Sunday, May 22, 2011

Back in the Swing of Things

It is Wednesday, halfway through the week, halfway through the month of May. I cannot believe how time is flying. I am kinda happy about this. When I first got back from Nairobi, I was cranky for about two weeks. I was tired, overworked, stressed, and missing the nearly America life that I had while on vacation. I was frustrated with the lack of cell service, it is so hard to get used to not speaking with any friends or family, and the awful sexism I experience was, all of a sudden, intolerable. It took me a day off to recover mentally, and a few days of pampering myself, to be back to normal. And by pampering, I mean I let myself not do dishes, not do laundry, not cook. After the few days I, and my house, were filthy. But, I made it through the rough patch, and hopefully, but not likely, it was one of the last. This week I feel much better.

At school, things are going very well. My Peace Corps training has kicked in and I really feel like I know what I am doing. Looking back on last term I have to admit that I sucked as a teacher. I had no clue what I was doing, and I feel very bad for my students. Though they love me, I am sure they did not learn much. But this term, everything is different. I have new respect for every teacher I have ever had. Preparing for lessons is a lot of work! Turns out, you can’t just show up and read out of the book. I am coming up with more activities, more interactive ways of teaching, more homework, more quizzes, etc, etc. I am incredibly busy, and I think my students think I am nuts, but it is already paying off. My form ones are my trouble makers. They are angsty teens and getting them to do anything is painful for all of us. But I made a lot of changes, and they are already getting better. They have less attitude and less resistance (a very little less), though they still have no clue how to work independently. My form twos are my pride and joy. They know for certain that I am nuts and they love me for it. Yesterday, I wanted to do a lab activity, and as per usual, almost no one understood what to do. I took the five girls who did understand and had them be leaders and teach small groups of students. For the first time ever, each group got together quietly and efficiently, they all listened attentively, they all did the work, and every student did the activity. It was the first time, probably in the history of the school, that students were able to work in small groups without the teacher holding their hands. It was amazing. It really gave me hope that, however painful it is, my students are making progress and they will get there eventually.

A few days ago, on the high of my students doing well, I went home to work on my personal project of making paper mache furniture. I finished a three-shelf unit for my kitchen, and am working on a bigger spice rack. So I am sitting on my floor in the early evening, my hands covered in goo, when that darn mouse that makes a rukus all night just walks into the room. He didn’t even care that I was sitting right there! I tried to scare him away but he just ran into my bedroom. A friend of mine recently was bitten by a mouse who climbed into her bed, so I was a little freaked out by him being in my bedroom. When my 12 year old neighbor, Lokho, came over for her nightly English lesson, I complained to her about the mouse. She told me, very seriously, that she would catch it and kill it for me. So we went mouse hunting. We cornered it in the bedroom and would try to scare it from under the bed. When he ran out, we would both squeal like the girls we are and whack the poor thing with my ‘broom’, which is just a bunch of stiff grass tied together. Each time the mouse ran out, we would frantically jump around trying to hit him, and also trying to escape. I ended up on the bed, and Lokho was wedged in the corner, both of us bent over in laughter at our fear. Finally, we tired the mouse out and Lokho caught him in the bristles of the broom. She took him outside, and I asked her not to kill him, just set him free far away. Now my house is pleasantly mouse free. Now I only have cockroaches, scorpions, and ants. I can deal with those. Though I still hate those freakin’ ants.

The reason for my passionate, unwavering hatred of those tiny black ants will become clear when I tell you about last night’s debacle. I was at home, I wanted to work on my paper mache, so I slid to the floor to begin work. I checked to see if there were ants under me, and didn’t see any. Clearly, I didn’t look hard enough because as soon as I sat down I felt a sharp stab on my left buttock. I gasped and quickly leaned to the right to brush off the ant. Then I felt a sharp stab on my right butt cheek. Cursing I jumped up, but it was too late. Those damn tiny black ants! When they bite it feels like a wasp sting; it hurts way more than it should. And the bite burns for hours. The bites make the skin swell up so I had two large distinct bumps on my rear end. It hurt so bad I couldn’t sit down; I had to stand and apply cool cloths to the area for half an hour before I was able to sit without whimpering. Once the burning faded, about 4 hours later, the itching started. It is about 8,000 times as itchy as a mosquito bite. It wakes me up from a dead sleep and keeps me awake. Anti-itch cream only dulls the itch. And the best part is that the itch lasts for days. Like 5 days. So now I have a massively itchy rear that I nearly cannot keep from scratching, even in class. Its awful.

