Sunday, July 22, 2012

Update At the End

Weeks have gone by.

Miles have gone by with their villages and town centers, and the faces of communities and their leaders remain with me.

I’m in the unfortunate position that I am somewhat dissatisfied with the quality of data my research team has brought back to me. I think I'll get something out of it, though I will have to pick and choose. This is pretty much entirely because of time. Even the sharpest need a couple of dry runs to get the bugs worked out, and these fellows are no different. I don’t hold them responsible. 

I hold myself responsible, for not figuring out faster that I needed to get more permits/ducks in a row.

I hold my Master’s program responsible for not using their many connections to better provide support and guidance for me – especially when I’ve had only one year to complete this. However, this is the inaugural class. And I knew coming into this that there would be bumps in the road, and that our bumps would benefit the classes to follow.

I hold my students and their collaborators responsible for not knowing their own permitting regulations… sort of. I mean, can I really blame them for just telling me the status quo, and not realizing that having a foreign researcher who wasn’t originally under their umbrella would be different than foreign students who are under their umbrella? 

But regardless. We’ve learned bunches! Figured out how to do proportional piling reasonably well (though a little late), refined the focus group strategies, and learned a lot about connecting the dots between district, subcounty, parish, and village. 

There was also random knowledge gained. Greetings and thank you's in three languages, ate way more bananas than anyone ever should (in my opinion), and learned about bacterial banana wilt – probably one of the most serious threats to the food supply here.

And now I leave in two days.

And submit the first draft of my case study tomorrow.

Which begs the question: why am I writing a blog post?
Answer: to get my creative juices flowing.

Here goes nothing!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hard Work and a Day Off

So, I should probably update on what I’m actually here for. And what I’ve done to distract myself from it. I’ve avoided it because it’s not going very well. I’m tied up in paperwork six ways to Sunday, actually. This is, I suppose what happens when you try to coordinate a project between two nonprofits, to universities, and a government agency. Interestingly, it’s the US university that is making this truly difficult.

I’ll not go into details (it’s boring and probably best left to private conversation anyway), but suffice to say that ethical board approval is tedious, extensive, and exacting. Add to that a healthy dose of international misunderstanding and miscommunication, plus a sprinkling of “it’ll happen when it happens” attitude, and you have yourself a pretty good idea of what I’ve been dealing with for the past two weeks.

Progress has been made, but time is tick tick ticking away. I now have less than 4 weeks left here, and have barely started a 2.5 week application process. This is seriously concerning. People are starting to push me to extend my time here, something I REALLY don’t want to do.

So, last weekend, to distract myself from the endless trips to various offices, waiting, talking, and shuffling papers, I went white-water rafting! The White Nile has been dammed, which is too bad, but there are still lots of great rapids! Two rapids that our guides referred to as class VI, which I’m told is unusual. One of which we had to portage around, the other of which we went down on the lower class side. The one we portaged was... enormous, in every sense of the word: height dropped, volume of water, length of the whitewater section(s), size of the obstacles, lack of any calm patches… I wish I had had my camera to take a little video of! It was humbling to sit there and imagine going down.

I’ve included a couple pictures:

This one is our first rapid of the day, a good one!

Above water…

Soon to be very much underwater… 
The last picture is immediately before I spent a bit longer underwater than I had hoped. I got stuck under the boat, and couldn’t get above water. Fortunately, it was probably only a few seconds. It sure felt like longer, though! All in all, it was a really great day. A perfect distraction!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Saxy Lady's Memories

Sometimes I think I should have gone into music instead of science. I went to a Goat Rodeo Sessions concert ( and just about fell to pieces with joy. (I hope that's a good link, I can't listen to it here, or use up all of my data!). It’s been 5 long years since I played music seriously, let alone with other people seriously. I mean, I can’t keep away from most musical instruments for too long, eventually they just call me over. Especially my parents’ piano. My piano, I hope, someday. It’s from my mother’s side of the family, an unpainted baby grand of unusual make (I can’t remember). It has a good touch, no sticky keys and – best of all – a mellow rich timbre full of resonance, harmonics, and depth.

But even playing that piano (or even the loveliest concert grand I’ve been privileged to touch) is nothing, nothing! compared to playing in a group that is dedicated, practiced, and locked into each other. I miss the Saxy Ladies. We were four, we were women, we were in college, we played a saxophone or two a piece. Sarah-with-an-H, Sara-without-an-H, E. Penn, and me. Oh what fun! Laughing about “The Office” and practicing 3-4 times a week. The occasional gig. We swung, we rocked, we soared, we always performed in bare feet. And a handful of times, we touched something very special.

