Friday, June 17, 2011

I Don't Know Why I Swallowed the Fly, I Think I'll Die

I am trying my hand at gardening. I bought some seeds for cauliflower and mixed salad greens back when I was in Nairobi and have just now gotten around to planting them. Part of the problem was that I didn’t have anything to plant them in. I tried these little plastic cups but they kept blowing over. I can’t use the bare ground because I don’t have a jembe (hoe) and the dirt is too compact. There is also a forest of four inch high acacia trees that I would somehow have to uproot. My neighbors have plants in 20 liter jerry cans with the tops cut off, but I don’t have any spares I can use. Then, through my own stupidity, I found the perfect planting container. It is the large plastic tub that I use to take bucket baths in. I also use it for laundry and dishes. Last weekend I decided that it had been awhile since I’d done something really dumb, so I decided that I really needed to see something up close on the map hanging on my wall. I didn’t have anything to stand on so I, for some reason, chose to use the one container I use every single day. I stood on it and it, being plastic, broke. I was very pissed at myself. But it all turned out for the best because now have a nice big planting container complete with a large drainage hole in the bottom. On Sunday, I planted my seeds in concentric circles, lettuce on one side, cauliflower on the other, and watered it lovingly. The next day, like a sign from God, it rained on my little garden. Then it was sunny for a few hours, then it rained again, then it was sunny again. Besides the overwhelming joy I felt to be getting rain for the first time in six months, it was perfect weather for my baby plants and today they are starting to sprout. I am very excited to have salad. I miss salad. I am going to get some acacia branches to make a dik-dik proof fence; I will be very upset if a six-inch tall deer eats my salad. Now if I can just contrive to get someone to send me some blue cheese dressing, I will be all set. (yes, that was a hint )

Speaking of people sending me things; I want to say a big thank you to Denise of Beauty Supply Zone in Newport, CA for sending me the care package of beauty supplies and twizzlers. I don’t know if you read this, but you are a great friend and the best hairdresser a girl could ask for. I beautified my hair, exfoliated, painted my fingers and toes, and ate all the Twizzlers. The next day, everyone said how especially ‘smart’ I looked. Thanks for getting me a little bit closer to the clean, American girl I used to be.

There is a pack of feral dogs who live at my school. They are skinny, mangy looking things covered in large bugs. They are terrified of humans, because we all throw rocks at them. I don’t throw rocks, but I would if they came any where near me, they look diseased. One has an open wound that has been there for two months. Gross. One of the females had puppies and I gotta say, they are more adorable than non-feral puppies. I think because they are allowed to run free across the fields and roll in dust. The pack also just adopted a new female, she is dusty brown, though I think she would be white if she was given a bath. The other dogs love her and they all spent the day frolicking. She is a pretty young dog, and was barking a lot. The dogs rarely play, and never bark. My teachers are concerned that the strange behavior means that she has rabies. That would be just awful, not only would she die, but she’d probably infect the whole pack. And I’m sure my mother will be glad to hear about the pack of rabid dogs fenced in with me every day at school. But don’t worry, though I seem to enjoy taunting dangerous creatures, I draw the line at provoking rabid dogs. And besides, I have my rabies shot.

I know I have said this before, but I hate the bugs here. Today, I am going to complain about the flying creatures. The flies drive me crazy while I am walking to and from school. They like to land on my face, which is super annoying. About four times every second, a fly will land on my face, and I will reach up to brush it away. This is, obviously, very tiring and so I am trying to decrease my annoyance threshold. I let the fly land and see how long I can let it crawl around until I uncontrollably smack myself harshly in the face. The Kenyan children are especially good at the ignoring game; they will let the flies play in their eyelashes all day without a care. My time is up to about half a second. Yeah, I have a long way to go.

Sometimes, while the flies are using their tiny brains most effectively, they will fly up my nose. This happens WAY, way more than I would ever have thought possible. And if you think a fly up the nose is an awful prospect, just think how pleasant it is to get one in the mouth. Today I was taking a refreshing deep breath, with my mouth only open a few centimeters to avoid this exact situation, when the fly zoomed straight to the back of my tongue and got stuck. I tried to spit, but I was too dehydrated, so I just hacked and gagged for a minute and then, this is the worst part, I had to reach in my mouth with my hand to grab the fly and flick him away. Now is that not the most disgusting thing you have heard in awhile?
And I have another bug swallowing story for you, this one just shows you how truly strange I have become. A few weeks ago, I was over at St. Pauls’ school for a party. It was the same one where I learned how to dance Kenyan style. The drinks provided were cold Tusker, the beer of choice for Kenyans. I was taking a break from dancing and paused to take a big gulp of Tusker. Right before I swallowed, I noticed, with something like curiosity, that there was a moth IN my mouth. Yup, it had flown into my beer when I wasn’t looking and I drank him. Just gross-tastic. So I am sitting there, with a mouthful of beer and live moth, and I am thinking. Thinking! Right there I should have realized something was wrong with me. If you find there is a live bug in your mouth, you should never pause to contemplate the fact, just spit it out! But I sat there thinking; I thought “I have two options, spit the beer-moth out or swallow it”. Now which one did I do? I swallowed the moth. I must have temporarily (can two years be counted as temporary?) taken leave of my senses to put a higher value on a single mouthful of beer than my, not inconsiderable, desire to avoid eating insects. I told Brother Boniface about this and he laughed and said, “you should have let the moth go and encourage him to, next time, buy his own beer.”