That was my night last night, so I woke up this morning feeling overtired. But I dragged myself out of bed and made coffee. Thank you, Julie, for your care package full of instant coffee and vanilla powdered creamer. After my caffeine fix, I headed to school. I was pleasantly coasting along on my bike when I saw the big hill up ahead. It is a very large hill; going top speed on my bicycle it takes a good while to get to the bottom. I was halfway down, there are lots of loose rocks and they make me nervous, so I started to apply the brakes. I slowed a teensy bit and then, SNAP, and my brakes broke off. Just broke right off. I heard them hit the dirt behind me and I had the thought, “well, that’s just wonderful” followed by a few seconds of “well, now what?” There really is only one solution I could think of, and crashing at top speed into the rocks at the bottom of the hill was not it. So I grabbed both the front and the back brakes and squeezed as hard as I could. Since there was only metal contacting the bike wheels it made a horrible screeching noise, and I like to imagine sparks flying. I only slowed a little and had to apply my heels to the dirt. I did eventually stop in a large dramatic cloud of dust. Fortunately, no one was around to laugh at me. I had to walk the rest of the way to school, riding the bike only when the ground was flat, which was never. I ended up being late to school. I ran in to my first class winded, dirty, sweaty, and unprepared. My students paid the price though, I didn’t have time to do the lesson I had prepared, so I gave them a pop quiz.

I am still in a good mood though, despite my itchy rear end and my 13 year old, no brakes, janky chained, perpetually flat tired bicycle. I think the reason is because I’ve decided that tomorrow I am inviting myself over to the Brothers of St. Paul’s house for dinner; Thursday is pizza night! They are great guys and will have cold beer, American TV, pizza, and sarcasm. I would go over every night if I didn’t feel so imposing. They tell me its okay, but its just so odd. My American upbringing tells me it is not okay to just show up at someone’s front door without notice and expect to be fed.

Last weekend the Brothers had a party, and as usual, it was great. I danced to my favorite Kenyan songs with Leah, my beautiful Kenyan friend, while the men danced terribly around us. Some of the guys showed me their dances, which made me laugh myself nearly to incontinence. None of their dances had names, so I made them up in my head. There was the ‘duck shuffle’ where you put your elbows out like wings and flap them while bobbing your head and shuffling your feet side to side. There was the ‘fainting lady’ in which you put the back of your hand on your forehead while looking dramatically at the ceiling and sway your hips downwards. I saw the ‘man with limp’ which is similar to the ‘duck shuffle’ but you have arms outstretched and lean to the side so you end up shuffling yourself in a small circle. The ‘compact boogie’ looks like you are trying to be invisible at a high school dance; you put your arms tight to your side, scrunch your shoulders, bend your knees, and groove. And lastly, the ‘butt-kick running man’ that involves drastic, seizure like movements of the body that make you appear to be running in place while kicking your heels up high enough to kick yourself in the rear. I tried all of the dances and succeeded at all but the ‘butt-kick running man’ when I was finally laughing too hard to coordinate a full body seizure and kept falling over. My friend who was teaching me said that now I was prepared to dance to any genre of music in the world. I really, vehemently disagree.

For food, there was nyama choma, grilled goat meat, which was delicious as always. I commented before eating that I was starving and one man said “you do not look like you are starving” while staring pointedly at my Kenya pudge. Darn blunt Kenyans. I ate a hyena sized portion anyway and then spent the rest of the night trying to hide the food baby growing in my belly.

While eating, a group of us got to talking about local names and I mentioned that I did not have one. So they thought about it and gave me the name Njeri. When I heard it I laughed out loud. I thought it was hilarious that my parents gave me a boy’s name at birth and now, here, I get the name “Jerry”. But they assured me it was a girl’s name and told me the story behind it. There was once a woman who was traveling while she was pregnant and she happened to give birth on the road. She named her daughter ‘Njeri’ which means ‘one who likes to travel far’. The men, my friends, sitting around me decided it was a perfect name for me, and I agree. And if pronounced correctly, with a distinct ‘N’ and a nice roll on the ‘R’, I think it is a beautiful name.