One evening, in our second year playing together, we were working on a delightful classical piece whose name I don’t even remember (I need to develop a better memory for names… this is sad), but that we all loved. We were on the second level of the now destroyed Mac music building, and we had been playing for 40 minutes or so. And we started this piece, and half way through something it became clear this wasn’t a usual run through. We played with one mind, breathing ebbing flowing… waiting… moving, soaring. And we realized it, and we let it keep flowing. And when we arrived at the last note we let it end, together, and stopped. Amazed. Looked at each other, with eyes wide and grins growing. “That was good!” E. Penn  said. I could only nod. “Really good,” Sara-without-an-H said. We laughed and shivered. It was a little scary to pick up our horns again after that… sometimes, it’s hard to follow your own act.

Which brings me back to science, which I love for its methodical care and dedicated search for understanding. It’s the other side of me, the intellectual. Good music, though, is and has always been pure emotion for me. Expression and sharing, the best and sometimes only way I can communicate what I feel. I have to be careful, because if I spend too much time with my head buried in the words of intellect and not enough time with my spirit soaring or dancing or resting on a string of sound… I will not be whole. Perhaps the same could have been said if I had pursued music. If you’re wondering, I do remember why I didn’t try to turn my love for music professional. I didn’t want to kill such love with too much practice. And I felt (and feel!) called to biology, with it’s secrets and patterns and webs of living and dying. Still, sometimes I think I'd have been better off 

Friday, June 22, 2012

A Familiar New Place

How are you so familiar to me? I know almost nothing about you, and have certainly never been here. And yet... the taxis, the trees, the air, the food, the helpful people, the annoying people, the pace of life, the energy... are all as familiar as an old pair of jeans. A dusty pair of jeans, with a patch, that you can't quite give up! Except that I never wear jeans here.

I came in part because of the connections of my advisors, in part because they have the right elements for me to put together the research I'm really interested in, and in part because I wanted practice Swahili. Too bad they don't so much speak it here... irony! I keep trying to get back to a place where I can use that delightful language and I keep getting detoured to other (wonderful) places. I guess I'm very lucky.

I've come to the conclusion that this place is the Boston of East Africa. Hilly! This city is very hilly, the buildings old and full of their own history, or new and shiny. The roads are twisty, the intersections complicated and often one way this way, one way that way. The traffic is terrible, the drivers concerning, yet it moves most of the time. But when it jams... boy howdy does it jam! Then you'd bed pick a boda bada, a motorbike... but that's as good a way as any to die. So I try to avoid it.

Ugandans are quite friendly! And maybe it's that I give off the air of someone who knows where she's going (which is complete pretense half the time... good acting skills?), but the "lizards" on the streets here aren't so bad so far. Though the boda bodas will charge a mzungu (white person) price if they can.

The new things are mostly in the levels of society I'm working with. Meeting folks in the ministries, staying with expats, going to a concert -- they have a music school, and a good one! A symphony orchestra, too. Plenty of Africans in it, which was cool. This experience has thus far been a bit like Peace Corps, but the institutions behind me have different motivations and a different sort of cache, a different power... but I'm still the low budget traveller, just I try to dress a little better. Keep my clothes as clean as I can, since I know these professors and deans, these coordinators, CEOs, etc. will give me short shrift if I don't.

I need to take my camera and take some photos... to show the little shops and taxis and potholes that are so familiar, the big mango tree by Jinja Road that soars a hundred plus feet into the air! To show the seven hills, and the red-tiles roofs that climb up and over them, the humid air softening the contrast between the red roofs and the green trees and vines climbing everywhere. To show the little chickies, the proud rooster, and the baby black mamba that visited my hosts home tonight. It is all much the same, Kampala, as many of the other cities in Africa that I have seen. Prettier, but still it's a different flavor of the same ice cream.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

School. I am back in school! So much so that I haven't had time to think of my blog, nor write in it, nor indeed read anyone else's. In fact, I should not be typing this now.

But, a short update.

I'm a Masters student, candidate, in Conservation Medicine, at a school in my new city-of-residence in Massachusetts. My first time ever living inside the US and outside of the Midwest. Yes, there is a different culture out here. For example, driving feels like a video game with very high stakes. Secondly, people are literally surprised when I wish them a good day after a transaction. Apparently these niceties aren't observed here.

I have mostly adjusted. By some miracle, I still speak Tamazight. I called my friends for L3id--Eid AlFtur. And we talked. And it was good. Always they ask me when I'm coming back. I tell them "isul lHal", because the time for a visit it DEFINITELY not now...

I miss my mountains. I MISS them. Their craggy heights, their cliffs of gold and orange and grey, and the small patches of green marking the irrigated areas. I miss the tiny, brave oak trees that yet hang on to existence on the edges of the mountains, like hair on a monks head in days of old. I miss dancing across the river on rocks with polished edges, grateful for the yoga that made my ankles strong enough for such difficult terrain.