I don’t know what game God is playing with me, but everytime I write something here, I get exactly what I didn’t want. Last week is was a new mouse enemy, and today, after I just wrote about my plans for a fence yesterday, I have someone’s paw marks roughing up my new garden. I can just picture God saying, “Oh, you said you DIDN'T want someone to uproot your lettuce? My mistake…”

I got the best compliment yesterday. Talking with the Minnesota students who were wanting to have a “no talent show” and I said that I would love to participate. I said that I have no talent, and while I know I am good at lots of things (lots and lots and lots of things), there is nothing that would win me the million on America’s Got Talent. I’m not good at sports, I can do nothing artistically, I can’t sing or dance, I can’t even do anything creepy like dislocate my shoulders to use my clasped arms as a jump rope (I know someone who can do that). But when I said that, Brother Steve said “your talent is courage”.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ding Dong, the Mouse is Dead

You all remember my friend and unwanted roommate the mouse? Well, he is dead and I have won and I am sure you all want to hear the story. We have been competing as usual for a while. I have been stuffing a pair of pants that I don’t fit into anymore (cause I’m fat) in the space under my door to keep him out but he is very wily and sometimes sneaks in while I am visiting friends or in the choo. When he does, I chase him around with the broom for awhile. Sometimes I corner him and give a good whack, but usually I just get tired and reluctantly let him explore my house for the night. On Tuesday, I found him in my kitchen. That grosses me out and I am afraid he will get into my American food stash so I went after him. I noticed that he was missing half his tail. I don’t know if that was because of me or if he gets into mousy scuffles during his outside marauding hours. Either way, I thought to myself, “haHA! Jerk!” and trapped him behind my stove. I had a bucket in place on one side of the gas tank, hoping to drop it on him when he came out, and a wooden spoon for poking on the other side to encourage him to go into the bucket. I poked, he ran, and I squealed like a girl, dropped the bucket and spoon and fell over backwards. In my defense, my hand was low to the ground and the mouse TOUCHED me. (It was icky). As I was scrambling to get out of the mouse’s way, I noticed that he was not scampering away in fear like he should be. He was walking, WALKING, calmly to hide under the couch. Cocky bastard. I let him go, too lazy to go for him. Wednesday, I got home from school and opened my door only to be met with a smell. Now, my house is dirtier than it should be. I am not as proactive about dishes as I should be, but I make sure that everything is cleaned when it starts to smell. So when I walked in the house and was hit with the aroma of carcass, I knew something happened. It didn’t take me long to find him, my adversary, dead in the corner. I do not know what killed him, by the way he was moving the night before, I suspect some injury just got too much for him. Now, you’d think I would be happy. But, while I am glad I won’t have to fight with him anymore, I am more than a little concerned about what it was that took a BITE out of him after death. There was a large hole where his abdomen should have been and a pile of mouse hairs scattered around him. The only thought that goes through my head at times like this is, “where the hell do I live?”

Lokho brought me dinner on Tuesday night. For no reason at all, she just came over with a plate piled with food. She didn’t even stay, she said she had work to do around her house. To repay her for her kindness, when she came over on Wednesday I made potato pancakes for her. Kenyans only eat potatoes one way, peeled, boiled and served on rice as part of stew. Lokho had heard of mashed potatoes, but never had it, and she didn’t know you could eat the potato skins. We spent the evening sitting on my kitchen floor eating potato pancakes hot out of the pan. We gossiped about a 19 yr old teacher, fresh out of school, who has been staying with Lokho’s family. The girl is very rude. She treats Lokho very badly; making fun of her for not having a boyfriend (Lokho’s only 15), accusing Lokho of stealing, taking Lokho’s things, and just being an all around witch with a capital B. Lokho doesn’t want to complain to her Aunt because she knows her Aunt is a good person and will kick this girl out of the house. But Lokho got fed up today because the girl has been insulting one of Lokho’s very good friends: me. She was apparently telling people “that mzungu said she was cleaning her house, but its such a mess, she must not know how!” Now, anyone who’s ever lived with me knows that I can be pretty messy. But here in Kenya, I keep the clutter to a minimum, and only leave my kitchen as a disaster, everything else is not bad. Lokho agreed my house was not bad, and wanted to let me know what was being said about me. Lokho also said that every time this girl comes over to my house, it is just to get the free American food I dish out. She must a little slow if she thinks that I wouldn’t catch on to that, and so lately she has been complaining because I never give her food. I don’t like cooking for people, mostly because I cannot afford it and if I start doing it for one, I have to do it for many. And also, no Kenyans like my cooking. The only person who has liked my food has been Lokho, and I only feed her because she is always at my house, is such a sweetheart, and I love her. She told me this adorable story about Galgallo, her three yr old nephew. The family has a few chickens and they collect the eggs once a day. Yesterday, Galgallo picked up the eggs and, in his three year old brain, thought they were bouncy balls. He lifted the eggs up high and smashed them with enthusiasm on the floor. Everyone in the family laughed but Galgallo was so upset that he hid under the couch. And adorableness ensued.