Continuing with my Kiswahili education, someone taught me a new phrase today. “Ninakupenda kama ua la bonda. It means “I love you like a flower in the desert”.

Update: Today is Thursday. Last night the mouse repaid my generosity in saving his life by sneaking back into my house. I spent another evening hunting, though without Lokho’s help I was unsuccessful. My teachers chastised me for letting him live. Now the mouse has to die. If I can catch him.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

There and Back Again

There and Back Again
Right now, I am typing this in a hotel in Nairobi. I am fresh from a hot shower, utlilizing the free wifi, and waiting until it is time for the free dinner. At this moment, I do not miss my village at all. If they tried to make me go back right now, I would not be able to do it. Even though I enjoyed my term, and miss my home, physically and emotionally, I feel I need more time to recover. I am free from April 3rd to May 3rd, and I am going to live it up. So far, I have had a wonderful vacation with my PIC (Partner in Crime), Cindy, and now I am here for Peace Corps Training with my 31 other best friends. I have had more than 31 hugs and, like a drug, I can’t go back to the village without at least 31 more.
The first week of my vacation was spent with Cindy on the coast. I was so desperate to escape my village and see the real Kenya that I did not plan my vacation. Cindy and I just decided to meet in Nairobi and fly by the seat of our pants from there. I met her in Nairobi on Saturday; I had been there for a few days, sharing beds with other PCVs to save money. There we met Sarah, who is a volunteer on the coast in a small town called Kilifi. Cindy and I told her of our plan to just take a bus to Mombasa and figure out where to go from there and Sarah generously offered her house to us. It was the best gift she could have given us. We drove to the coast on a large, uncomfortable bus. Cindy and I had seats over the wheel and the ride was similar to driving over train tracks for 7 hours. It was not pleasant.
We got to Kilifi in the evening and took a tuktuk, which is an adorable, three-wheeled vehicle, to Sarah’s house. If this was America you would think her house was pretty run down and had far too many creatures running around for it to be an enjoyable stay. But this is Kenya, and to me, Sarah has a gorgeous 5-star house. She has a running shower, 3 burner stove, huge stocked pantry (with real Heinz ketchup!), two full bookshelves, and bright, tropical colored painted walls. She also has mice, frogs, and 5 inch long centipedes. And her house is about a thousand degrees all day and all night long. She does have a fan, but sweating 24 hrs a day is just unavoidable. Cindy and I were determined to keep our vacation unplanned and so woke up every morning, picked a town on the map, and just went there. The first day we stayed in Kilifi; we went to Sarah’s fresh squeezed juice stand and had avocado shakes. Then we found our way to the beach and swam around in the shallow, urine-warm water. It was too hot to be refreshing but we floated around until we discovered a baby man-o-war jellyfish. We chased him around for awhile before going to find dinner. We went to a bar overlooking the Indian ocean and had cold beer while watching the sun set and the men in dug out canoes paddle out to fish for tuna. While sitting there, watching the monkeys run around, a coconut fell from heaven (or the tree above us) to land at our feet. Cindy had been wishing for one, she had never had fresh coconut, and so it was fate that brought us this outrageously hard to open, yet delicious, snack.
The next day, we woke up and it was hotter than the surface of the sun as usual, and the one thing we wanted to do was to go snorkeling. So we had a phone number of a guy who we thought would have a boat. He answered the phone like a true Kenyan, “Sema? Yeah, I have a boat. How many are you? Two? Meet at 11.” And then he hung up on me. We showed up to the meeting point, the bar on the ocean from the day before, and waited until he called us. His name was Captain Issa and his boat was a run down, pirate-looking dhow complete with chipped and faded paint and a black flag. We were joined on our trip by 6 surly looking Germans who turned out to be chain smokers and big meanie-heads (I am keeping this rated G for my younger readers). I spoke with Captain Issa in kiswahili to determine a good price, and because of our filthy, ragged clothes and fairly good understanding of the language, he knew we were not tourists and said he would “give good price! You are Kenyan, not like Germans, I give you good price. But don’t tell.” He gave us a price of 2500 KSH, which is about 30 USD. We waded through the bath water warm Indian ocean with our bags on our heads (we are true Kenyans, remember) and climbed on this boat. The Germans did not talk to us, introduce themselves, smile, or even speak in English. This is despite Cindy and my attempts at small talk. We even pretended to be normal so as not to scare them off; that’s no easy feat. Captain Issa pulled us aside later to say, “They are sh*t Germans, you ignore them. They are rude, we will have a good time. They are sh*t germans!” Apparently, the German man, with the 8-month old beer baby growing inside him, was angry because he thought this was a private tour for him and his friends. Captain Issa explained to him, in German, that his boat was there to make money.