I miss speaking in other languages. I'm trying to remember spanish, talking to L and P, the girls in my program who are bilingual.

I also miss my piano at my parents' house. Beautiful brown baby grand, with the perfect touch to the keys, and that lovely resonance... I can't believe I didn't play it every single day for hours. I played it most days, but how could I have not??? It's hard to find a practice room free, or the time to get to one.

So, I escaped the city to New Hampshire, and climbed one and a half of the White Mountains with a friend. Quiet. Fresh air. Pine trees frosted in snow. I can SEE for more than a mile. God, thank you thank you thank you thank you for wild spaces that yet exist. I should have brought my guitar, but didn't think of it.

I feel absurdly lucky to be in this program. Which is one of the reasons I'm working so hard in it. I will explain it in another posting, but for now... if you want an example of cultural readjustment, see this link to my friend's blog:

I've had similar sticky situations with friends who have babies. I just want to hang with them while they take care of their little one, and appreciate them as a mother as fully as possible. After all, what could be more miraculous than feeding ones baby from ones own body? And yet the taboo... Sad.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The 3rd and 4th months back

I look back on March and April, and the colors that come to mind are grey, black and white, brown. March is perhaps the hardest month because it is cold and starting to be humid. Except when April is the same only rainy instead of sleet.

I look back on the middle of the semester, and it was a long, hard pull. Constant, compiling knowledge to be gained. Assignments to be completed, tests to study for and take. Friends and boyfriend far, and no one coming to visit any time soon. Work exciting in it's developments but overwhelming in it's demands. Every hurdle you clear is followed by another either already in view or waiting sneakily around a bend. So you set your jaw, rally your discipline, buy a bar of chocolate and just go.

I have infinitely more respect for the people who pull off a full time job and an education at the same time now. Infinitely. They are amazing.

I look back on March in Morocco and longed for the early green of the winter wheat and the unashamed beauty of the almond trees blooming. I remember how it was distinctly warmer, and I began to wear only 4 layers instead of 7. Which, of course, makes me appreciate central heating, real woodstoves and the wonder that is modern insulation and plumbing. :)

So, yeah, there were bright spots scattered around. A friend from Peace Corps randomly shows up on my doorstep. A skype date with my family in Morocco is arranged, and wonder of wonders I can still hold a conversation. Of course, extra women show up. Even my cat makes an appearance! Oh, how I have missed you, Trouble. This week, I'm sleeping on the floor again, in a folded sheet, and you are not here to crawl in beside me along my side. Share your warmth and your dirt with me. I didn't care. Not even when I got ring worm (besides, I got my revenge when I rubbed fungicidal cream on you twice a day every day). I miss you much like I miss most of my life in Morocco, without having yet forgotten the bad spots. They were mostly only annoying then, and now, they seem like vinegar in lentils; bringing out the flavor.

It's been just over a year since I finished my service, and became an RPCV. Many things have changed in Morocco since I left. The very program I worked for has been discontinued, in the face of bureaucracy and misfortune. My village will not get another volunteer after my replacement leaves next year. This is hard to accept, because it is unlikely that the associations will be ready to fly on their own by that time. They will have to try. The government is much the same. I hear reports of the protests and I am hopeful and nervous at the same time. I hope the king and his government look at their neighbors and think carefully as to how to maintain the peace. I hope the people look carefully at their neighbors as they decide how to push for growth and change. I hope no more bombs go off in cafes anywhere in the country.

I look back on this year since I left Morocco, and one thing is sure: it's been quite the ride... life goes on, but it seems to only grow in complexity. Simplify, many Americans put on their walls, their bumpers, their shirts. I'd like to, but... speed allows for greater complexity. And we hurtle on, we Americans, multi-tasking and scheduling and flying and driving and typing... I am doing my best to keep up!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

First Two months back, long overdue

Well, I was hoping to write faithfully about what reentry is like, since it seems to be just as hard as going away and far sneakier. Alas, I have not done so. Regardless, I will try to write a bit on what it's been like thus far.

To clarify, this is about reverse culture-shock from an American perspective.

Month one: Disorientation. Thank goodness I've been traveling for 5 months, successfully getting used to being disoriented. How can it take only 30 minutes to travel 30 miles? How can I just choose the time I leave, and go? How come we don't all carpool everywhere? Why are the roads so clean, so wide, so smooth? And, I cannot believe, CANNOT BELIEVE how much stuff I have. How much stuff everyone has. I begin going through my room, something I haven't properly done since high school. I set a goal to clean out my whole room, and my whole closet (holy terror...), and get rid of as close to half of this stuff as I can. The flip side is that I am enjoying rediscovering my clothes. It's like going shopping for free, and I like everything!