On Friday morning, my form two girls pampered me. They are always trying to take care of me, making sure my skirt is on straight and my shoes are brushed. This morning the weather was drizzly and cold, I absolutely loved it, but it got me to school muddy up to the knees and with wet, frizzy hair in a messy braid. I did a decent physics review for the lesson and then I sat and chatted with them. They think I am a slob and don’t understand how I get so dirty. Two of the girls took my shoes and cleaned them, then they washed my feet very thoroughly. I got lotion and a foot massage, while other girls brushed my hair. They braided it, gave me a cool zigzag part and applied oil (it is not good for white people hair but they would not be deterred) . They even tried to put eyeliner on me but I wouldn’t let them because I was afraid of pink eye. They also told me exactly what to wear tomorrow during parents day. They asked me to come by tomorrow morning so they can dress me like a Barbie but I don’t think I am going to let them. I don’t like the amount of grease in my hair I’ll probably never get it to wash out. Also on Friday, the cow that lives at school became meat. I wanted to watch them ‘chinja’ her, but in the end, I couldn’t. I blame the American students from Minnesota; they named her! Everyone knows you should never name animals destined for food. I just couldn’t watch Martha die, and when I saw what they were doing to the body immediately after, I was unable to watch that as well.

Saturday was Parents’ Day. It is a day that traditionally was planned to let the parents of students come to the school to visit their kids and talk to teachers to see what their kids are up to. But all the schools in my area use this as an opportunity to celebrate and out-do each other. Dakabaricha Day School had two goats slaughtered for their Parents’ Day, but we had two goats and a cow. St. Pauls had their boys sing traditional Borana and Samburu songs, our girls dressed up in traditional outfits to perform their songs. We had a Board of Govenor come to ours, but St. Paul had him, plus the Bishop. Each school has a Parents’ Day and all the villages around know about them through rumor and come to all of them to see who has the best entertainment and food. It is a lot of fun for everyone, but a lot of work for the teachers and students. Friday, my students spent hours outside in the sun fetching stones to make a ‘driveway’ in the dirt. Then they spent hours whitewashing them with an ash/water mix. My jobs for Parents’ Day were to make professional looking certificates on the computer in town, help shop for presents for best performing students, wrap all the presents, make badges for all the important guests with ribbon and cardboard, and make meal cards so only parents of students could get food. I did all that work on Friday so I would be free to do other stuff on Saturday. Every teacher was assigned a job based on whether or not you were a man. If you were a man, you did work like: slaughtering goats, using a machete to chop limbs off dead goat carcasses that hung from trees, cutting heads off goat carcasses to use for ‘goat-head soup’, etc. The female teacher, Madame Ruth, was in charge of food. She was the General loudly yelling orders to her army of student helpers, and me. It was very annoying, though she is good at her job, I just cannot stand being told what to do. Especially when she acts as if I was only born with half a brain. “Did you wipe the dust off the water bottles? Do that. Use water… NOT TOO MUCH! No, wipe this direction, Ryan we should put them on tables like this…. Because we want everyone to have water… you know? No one chooses water, everyone gets one… so put them here… No, like this….” Etc, etc. And she would have these conversations as if I was contradicting her. I felt like she was dying to say “Because I said so!” but I never gave her the opportunity. She eventually put me in charge of my own little student army and gave me the important task of serving all the people wearing “distinguished guest” badges. She kept coming back to check on me, but eventually figured I could handle it. But man, that was tough to do. I served the men food, got them drinks, and then when they got up and walked away, I swept up the mess they left, took their plates to be washed, threw away their dirty napkins, returned their empty soda bottles. I felt degraded, and maybe I shouldn’t, after all, someone had to serve. But it was hard, I had been running around helping cook and prepare the meal and I was hot, sweaty, dirty, hungry, and tired and I had to stand there watching them eat and relax. I tried to go stand outside with my student army sneaking them drinks of water which they weren’t supposed to be having, but Madame Ruth caught me and told me to go back inside and supervise. She wanted me in the room ready to whisk away empty plates and right table cloths. In the end, it wasn’t so bad. Everyone from the village and all the important people in the area saw me working and complimented me on the meal I made (even though all I did was chop onions), how hard I worked, how welcomed they felt, etc. I felt like they didn’t really expect me to be working so hard, but since I was absolutely filthy and sweaty, they were pretty impressed that I did it. Everyone kept asking me if I was tired and encouraging me to go home, or take a break, but I just gave them a big smile and said I was fine. The worst part of the day was that I wore a white shirt and my pretty gold ballet flats. In 5 minutes, the shirt was seriously brown, and after ten minutes, my feet were actually bleeding from the shoes. I was limping around and wincing which is probably why I kept getting told to sit down. After an hour, I was nearly crying with the pain, but after two hours, all the blisters were rubbed off and I refused to limp anymore, cause I looked ridiculous, and eventually I stopped really feeling the pain.