After sailing around the ocean near the shore for awhile, passing kids swimming and men in their dugout canoes, we sailed to this deserted strip of beach. The sand is white powder and the water is teal blue. There were some overhangs of rock where we sat while the crew prepared lunch. The only people on the beach were some local women tenderizing dead octopus against the rocks. I have no idea why and only had the courage to ask her, “Ningependa kupiga picha, iko sawa?” She let us take a picture, but she didn’t look too pleased about it.
When lunch was ready, we all sat in the sand to eat. The spread was fanatastic. There was lobster, tuna, coconut rice, bananas, mangoes, watermelon, and some sort of spicy, amazing stew. Captain Issa gave us a lesson in how to eat like a Kenyan, with your hands. The rule was you had to smush up a banana with your fingers, grab a handful of coconut rice with the stew and stuff the whole thing in your mouth with a chunk of fish. The Germans didn’t look too pleased and refused to try it that way, they also seemed afraid of the stew with the unknown ingredients, actually running away with their plates like large four year olds. It was some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted in my life. Just amazing. After lunch, we all waded back to our mini pirate ship and sailed out to the reef. We got on our snorkel gear and jumped in. Of the 6 germans, only two got in the water, and they only stayed in for 5 minutes because, and I am just guessing the reason, they were cranky. Cindy and I snorkeled for a couple hours and saw all sorts of cool stuff. It was beautiful. The boat circled us while we swam, and finally dropped the germans off before coming to get us. They took us to the beach entrance of a resort, since we were way too scruffy to go in the front door. We took pictures with the crew, and got a ride back to town. Captain Issa offered his house for showers, offered to be our tour guide, and said we could call him any time. I love that Kenyans are so darn friendly!
The next day, we picked Malindi as the town of the day and the Vasco de Gamo monument and the Gede ruins. The monuement was easy to find, and with our resident cards, cheap to get into. We also got a free private tour guide. He taught us all about the rock formations and the coral reefs, which I knew all about since I studied that in college. But we made it into a quiz, him asking me questions like, “what causes scurvy?” while telling us the history of Vasco De Gamo. It was a lot of fun. We then asked him where else we should go that was touristy. He said, “the falconry” and Cindy and I were hooked. I just couldn’t leave without seeing a falconry!
The falconry was maybe my favorite part of the trip. Again we got a private tour guide. The place was a conservation and rehabilitation center for some of the local endangered or endemic species. They had an Alabara tortoise named Mzee (It means “old person”) who was 118 years old (he is a famous tortoise for befriending a baby hippo. Google it). We got to feed him bananas and give him scratches on his leathery neck. I loved him from the top of his wrinkly head down to his giant feet. If he walked any faster, I would have kidnapped him. The falconry also had vicious baby nile crocodiles, snakes, owls that you could pet, owls that looked like gremlins, and falcons that you could hold on your arm.
After the falconry, we found our way to the gede ruins. The tour guide there cost money, and we, being cheap, decided to skip it and wander around the woods. The whole place looked like a videogame with zombies. There were signs in front of each pile of stone with ominous names like “the mosque of the three pillars” or “the house of the seven baths”. We kept saying ominous ‘last words’ type things like “even the monkeys don’t come here” and “do you think anyone will see if I pee behind this tree?” We found out later that the ruins were from an unknown ancient civilization that vanished thousands of years ago. OOoooOO… ominous.
That day we also found the greatest Italian food in Kenya. Malindi, by the way, is big on Italian. Some of the street signs are even written in Italian (at least I think it is Italian). So we went to this place called “I Love Pizza” and had amazing pasta. I had some seafood dish that tasted like they put a lobster in a blender with some cheese and then poured it over ziti. It was amazing. Best food I’ve ever had (I realized I’ve already said that in this blog, but my tastebuds are very easy to please)
