Friday, June 26, 2009

Welcome to the Freakshow

One of the fun things about the little kids here is that they have no qualms about walking up to us and pawing at our arms. They can't really believe the awesomeness of hairy white men. Most people can't, come to think of it. But when it's little kids, nbd. it's cute.

On the other hand, when a grown man does it, it's a little creepy. For example, on the bus to Rwanda, I sat down next to a respectable looking businessman type. We exchanged some minor pleasantries, but he was coming from Kenya or possibly Tanzania and didn't speak much English. I guess the extent of our conversation was probably "American!" "Obama-man!" "HAHAHA". Maybe an hour later, my head is slammed against the window by a pothole, knudging me from my slumber. And what do I discover? This guy is, ever so gently, petting my arm.

I'm not even sure if he was embarrassed. He just said something along the lines of "You Americans must have really good food. I can't grow hair like that at all." Then he pushes up his sleeve to reveal, yup, a hairless arm.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A kiddie sized life expectancy

I went to an AIDS hospital yesterday to do a product delivery with a friend.

We met in the kids room, because it was empty. It was hard. It seemed and felt like the preschools I used to volunteer in back home. Kiddie sized chairs, kiddie sized beds, kiddie sized sippy-cups. Toys everywhere, drawings on the walls. It was nice. Then I got to looking around at the posters on the walls and it hit me. All these kids are HIV positive. None of them will, based on my child's understanding of AIDS, live to see their high school graduation. It was really tough, I really almost lost it. The poster about how to work with HIV kids as a medical professional was hard. To paraphrase "Don't treat the kids as a doomed, lost cause- even though they are. They are still kids, they are still people." "Don't shy away from death or let them pretend they aren't sick. If they don't acknowledge how serious things are they won't take their meds, and they will die."

The hardest though, were the little handwritten cards on the wall. In the terrible, sideways writing of those who are going letter by letter because they can't read yet:

"I'd like to thank the doctors for keeping me alive. I thank them for every second I breathe because I know could be dead like Mommy."

"I realize that I will not live to have children, but I know God loves me. I thank Him for everyday I wake up, even when I feel sick."

"I will take my ARV's in the right dose, everyday. I know that if I don't, I will die."

Hard, hard stuff. I guess I'm supposed to say something about how it makes me count my blessings in the US. If anything it just makes me feel bad that despite all this- and knowing better, I still would probably be too scared to give these kids a hug or even a pat on the head.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Circle of Life

Ok. Does anyone remember the story of the mysterious land crab that terrorized us one night in Lira? I think we may have cracked the case.

We have a minor cockroach problem in our house. Actually, to be accurate, we have a minor cockroach problem only in the back bedrooms of our house. There are a bunch of tiny, transparent cockroach babies crawling on the walls most nights. Gross, I know.

On the other hand, though, we have a major, swine-flu pandemic, the communists have landed in Philadelphia, red-alert cockroach problem in our kitchen. In fact, Luke and I had a long, serous conversation the other day about just how big the monsters really are.

I said, and still believe, that they are the size of milano cookies. Luke says I'm being a melodramatic little princess, but sadly we can't find any milano to test my theory with (sad on a number of levels, you can be sure). He says they are the size of a nutter butter, which could be true for all I know, but is about as helpful as saying the bugs are the size of a typical crumpet in pre-Victorian London. In other words, what kind of gap-toothed redneck half-breed knows what a nutter butter is? Not me, that's for sure. But I bet it goes well with mountain dew.

How big are the primitive little beasts? When you step on them, they don't really crunch. They squish, like stepping on a mouse. Or a housecat. But of course, that only happens if you're lucky enough to kill it straightaway. Otherwise they will usually carry you halfway across the room. Last night one tried to knock me out by escaping underneath the door. Damn near got me too. I think it was only by the grace of god and the cushioning effect of a seriously handsome Clark Gable mustache that i wasn't bested.

Our brilliant solution? Much like our plan to kill all mosquito interlopers by encouraging the geckos to be fruitful, multiply and make themselves at home (so far so good- You don't know fun until you've sat on a couch drinking beer and trying to put odds on lizard creeping across the ceiling towards insect), we are just going to get some chickens.

Hopefully they will be civilized enough to refrain from pooping all over the kitchen. Otherwise (and between you and me, its going to happen no matter what), we will just have to slaughter them and roast them up for luke's birthday. With any luck, this won't happen until after a highly successful all-you-can-eat cockroach buffet.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It's not all Mangos and Zebras

Healthcare in Africa

An essay by Luke

Healthcare in Africa is no joke. Of everything we've seen here it's the hardest to make funny, because really, it just isn't.

I got malaria a couple weeks ago (allegedly, though doctor number two said doctor number one was a crackerjack). It sucked. It really sucked. It felt like I imagine you'd feel if you ran a marathon then drank cheap whiskey till you passed out, then got woken up two hours later. It sucked. Then things went wrong somewhere and I got a lung infection or pneumonia or something. So I couldn't breathe. That sucked more, because then the locals were worried. Tell an African you have Malaria, his response will be along the order of "That's a bummer. The last time I got malaria was a few years ago. It sucked." So when they got worried I got really worried.