The food was delicious, as all (okay, most) Kenyan food is. I love kachumbari which is sliced raw tomatoes and onions. I am not supposed to eat raw tomatoes, they cause fun giardia-type diseases, but I just love them too much. There was also matumbo which is every single innard chopped up and boiled, lungs, stomach, heart, kidney, intestine, everything. I have had it before, but didn’t really like it, for obvious reasons (it tastes like boiled lung), but I thought that my tastebuds have all gone on strike and rarely give a shit about what I eat now so I thought I would try it again. Nope, still tastes like boiled lung. I can eat some things like the liver and kidneys, but the large intestine just tastes exactly like a large intestine. The whole time I am eating it, I am thinking “hmm, I can nearly taste the grass this cow ate.” I can’t get it out of my head that I am eating the part of the body that makes poop. And if you think you can just hurry up and chew and swallow, nope. Nature wants you to savor the taste, so the texture is like trying to chew a balloon. You just roll that intestine around in your mouth for awhile and debate whether you’ll be able to swallow it whole or will you choke and die on a large hunk of the part of the cow that makes poop.

During the day, I had a long conversation with some people about the funeral I saw the other day. In the Borana culture, when a person dies, the women are not allowed to be anywhere near the grave. Only the men are allowed to bury the family member, even if the deceased was a woman, no females are allowed at the burial. As soon as the person dies, the family has to bury them before the day is over. They bury them in shallow graves, as I saw, and pile rocks over the top. The person I talked to didn’t know why they put them so close to their houses, but she did say that while there are no crosses allowed, the families put little things to remember the person by, for example, a nice pair of shoes for a young woman. It really disturbed me because I thought that little kids had been playing on the graves, and now I know why there is a tiny pair of sneakers on more than one of the rock piles that I pass on the way to school.

After the burial, everyone in that family has to stay in the house for three days. They are not allowed to bathe, change clothes, cook, fetch water, or leave for any reason. They are dependent on neighbors to come help them do everything. After three days, the family is allowed to leave the house, but if possible, they don’t go to school or work for 47 or 50 days. Again, the woman I talked with didn’t know how they decided on such a specific amount of time but the reason was because in their culture, after 50 days, the head of the person had separated from the body and the death or decomposition of the person was over. After this time, the family has a big celebration where a cow has to be slaughtered to celebrate the end of the official mourning period. Then the family is allowed to go back to their lives.
It was really a very interesting conversation. And Parents’ Day turned out to not be so bad. I think I would rather slave in the hot tin kitchen under the African sun while my shoes destroy my feet and serve all those men than sit through the hours and hours of endless speeches all the guests had to go through.
I’ll end there for today and I hope you all have a good week.

What the French, Toast!? You won’t believe this! A baby mouse just ran into my kitchen. Literally, less than six hours after I dispose of my erstwhile enemy his spawn return to torture me... Unbelievable. You just can’t make this stuff up.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Speaking of Things that are Sharp....

I only have a few minutes to write before I have to go to school. It is a little after six, I have been lazy lately and not getting up at 5 like I should. I wake up at five and then hang around reading in bed hoping to wake myself up enough to stumble out of bed. It never works and I am trying to find new ways to convince my body that 7 hours is plenty of sleep. I have always been an eight hours of sleep type person and my body absolutely hates me for cutting back to 5 or 6 hrs. But today, I got up despite the I-don’t-care-how-much-i-have-to-do-I-am-not-moving exhaustion. I made coffee- this morning I put cocoa powder in it to make a mocha (I miss my Dunkin Donuts Lattes) and I thought I would write a bit while it cooled.
For breakfast this morning I am going to treat myself to yogurt. The yogurt, like everything here, does not need to be refrigerated. I am not sure how long it can go without refrigeration so I am doing a test. What I do is: leave it out for a day, eat it. If I get no gastronomic fireworks, I try leaving it for two days. So far I have extended the unrefrigerated shelf life of orange juice, eggs, cheese, and leftovers to longer than is palatable. I won’t tell you how long, just in case Peace Corps medical is reading this. And I want to avoid a chastising phone call from my mother as well. Did you know an opened pack of velveeta will last well over a month despite it saying “refrigerate after opening and use after five days”? My mother would be horrified that I am doing this. But trust me, mild dysentery is worth it if I am able to eat yogurt for breakfast instead of Blue Band and white bread.