The next day we were running out of towns on the map that were close enough to take a cheap matatu, so we picked the Arabuko Sokoke forest, which was a large green square on the map. We climbed in the matatu, crowded as usual, and took off at breakneck speeds. We were speeding along, we something literally jumped in front of our vehicle. It flew out of the forest on the left and its hooves didn’t even touch the ground before we blasted through it. And I mean, blasted. I looked behind us and only saw a small chunk of something. Cindy and I were in complete shock. The matatu slammed on the brakes and reversed to see what we had hit. The animal was gone, because some local had already dragged it off the road for dinner. Our driver jumped out to claim his catch and then dragged it back to the matatu. Cindy and I sat with our jaws in our laps and our stomachs in our throats and the men just tossed the dead deer in the back of the matatu, with no tarp under it, and no barrier from the smell. The whole matatu was cheering, “NYAMA!!” (meat!) and we continued on our way, slowing the vehicle occasionally to yell the good news to other matatus. Cindy and I took the rest of the trip in silence, trying not to vomit.
We got to the Arabuko Sokoke forest and met an American couple at the entrance. They were the nicest people ever! I love Americans! They lived here in Kenya and were just traveling around the area like cindy and I were. The mom treated us like her children. “You didn’t bring water? Here have mine. Do you need more sunscreen? Make sure you girls don’t walk around at night, its not safe. I don’t want to read about you on the news tomorrow.” She reminded me of my mother, in the best way. They were both sarcastic and hilarious, and us four made snide comments to each other during the guided tour, which they generously paid for because we “are not trust fund babies tooling around on daddy’s credit cards.” The husband was a goofball and even climbed halfway up a tree just because we said he couldn’t do it. We saw the endangered golden rumped elephant shrew that only exists in this one forest in Kenya. Or something like that, I wasn’t paying attention being too busy making sarcastic comments behind the guide’s back. Then at the end of the day, Mom and Dad bought us all big, cold sodas, and gave us a ride to Malindi, warning us, again, to be safe. I do not remember their names and we will probably never meet again, but if they are out there, reading this, I just wanted to say, “Thanks. You made my day”.
After another stop at I Love Pizza for pasta, Cindy and I went shopping. There is a tourist market in Malindi that has the most beautiful paintings. The locals just sit in the market all day and paint. There are thousands of paintings in many different shops, and every painting is different. I saw elephants in the river, masaai women dancing, baobab trees in sunset, giraffe silhouettes, and grass huts at twilight. I wanted to buy them all. Cindy and I spent a couple hours chatting with the market women, bargaining and making friends. Cindy is the best person in the world to go bargaining with. She is a hard ass, sarcastic, cheap, and hilarious. She always gets the best price and always leaves the Kenyans laughing. I am a push over so I stood back and let her do the work, just translating the Kiswahili for her (she is a deaf education teacher and learned Kenyan sign language). Her routine is amazing. They say, “I give you good price.” And she gets in their face, puts her hand on her hip, points her finger and says sternly, “I am teaching your children!” Then she raises her voice so it is soft and high pitched, “I teach the deaf ones with their teeny, tiny hands,” batting her fingers, like eyelashes, in their faces. And “Bam!”, price drops by a thousand bob. She also enjoys telling them, “What?! You should rename your shop. You should call it ‘highway robbery’” I got out of there with too many paintings but don’t worry, they were all ‘a good price’.
That was the end of our trip. We did more, but it is not interesting enough to write about. Just laying on the beach, making macaroni and cheese with cut up hotdogs, making colored sand art, and sweating all the freaking time. We headed back to Nairobi on a bus, and my awful luck in traveling continued to follow me on the way. Our bus driver was high on miraa, a chewable leaf that is very popular here. Because of the miraa, the driver was more insane than usual. First, while careening down the road, weaving amongst the traffic, we were attempting to pass another bus too close, and just grazed the side of it at 60 km an hour. It was okay, we only lost a sideview mirror, but it was scary as all heck. Then had we continued on our way when we hit a speed bump, at 60 kph. Kenya has