lows.

The next morning I woke up early and went to get a cup of milk tea and a plate of cassava.  I saw a co-reveler from the night before.  He politely inquired about the status of my hangover (incredibly non-existent) before, like a proud father, adding, "You learned a lot last night."

And I was like "yeah."

November 1, 2011

some (other) thoughts I think


One of the Volunteers here had originally joined in the '60s and had served briefly in Somalia before getting evacuated to India.  I bought a guitar when I first arrived here (that would be failed teach my self guitar attempt number 3) and he came over for Thanksgiving and played it.  He described his guitar playing as a nice relic of his first stint in Peace Corps and it's something that made an impression on me.  Relics of Peace Corps service.  I've picked up a couple languages, read a bunch of good books, filled up my passport and made some life long friends.

I was in the staff room one morning preparing some of my lesson notes when the fine art teacher, Mr. Okema, pulled up at my table as asked if he could sketch me.  Do I have to pose?  Nope.  Well sure, fire away.  I continued working and he started sketching and by the time I had finished my notes he had a rough sketch on paper.  He fleshed it out for two full days, then he colored it in and gave it to me as a present.  I've become so image desensitized probably due to the ubiquity of digital cameras and the way they can machine-gun images out into the world.  I hadn't even considered having my portrait done by an artist.  I had forgotten that that was an option.

It was such a valuable thing to receive as a gift.  It was a time consuming labor of love executed by a friend of mine exercising his considerable talent for my benefit.  And it was unsolicited.  It is, perhaps, my favorite gift and once framed will be a very tangible relic of my Peace Corps service.
Candid shots are so difficult here.  The only thing more conspicuous than being the one white guy at a 1,000 person strong gathering is to be a white guy holding a camera.  Most shots taken by local photographers are posed portrait shots.  During big events when everyone is all dressed up, there is a village photographer who goes around snapping portraits and charging about 30 cents a piece to develop them.  He comes back several days later with a messenger bag full of pictures which he returns to his customers.  I have no idea how he keeps track of who has paid for what photograph but he seems to be doing good business as he's got customers whenever he's around.

Now there is a very real possibility that I am missing several layers of nuance and subtlety but 90% of these posed portraits look exactly the same.  It's a very formal affair.  No smiling.  Rigid posture.  Looking off into the distance and never at the camera.  It was kind of funny at first but with a memory card full of rather bland portraits I've been trying to figure a way around it.  I snapped the above shot of the kids from my lap while someone was giving a speech.

Kids here are left pretty much unsupervised by around the time they can walk.  The ever quotable Mr. Owiny quips that the children here "just move anyhow, as if they were goats" which probably doesn't help paint the picture for you as you're likely not familiar with free range goats.   If the child is still crawling they're put under the charge of a (not much) older sibling.  It is quite common to see a girl of about 8-10 years with a baby wrapped to her back with a piece of fabric while she fetches water or fire wood.

There's another aspect about the village children that I really struggle to articulate.  It's like they're not really viewed as people or at least as a person with a name and personality.  Any boy is called merely "boy" and girls are called "girl" in lieu of a name.  It's impossible (for me) to tell which child belongs to which family and where they are supposed to be and when.  Free range children I guess.

September 11, 2011

approximately five thousands words

Well yeah.
Before I got the new ones in a care package, I thought my orignal t-shirts were still white. Nope.Fourth of Ju-ly and long exposure sparklers.Veranda sunsets. It's something like this every night.Hell kittens from hell! 5 kittens, no cat mother, it almost broke me. IT ALMOST BROKE ME!

August 23, 2011

the airport safari cowgirl

In my hammock trying to recreate a look of anxiety. And my hair.

I suffer increasingly powerful anxiety when I'm around...whatever, let's just say it....white people. My Peace Corps brothers and sisters don't really count because we all bathe, figuratively speaking, in the same bucket of dirty water. So generally any white person in Uganda outside of about 140 people mildly freak me out for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me.

Sure I spend a fair amount of time at my site and those prolonged exposures naturally change the way I talk and think and act to the point where western small talk absolutely flummoxes me. Peace Corps talk inevitably devolves (evolves?) towards global politics, the weighty metaphysical, the Development Carnival or... poop (and the quality/consistency of). Village talk with my teaching colleagues usually centers around rain (the absence/presence of) and how "stubborn" our students are (very stubborn).

(Quick aside: A bunch of us were at a bar where we met this German backpacker who was traveling through East Africa. "Oh you guys are in Peace Corps? You guys are all the same, you sit around drinking beer and talking about how much you hate being in Peace Corps." He had a beer with us and then went on his merry little way. When he left, we kept drinking beer and now talked about how much we hated German backpackers. I will always grudgingly admire that man for speaking truth to power or at least truth to a bunch of smelly inebriated PCVs. In our defense I would argue that most of our complaining in merely venting and most of us cherish our experience and opportunities here.)

None of these things (metaphysics, global politics, poop) really interest anyone outside of Peace Corps or at least not in the context of oh-hey-here-we-are-standing-in-line-at-the-supermarket-together conversations. I was in Gulu buying supplies (Gulu is like the regional capital of northern Uganda and the armpit of the Developement Juggernaut) and some guy noticed my Twins hat and started in with the baseball small talk. I felt a constriction in my chest and the normally free flowing opinions regarding bowel movements or the ongoing NATO led Libyan "intervention" slowed to a trickle. Nothing I was comfortable talking about fit the scenario so I stammered out some platitudes about Liriano and darted away as quickly as possible. I don't think this affliction hits all the other PCVs to the same extent as it does me but I'm positive it's there in some shape or insidious form.