The reason I decided to write this morning was to complain. (I love complaining.) My foot hurts. (wimper) Yesterday while carrying water, I stepped on an acacia thorn in my good Teva flip flops. The three inch thorn went all the way though the shoe and into the soft part of my foot. And [insert swear word here] it hurt! I tried to pull the thorn out of the shoe and succeeded in breaking it off making the shoe unwearable. And this morning, judging from the pain, I have the other half of the thorn in my foot. Awesome. I tried to pry it out of my foot, but it is buried. The walk to school is going to be very long and now I am down to one decent pair of shoes- my hiking sneakers. Someone asked me for wish list of things I need/want, new tevas are at the top of the list. Those tevas were pretty enough to wear to class and comfortable enough to hike in.

Speaking of things that are sharp, the night watchman over at the Brothers’ compound killed a porcupine yesterday. In America, porcupines are very spikey and look painful. Here, I guarantee that an encounter with a porcupine would kill you. The American students picked off some of the quills and gave them to me and Wow, they’re big. The quill I have is 10 inches long, thick as a pen, and needle sharp. It is strong and hollow, looks perfect for performing emergency tracheotomies.
I spent a lot of time with the wazungus from Minnesota over the weekend. The teachers are pretty awesome people and I spent a few hours just chatting with them. Having them here has brought to light just how much I have changed. I don’t know when it happened, but I have now become more Kenyan than American. Everything from my language to my behavior is Kenyan. We were having a conversation, I was trying to convince them to just stop by my house for a visit (this is something we don’t do in America, you would never just show up to someone’s house uninvited), and they were saying it would get dark before they left. I offered them my torch to use and then I trailed off, noticing them all giving me a strange half smile. I paused, “what?” With a grin, one of them said, “You said torch!” Yeah, I say torch instead of flashlight, serviette instead of napkin, carbon four oxide instead of carbon dioxide, and call plastic bags “paper bags”. Go ahead and make fun. One of the students asked me why I wasn’t afraid to walk outside at night, why didn’t the hyenas attack me. I was thinking about it when a Kenyan friend of mine said, “They don’t attack her because she is Kenyan”. I guess hyenas only eat foreigners.
There is a cow who lives on my school compound. She is very cute, like most cows, and very nosey. She always tries to come in the staff room during lunch and someone has to run over and kick her in the face to get her to leave. I know that sounds harsh, she’s not hurt by it though, its more of a push in the face with a foot. But I don’t do that. I make moo-ing noises trying to get her to come inside. She is a very hungry cow but, like everywhere here, there is nothing to eat and no water to drink. She spends a lot of her day standing with her head in the staff room moo-ing as loud as she can. It actually gets quite annoying. But I still love her. But I really need to stop getting attached to animals here. There is a reason that the word for ‘animal’ is the same as the word for ‘meat’. I found out today that the end of her life is coming. She, and two goats, are destined to be lunch on Saturday during parents day. Me, being one of two females on the staff, will have the job of, lets use a nice word, processing the meat. In America, it is rare if you get to see the animal you are eating. Our culture tries its best to separate Happy Cows from Tasty Steak. Here there is no hiding it. Friday evening, I will see exactly where hamburgers come from. You might think that having that visual in your mind is a good way to become a vegetarian. But it actually helps me. I like knowing that this cow was treated well, as well as any of the starving creatures here can be, and it will be dispatched in a quick, humane way. You can never be sure of that with meat in America. Notice how I used “it” not “she”, I figure now is as good a time as any to distance myself. I am already getting morose just thinking about it. I’m such a softie sometimes. If I cry when I watch the cow die, all my teachers will laugh at me. I must be strong.

While I was walking home on Monday, a young boy asked me where my husband was. I said I didn’t have one and he asked why. I told him I was too busy for a husband and I didn’t need one. Besides, I said I was too young for one anyway. He asked how old I was, 25 I told him. He said “my mother is 24”, in a way that I am sure meant “yes, you are going to die a spinster.” I asked how old he was. “11”. Eleven! With marriage on his mind and a 24 year old mom! Yeah, do the math on that one. I was pretty speechless.

Besides the burden of being harassed by children about my marital status, I was still in a very good mood on the way to school on Tuesday. I had gotten up on time, made coffee, written my physics midterm exam, and had even done a load of wash (though I only used one bucket, and didn’t really scrub or rinse :/ ). I was walking alone with a skip in my step, enjoying the unusually cool weather, when I passed through Kubibagasa village. I was expecting to walk through the gauntlet of friendly toddlers (really quite adorable) but the place was empty. No one was at the bore hole either. I walked a little further, and when I saw why, my mood just plummeted. A woman had died at one of the houses I pass every day. There was a large crowd of people in the yard. The women were comforting the family members who were distraught . I saw one woman on the ground, retching, while her companions held her up. Nearer the house, a lady was hysterically weeping, and then overcome with grief, she started yelling and hyperventilating. She was helped inside. While the women took care of the mourners, the men were taking care of the deceased. I had always wondered what they do with their dead here; there is no cemetery out here. I got my answer as I watched the men digging in the field to the side of the house. They buried the woman in a shallow grave, only 10 feet from the road, and piled it with rocks. I have seen these rock piles all around here, and I never knew what they were. It is strange that they bury their loved ones right along roads or in their housing compounds. I am wondering if it has to do with protection from animals, for remembrance, or some other reason. There are no headstones or markers, just these sad piles of rocks throughout the desert. I asked how the woman died and was told that she was just old. I suspect it was more to do with malnutrition. I have heard that once the elderly lose their teeth, which happens very early in life with no toothbrushes or dentists, they have to live on camel’s milk alone. With the drought, many camels are not producing much milk. It was very sad to see but such a common part of life here. By the time I walked by the hut on my way home, the mourners were gone, the bore hole was busy, there was clean laundry hanging to dry, the children were waiting for me, and the fresh pile of rocks was the only visual reminder that anything had occurred.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mama Said There'll Be Days Like This