this thing. They, Kenya, have horrible traffic problems and no traffic laws. So their brilliant idea was to put speed bumps on the highways, just for fun, to slow down the traffic. It’s a great idea that usually works, when your driver is sober. When we hit the bump, Cindy and I were crammed in the aisle of the back seat with four other adults and a child. We flew out of our seats and slammed back down, compressing spines and rearranging organs. Or as Cindy put it, “after this ride, I’ll need a map to find my kidneys”. The bus full of groaning Kenyans continued on for a half hour or so before we stopped for a break and to pick up more people. There was no room on the bus…excuse me, there was room, just not in seats. So after some rearranging, Cindy and I were crammed against the window, and more passengers were put on Coke crates in the aisles. Us in the back row were privileged enough to sit next to a guy who might tapika (vomit) at any moment. It adds suspense to the next part of the story. So Cindy and I are in the back, Cindy loudly complaining, “If he tapikas on me, I am not going to be happy! I think everyone in the back row should get a discount! I only have one buttcheek on the seat, I should only pay for half a seat!” We continued speeding down the road, when what a surprise, we hit another speedbump. This time, being crowded near the window, Cindy and I smacked our heads on the ceiling, and our faces on the seat in front. This time, the whole bus was yelling, Cindy loudest of all. If I smacked my face as hard as Cindy did, I would have been crying, but she just continued her disparaging comments, making the entire bus full of injured Kenyans laugh. When we got off a half an hour later, the Kenyans asked us to stay. Cindy said, “No! This thing is a death trap!” and the Kenyans laughed again, then asked us to pray for them. P.S. Mr. Tapika never tossed his cookies.
I started writing this on my first night in Nairobi. Then my friends started coming in and I was too distracted to touch my computer until now, two weeks later. Now I am back in Kubibagasa, sitting in my staffroom, listenting to the kiborana swirling around and getting frustrated already. Why won’t they speak English?! *sigh*
Anyway, I am back home and thinking fondly of my time in Nairobi. I drank a lot, ate a lot, talked a lot, and remembered my sarcasm. I ate American, Italian, Ethiopian, Lebanese, Thai, Japanese, and Chinese. I got to know my fellow PCVs better, and had a great time. There was a lot of hugs, tons of laughing, a few sleepovers, some sing alongs, a little dancing, and not much sleep. It is strange how close I am to these people despite not knowing them for very long. At one point during the week we went on a field trip to the International School of Kenya and met 6 RPCVs who worked there. They had all been volunteers a long time ago, and they mentioned that they still talked to so-and-so from their group, ended up godparents to so-and-so’s kids, was maid of honor at so-and-so’s wedding, etc. Their Peace Corps friends are their friends for life. And that is exactly how I feel. I cannot imagine leaving here and never seeing these people again. On those hard days when it would be so easy to go home to America, I remember that I have this great support system helping me and the thought keeps me here. Don't worry, America friends, I still love you and miss you every day. Only 20 more months and I’ll be home.

So, yes, I am here in Mars. The homecoming was nice. So many people came up to give me hugs, kisses, or handshakes. People I didn’t know in town greeted my extremely enthusiastically. My adorable neighbor kids took one look at me and then ran in my house. When I left, they only spoke kiborana, they are only about 3 years old, and so when they ran to me with hugs and said “how are you?” I was shocked. It was so adorable and, for the first time, I did not hate hearing that phrase. Little Abusu showed me that she remembered the things I taught her, to cover her mouth when she coughed and to blow kisses when you say goodbye. Galgallo cuddled up next to me on the couch and sang the days of the week in English. The next day, on the way to school, I passed the borehole and saw the little toddler who can barely walk and cries hysterically when I wave to her. She cried out when she saw me. When I turned to look, she took two steps towards me and waved, no trace of tears. The Borana woman who I greet everyday, grabbed my hand and spoke rapid kiborana while I stood there smiling. She eventually hugged me, laughed at my not understanding, and walked away. I think they thought I was never coming back. It warms my heart to know they are happy I did.

That is all for now. I have been gone for a long time and now I am back. Hopefully soon I will get back into my routine and write more regularly. I know some of you have been missing my updates (okay, maybe just you, Mom). Have a good week!