After two weeks of being home, restlessness is already setting in. Not that I want to move on again, no, I just want to DO something useful! I've been traveling and vacationing for months (well, we worked where we could, and I feel a few months off after 27 months straight on is only fair). Regardless of the rationalization in the parentheses, I reallyreallyreally want to do something useful with myself!! Get a job... take classes... volunteer... something. I'm also overwhelmed by living with people, and lonely because I can't just walk up to a neighbor and join them for tea. I'm wishing for my own home and missing having a community at the same time. Weird.

I go to wedding number one, and enjoy Portland greatly! I see many, many Macalester alumnus. So good to see old friends, catching up, and (best of all) seeing my closest neighbor in Morocco in her new, delightful apartment. We reminisce, and eat Moroccan food, and talk about finding a job and getting used to the US. She (now back in the states for some 6 months, reminds me of the best thing I can do for myself: give myself the gift of patience. I just need to wait and let myself adjust slowly. As always, I find her practical sanity grounding.

When I get home I make a few phone calls... a few emails... and an interview... and get a job on contract... hooray!!! Sadly, my paycheck is not forthcoming for several weeks. This is both my fault and theirs. I buy a computer with the very, very last of my money from Peace Corps and my savings from the summer after college. It's fast. My old computer was over 10 yrs old, and still going strong... at a slow, slow pace. I say a prayer in hopes that my new computer lasts so long! I start in on work, and quickly quickly learn something: I HAVE to get my life organized in some type of planner or calendar. No longer will the "list of to do's for the week" suffice. I need to micro-manage my time again. I've not done this since... three years ago. It's frustrating and hard to do. I want to rebel, and just live and let live like I used to, but that means letting opportunities slip by. And seizing opportunity is one of the most valuable lessons I learned in Peace Corps. So I open Google Calendar, and start in on it.

Month 2: New Years, and the Bachelorette Party, and a I get used to driving long distances alone again. It used to be empowering, and it is again. The party is amazing, and even better is seeing my housemates again! L I saw in Morocco. A I haven't seen since I left, though, and she's the one getting married. I meet J, her fiance. One of the... 4 friends who has met someone and gotten engaged while I've been away. I approve of him. I have (so far) approved of all of my friends choices. :) Smart chicas! I bring my friend L home with me, and we relax a bit talk A LOT, waiting to return to KC for the actual wedding. During that week my first paycheck arrives! L heads north to catch up with family, and I head south to see my boyfriend. It's warmish and rainy, but it's lovely to see him after months apart. He's been traveling through some of the dangerous parts of Africa, alone. Good thing he's good at blending in and being creative and making do, and having fun while at it! I'm glad he's back, all the same. I know a little of how my mother must feel now.

A's wedding is awesome. More Macalester people, and I get to meet another's friend's chosen. Another winner. My boyfriend comes, and I'm so, so, SO glad I went to see him before this. I'm absorbed in making the wedding happen, and in maximizing friend time. I know I'm neglecting him, but hope he understands. These girls are heart friends, my souls helpers, the lights that point me to the real Light. I can't give them less than my best. When we go our separate ways, I'm crying in his arms trying to convince myself that life without my girlfriends will still be full of laughter. I think I'm a sap, but the next day one of them sends us all an Excel spreadsheet detailing why we need to live closer to each other. Guess I'm not the only one.

I drop off my boyfriend at the airport, and start another long drive.

Classes start. I switch out of Econ 101 to 111 because it's too slow for me, and because I want to get the most out of this spring. I'm behind before I begin, am late for the first class, and my phone goes off in the second. I knuckle down, and (as always) pull through, though slowly. Work is grinding on... I'm learning Excel and Word like I never have before. Winter is cold, cold, cold, but I'm loving the snow. Blizzards! Our driveway covered in 4 foot drifts! So beautiful, so otherworldly. Especially to me, and my Africa-thin blood. I'm used to wearing Islam-appropriate garb in 100+ heat, or tramping through Dar es Salaam humidity with a heavy pack. Now it's -20 Farenheit and I need a fleece blanket, 3 quilts and a down comforter to sleep comfortably. And I still wear a sweatshirt to bed.

But I love the snow. Cross-country skiing every day, either in our backyard or at the park. The air is crisp, sharp, clean. The snow makes everything new every time it falls. It makes me want to dance, just like it always did when I was a child.

After some time, life finds a rhythm. I discover I'm more of a fighter than I used to be, that I'm less willing to roll over when someone wants to walk on me. This leads to some unpleasantness, especially paired with the self-centeredness that can only come with living by oneself in a village where you are a rockstar of sorts for two years. I'm working on it. Present tense. My family shuffles, cracks, shifts, apologizes, and we keep going.