Right. I'm at the Johannesburg airport to see the Africa Region Peace Corps Medical Officer (or AR PCMO in Peace Corps parlance) located in the PC regional headquarters. If you're afraid of white people airports are like the seventh circle of hell. But anyways there I am in the Johannesburg airport waiting in line to get my passport stamped and doing my best to be non-nondescript. Like actively thinking about looking non-nondescript lest some passerby make the mistake of talking to me about anything other than, for example, Ayn Rand's hypocritical rejection of practical socialism via a book touting an idealized capitalism. I'm wearing headphones and sun glasses more to discourage potential interlocutors than for entertainment or fashion purposes respectively. My hands are tightly locked to the straps of my backpack because I've consciously decided it's likely to draw the least amount of attention while giving me the added bonus of having something to hold, tightly, on to. Occasionally I glance up from the floor to monitor the progress of the customs que lest I inadvertently am holding it up (thereby drawing attention to myself) and that's when I saw her.

She's mid forties, tall, thin, blonde and I suppose attractive, though what really catches my eye is what she's wearing. The first layer is your standard issue khaki cargo (too) shorts and muti pocketed button down short sleeve shirt which, while a bit silly on any occasion, is not out of the ordinary among safari tourists. But the "over layer" of this first layer is a distressed leather frilled frock/vest that is too large to be a vest but too short to be a free standing dress (hence my "frock"). Imagine a blonde hippy from the late '60s trying to dress like a Native American but without the beads. Frilled like that but more so. And instead of hippie think aging yuppie. I'm trying to avoid the word garish but I can't. It was garish. And expensive. There are some articles of clothing, or maybe ensembles, that you can just look at and realize "Whoa that must have cost a lot of money." She also carried a handsome canvas travel bag again in her alliterative khaki color. Naturally this whole array was crowned with oversize sunglasses and an audacious safari hat. She didn't look like she had come from a safari so much as she looked like she was trying to look like she came from a safari. An expensive safari. She was making a statement.

I should interject that from where I left I bought a banana for less than ten cents from a bare footed woman clad in what would be described in America as "rags" with a bunch of bananas carried on her head like the Chiquita banana lady. The contrast between that and the slick cleanliness of the Jo-burg airport already had me reeling even without including the airport chic fashion show.

I was mesmerized. I wish I could have taken a picture but that would have been decidedly conspicuous and anti-nondescript. No sooner had the question "is she married?" scrolled across my mind then I saw, who I assumed to be, her husband who was dressed like the spitting image of The Man in the Yellow Hat from the Curious George children's books. I can offer no improvement on that description.

Are these people real? Where are they going? Do they dress like this all the time? Maybe this is the "jet set" and they dress according to the airport they will be parading through. If that's so, is this their Africa get up? Do they have a special sub-Saharan Africa get up? Better yet, do they have an even more specific sub-Saharan Big Game Safari Outfit to contrast with a a Just General Safari Outfit? Do they also have a sub-Saharan designer Desert Nomad airport chic outfit for Addis Ababa? Freaks! FREAKS!

While these thoughts and observations are tumbling through my mind I snap back into white people paranoia mode and notice the customs que is about to pass me by. To avoid the stern looks and any chance of possible brief (!) conversations I quickly scuttle off through customs, dutifully avoiding the eye contact of any passerby.

July 25, 2011

the (un)invisible man


There are millions of experiences out here for the experiencing and perhaps the most poignant is the experience of being a minority. Dispatches from the frontier: being a minority sucks.

I can't disappear, I can't fade into the background. I'm always on display. Sometimes it's not so bad and some days it's unbearable but it's something that never comes off and never goes away.

My otherness is impossible forget as each day brings subtle, flat and overt reminders addressed as offhand comments or jeering children or slurring drunks. As tiresome as these things can be, especially one year in and one to go, they bruise only. More than insults and irritation it's the isolation. There are some things that nobody in my village ever really "gets." Somethings I can't explain to even the most willing, educated, kindly people in the township. The people I consider to be my closest friends. I wish they could just listen and understand and change their outlook seamlessly but, obviously, that's a bit of a fantasy.

I can't help but compare my experience as a minority here with my previous experience in the majority...needless to say I think I've become more sensitive.

But like nearly every hardship I face in Peace Corps I can stand outside of it, to some extent, as my life here has a two year expiration date. None of my challenges are permanent and that's comforting. It's like in middle school when some teacher duck tapes your thumb to your palm for the day. It sucks but not too much because you know it's only for the day. Owing, perhaps, to the time bound nature of the experience I am afforded a rather clinical perspective of my own frustrations.

Sometimes.
*************************Edit 19/9/2011**********************************
This is a really stupid post and some pretty lousy writing.

Basically what I wanted to say is that I'm tired of being stared at all the time.  Anonymity has gone the way of, I dunno, decent cheese.  It's not something I'm likely to get back until I come back Stateside.  Something that I do appreciate is the perspective I have gleaned from this experience.

I mean, every possible factor is skewed in my favor.  The stereo-type of white people here is that we are healthy wealthy and educated.  Even the nature of the experience is finite, there's a two year window that I have to put up with all this and afterwards I'm back in the happy majority bubble.  I can't help but contrast that with what minorities in the US have to put up with.  Most of the stereo types are negative and the experience certainly doesn't have a two-years-and-you're-free time stamp.  I can't even imagine how much weight that is to carry around.  As comparatively easy the experience is for me, it still drives me up the wall.