I am having a rough week. On my way to school Wednesday, my bicycle broke. I was riding downhill when I heard a loud SNAP and knew I was in trouble. I know what you are thinking, “Ryan, you already told us this story”. Unfortunately, and frustratingly, I am not repeating myself. My bicycle broke AGAIN. For the third time in two weeks. I spend most of my time pushing the damn thing to and from school. It is really starting to annoy me. I fixed the brakes last week, rode the thing for a day before the chain stopped engaging the gears. I left the bike at school over the weekend where it miraculously fixed itself. Rode it to school Monday and on Wednesday the new brakes snapped off. Grrr. I am running out of ways to fix it. I suppose that’s what I get for off-roading with a bike that is old enough to be in high school.

Also, I think something is seriously wrong with my feet because I keep falling. I don’t mean that I trip a lot, though I do stumble four or five times a day. I mean that in the last week I have sprawled on my face not once, not twice, but an unbelievable three times. All three have been in front of an embarrassing number of people. I don’t trip and land on my knees, I don’t catch myself with my hands in a downward dog yoga position. Nope, I just lose my balance for no reason and fall, hitting the ground with every part of my body. The first time was Monday at school. I slipped on some loose dirt outside the staff room and landed flat on my back. It was like a cartoon character with a banana peel. The second fall was Monday afternoon. I was pushing my bike home and got to the top of this hill. I was at a complete standstill and attempted to swing my right leg over the bike and mount. It is a move I have only done about a million times in my life. I got my leg over and then I just fell. My left leg just gave out. I landed hard with the bike on top of me. The group of Borana women loaded with water on their backs ran to help me. They insisted that I do not ride anymore and made me walk the bike the rest of the way. The third fall was by far the most embarrassing and funny. I was in the center of town on Tuesday for District education day. I was walking in a straight line, not distracted in any way, when I just tripped over absolutely nothing and collapsed in a heap. I got all dirty, tangled in my skirt, and even lost a shoe. I fell in the doorway of a shop. All my students saw, all my teachers saw, half the town saw. And those who didn’t see will probably have heard about it by now. I picked myself up from the dirt repeating “Niko sawa! Niko sawa!” (“I am okay!”) and giggling like a lunatic. I thought about calling the PC medical personnel and asking for help but I couldn’t think of what to say. “Hi, this is Ryan, I am calling because I am slowly losing my mental faculties and have lost the ability to stand…” I don’t know what is wrong with me. I am not losing my balance, I don’t get vertigo or anything; it’s like I was born with three legs and recently got one removed and now have to re-learn how to walk. It is very awkward.
I do not know how to cleverly segue from my personal difficulties to issues that are actually important so I am going to use this sentence to do it for me.
I recently met a teacher from the primary school while walking home. He was asking all about America and telling me about his life. He was an IDP, an Internally Displaced Person. He used to live in the Chalabi desert with his family but during a crisis in 2005, he and his whole community was moved here to Diribgombo. The fifty families were given only a white plastic dome hut to live in. The move was supposed to be temporary but the IDPs, which are all over the country, are afraid that the government has forgotten about them. There are no plans to move them back home, they have no money, no jobs, and no land. The man I met said that most just sit around all day but he felt that “idle hands are the devil’s playground” and so he is a volunteer teacher at the primary school. He teaches a few classes a day for a very reduced pay, just enough to buy a little food for his family. He is a very nice man; you would expect someone who has had their life uprooted to be angry or bitter, but he was friendly and kind. Again, I wished I had something to offer for help but all he asked of me was to walk with him to school sometimes and talk to him about America.

I have been thinking about this man for a few days now, and I was surprised that I had had no idea there were IDPs living so close to me. I can see their small white huts from my house and never knew what they were. I felt bad when I realized how little I knew about my community. I googled my village and found out some data about it. The international poverty rate is $1 USD per day. Kenya as a whole has 50% of its population below that rate. Kenya also has its own “extreme poverty rate” which is $0.50 USD per day and in my village, Diribgombo, over 80% of people live below that line. To give you a comparison, the American poverty rate is $60 per day and 17% of Americans are below that. It really puts things in perspective for me. And yet, Kenyans are the most generous people I have ever met. Some ask for money when they first meet me, but once they know me, they will give me anything. I have gotten food, money, and help, without asking, from Kenyans who don’t even understand my language and all they want in return is to shake my hand or give me a hug. Yesterday, I was sitting on a rock reading a book when a little girl from the village came up and sat next to me. After she shyly said hello she gave me a piece of candy then ran away. At education day, I was sitting under a tree by myself trying not to get sunburned when one of my favorite students, Robe, came over and brought me two packages of ginger cookies and a soda. She thought I looked hungry. And my young neighbor, Lokho, came over last night and she said “I will remember you for my whole life because you are like my mother”, and then she gave me a small hair clip with a flower on it that she had purchased with her own money and a letter telling me how much she loves having me as a friend. You just can’t imagine how sad and grateful and lucky I feel to be living here and seeing all this.

PS. I am spending a lot of time with the group from Minnesota, and I just love them. They gave me a bag of granola bars and candy and also gave me a coloring book and real Crayola markers. When they saw how unimaginably happy the gifts made me, they laughed in a “wow, poor thing” kind of way. That’s okay, they are also going to give me an old hat, some new (to me) flip flops that are only one size too big, and any Ziploc bags they have left over. It’s like Christmas! I know, I know… I’m pathetic.

I think I’ll stop there and end this blog on a high note. I will save for next time the story about the disappearing scorpion and the camel that tried to kick me in the head.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ah, the Good Life

This has been an amazing weekend. I had had a mildly stressful week. Everything just ganged up on me and tried to drag me down; the bicycle breaking repeatedly, the last time hopefully for good so I can have an excuse to get a new one, the desert getting even hotter than normal which is totally not fair, having guests and a new neighbor coming over to my house twice a day all week thereby destroying any semblance of privacy I used to pretend I had, and one of my fellow volunteers ET-ing (going home) making me sad and just a teensy bit jealous. I also talked to my sisters for the first time in almost a month and I realized just how much I miss them. Darn them for being so supportive, funny, sweet, and amazing! So anyway, I was tired of constant attention so I decided to take a tip from a friend and go to town to check myself into a hotel. I wanted to pamper myself with clean sheets, hot showers, no cooking, no dishes, no neighbors, no desert, and no worries. I came to town on Saturday morning as usual and instead of scrambling to get shopping done and checking email so I would have a few minutes to chug a cold beer before having to go home, I leisurely called Curtis, my fellow PCV who lives in town, and made him stop doing laundry and come take me to The Crater. I had heard about the crater, and seen it from the air but had never hiked up there. The road to get there is long, five kilometers long, and awfully annoying; all along it there are kids who yell “HOW ARE YOU!” as loud as they can in a horrible, high-pitched voice designed to poke a hole through every neuron in a mzungu brain. They start yelling a few seconds before they actually can see you, the echo of the previous group of screaming kids having served as an advanced warning system, and do not cease until you are nearly weeping from the effort to restrain yourself from responding with a stream of words that would be full of asterisks. The road leads out of town, past the airstrip, down a dusty road where the green hills start, and finally leaves the kids behind when you come to the bright blue slaughterhouse. You know for sure that it is a slaughter house because of the hundred or so macabre-looking vultures waiting outside and the smell which is like that of a normal farm mixed with what I can only assume is the smell of innards. Then there is more walking down dusty roads until you get out into the desert. The land starts to drop off and become full of ravines and hills where herds of camels are scattered. We passed the rock quarry on the edge of the open desert. The men working there were chipping out large squares of stone using mallets and chisels in the heat of the desert sun. After we passed them, it was only a matter of some minor rock climbing to get to the top of a ridge. But when I stumbled over that last boulder and was hit by that first gust of wind and glanced down with my stomach dropping, the only thought in my head was “wow”. It was a big crater. A really, really big crater. I am terrible at judging distance but this thing must be miles across. I looked down past the sheer cliffs and saw tiny bushes which turned out to be large trees and a herd of cows that were so small I couldn’t tell they were cows. It was like looking out of an airplane window; everything was so tiny and far away that you could have said they were mice or double decker buses and I would have agreed with you. We stood on the edge of this crater, trying to not get blown in, for a few minutes. It was the kind of place you could sit for hours if you had a picnic, a good book, and an ipod. I had none of those things so after ten minutes of staring at the majesty in front of me and throwing some rocks to see how long they took to get to the bottom, I decided it was time for a cold beer. Unfortunately, we had to walk another 5 km through the irritating child gauntlet to get to the bar.
I spent Saturday night in my hotel room watching movies, listening to some drunk guy vomit loudly in the hallway, and eating what passes for junk food here in Mars. I had Digestive Tasty Wheat Biscuits (High in Fibre!), a can of fruit cocktail, and blackcurrant yogurt. The last two items were imports from someplace amazing and provided at a steep price by my friends at the Indian store. I fell asleep on the pillow, that I am pretty sure was made out of wood, slightly nauseous and happy.
I woke up Sunday leisurely at six AM. I was going to have banana pancakes with honey for breakfast (I was going to have to make them, but that’s okay) but it was Sunday and all the stores were closed for church. I settled for a cup of strong black coffee and then Curtis and I went off on an adventure to find elephants. We called our usual taxi driver and had him come pick us up and take us to Marsabit Forest. The last time we went we stopped at The Lodge which overlooks a crater. We saw only baboons. So this time we were going all the way to Lake Paradise. We started driving through the park and 2km in we passed the overlook to the crater near the lodge. Lo and Behold! ELEPHANTS! There was a whole herd, 5 dusty brown adults and two beautiful calves. After gazing lovingly at them as they swished their tails and flapped their ears, we went on. We traveled deep into the forest startling large, reddish brown deer-things, and seeing lots of baboons. We traveled up onto a ledge overlooking Lake Paradise, now only a green clearing thanks to the drought. Despite there not being water in the lake, there was a lone zebra grazing. It was too far away to tell if it was actually a zebra, or just an escaped donkey. So we got back in our car and drove down onto the green patch. When we got there, our zebra (or donkey) was gone, but on the other side of the clearing was a whole herd of actual zebras! There were even a few babies, very very adorable babies. We watched them for awhile then continued back up through the forest. We were driving along when all of a sudden we spotted elephants. They were walking along the road not even ten feet from us. By the time our driver reacted and stopped the car, I was halfway out my window trying to remember how to use my camera as I mumbled ‘wow’ over and over. The elephants were as startled to see us and paused in the forest. Then Dad, with huge curving tusks, jumped out to defend his family. He came out of the forest with his ears spread wide. Anyone who watches the Discovery channel knows that is a precursor to charging. Me, being incapable of recognizing danger, climbed further out my window. Fortunately, our driver realized what a full grown, angry bull elephant could do to a taxi. He calmly said, “he’s coming towards us. That’s not good” and he hit the gas. As soon as the elephant saw us retreating, he and the rest of his family thundered across the road back into the forest. It was absolutely amazing.
We arrived at the Lodge and decided to stay there and relax and watch the grazing elephant herd for the afternoon. Curtis and I ate PB & J sandwiches and gazed at the elephants as they wandered in and out of the forest. It was a cool, almost chilly, breezy afternoon. I napped, read a book, listened to the elephants occasionally trumpeting, and stayed wrapped up in a shawl for hours. Eventually, we had to leave and we called the taxi to come pick us up. We drove away feeling extremely satisfied with our day, when all of a sudden ELEPHANT!! This one was the biggest one I have ever seen in my life, and he wasn’t in a zoo, or behind a fence, or far away in a crater. He was gigantic and only three elephant steps away from our car. I was so excited I nearly peed myself. Again, I attempted to climb out the window, at the same time checking with our driver that I wouldn’t be killed. He assured us that the big guy was alone, and therefore had to one to protect. That was good because if this guy wanted to attack, there is no way we could escape, he would be standing on the hood of the car before our driver touched the gas pedal. But he didn’t want to attack. He stayed right where he was and browsed, turning his head to us to make sure we weren’t doing anything dumb, like climbing out car windows. His tusks were unbelievably long and old looking. His wrinkly eye watched us, and his ears gently flapped. He was the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. After a few minutes, he got bored with our staring and moved off, breaking down trees as he ambled away through the forest. It was an amazing end to an amazing day.
After that wonderful weekend, I was ready to go back to school. It was guaranteed to be an extremely exciting time. I heard there were mzungus coming from a school in Minnasota to spend three weeks learning about Marsabit. They were staying at St. Pauls and they were only there for one day before I couldn’t wait anymore and went to visit. My Kenyan friend, Leah, was excited for me; she said, “You are here alone. Seeing an American must be like seeing your own brother,” and she was right. I wanted to run to them and give them a big hug while gushing about how happy I was to see them. I forgot, of course, that they are used to seeing Americans, and they are living with Americans while here, and they just came from America so who cares. And while I have been away for a while, I am pretty sure it is still weird to hug strangers in America. I didn’t care though. I went to their house in the morning and greeted them. They were very nice, though much less enthused to see me, and told me I could come over any time. I warned them that I would take them up on that (I saw a jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce on their kitchen counter!). They said they had brought American treats with them and would give me some. The orgasmic look on my face must have shown how much I would love that. I left them, too soon for my tastes, but I could see them losing interest. It was alright though, they are here for three whole weeks and I am going visit them nearly everyday. Maybe I’ll even get to use sarcasm!
Parents day for St. Pauls is this weekend and I am invited. Brother Boniface first said “you are not a guest,” and I was surprised but said okay. He then said , “you are one of us, you have to be there”. Aww! I wouldn’t miss it. Besides the mzungus, Leah, the Brothers (who become more like family every time I see them), I hear there is going to be local tribal dances and entertainment. It sounds like an awesome party. I will certainly tell you all about it next week. Have a good day!