I went to the hospital a few days later in a very much second- or even third- tier Ugandan city. It was scary. Not because there were human body parts laying around and AIDS patients bleeding on me, but because it was African healthcare. I have been taught to fear this more than just about anything in the world. I'm not going to say that everything we think is wrong, because the difference between "their" hospitals and "ours" is huge. Probably it's smaller than your imagination, but it is still huge, people die here from things we joke about. That being said, I still haven't been to a public hospital, because I am lucky enough to be able to afford not to. Maybe all the scary pictures in my mind are there in the public hospital, but even then I had some misconceptions. They have x-rays, doctors wear rubber gloves, my blood test was done on a machine, once I got in the doctor's room it was just like any other doctor's visit except he didn't use a computer to tell him what to do. There were no chickens or goats, there was no mention of ghosts or devils or lizard's blood.

I was deathly afraid of getting poked with a needle. Growing up in America I was taught that if you get poked with a needle in Africa, you will die of AIDS. I had to make that judgment call of which do I fear more: whatever is in my body right now, or the possibility of something new getting in there. The former won out, I got a blood test. Even though the needle was triple packaged with safety seals and everything, I am still terrified that I now have AIDS. The hospital was fine, maybe if I hadn't been taught that hiding behind every wall is an open sewer and a guy rinsing off needles, it wouldn't have felt like anything. I don't know, all I do know is that our idea of clean and Africa's idea of clean are two different things. Africans shower twice a day, I can count on one hand the number of time in my life I've done this. On the other hand Americans don't eat any meat that's been unrefrigerated for more than like an hour, and I won't even start on the butcher shop here. All I know is I can't say that I'm going to be completely at ease until I get a HIV test that comes out negative, administered in my own country. Maybe that makes me racist, if so then call me a racist. I fear needles in Africa, I always will. No amount of evidence to the contrary will change my mind.

I talked about this fear with some of my African friends. They're somewhere between insulted and amused by our childish irrationality. The idea that a reputable doctor would be using dirty needles is horrifying to them, just like it is to us. More so, because the fact that people here actually see AIDS and see how terrible AIDS is makes an intelligent person probably more afraid of it. It's like the difference between a child's fear of the boogeyman and a grown man's fear of real-life danger. If you mess around it will destroy your life, period, no questions asked. AIDS is real, another friend was surprised that we didn't know how to spot an AIDS patient on the street. I don't know whether there's any validity to his method, all I know is I've never even thought about it.

People don't believe me when I say that I've never knowingly known anyone with HIV. People don't get it when I say that in my bracket, AIDS isn't really a real concern. That for all my friends who engage in risky sex, HIV is just not on the radar. Death is very real here, and people who can afford to treat it as such. Not everyone has the luxury of thinking they're invincible. The idea that I could die before I'm good and ready isn't really real to me. Not in a you-could-die-tomorrow sense. I'm young, rich and white in America, that shit ain't real to me. My biggest fear is babies.

On the other hand, on several occasions I've gotten into it with people about AIDS in America. I've been told by very educated people that we have a bigger prevalence of AIDS in America than in Uganda. That seems crazy, right? So now imagine you take your Ugandan friend to the doctor at home and they refuse to get an injection and say they fear getting AIDS from the needle. A little insulting and bizarre, right? I guess the moral to the story is that culture is a powerful thing. Whatever "you" do is good, while "they" are a bunch of savages.

I'm ok now, I finished the antimalarials a week or two ago and my bloodwork came back negative. The doctor gave me some antibiotics for my lungs and I can breathe normally again. I'm healthy again and have learned a valuable lesson: USE BUGSPRAY YOU IDIOT.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

you must bar-GAIN

The bargaining culture is Uganda is serious. For example, we take boda-bodas (bicycle taxis) from our house into town most days. The cost is pretty well accepted to be 300 shillings. Everybody knows this. And yet, when we get off the bikes, usually the guys tell us 500, and we have to bargain them down to the correct price. Some of it is the Mzungu Tax, but beyond that it's just a part of life here.

The same thing happens in the markets, buying vegetables and delicious mangos. But the formula is pretty standard. They say it costs more than it does, you say you couldn't possibly pay more than way too little, then you agree on something in the middle. Pretty standard, at least in theory.

On the bus back from Rwanda, we met an Australian homie. It seemed only natural, what with us being the only white people on the bus, to get to talking. Sure enough, he was also hiding out from the economic apocalypse in a place where the cost of living is a little more tolerable. We got to chatting in line waiting to get our passport stamped, trading war stories about our time here.

When we went to buy our Ugandan visas, this silly man tried to pay with Australian dollars. In one sense, I guess, it's not that silly, since it's a stable currency from a serious country (In fact, looking for a sweet picture, I just learned it's the sixth most traded currency in the world. Go figure). On the other hand though, as he told us, "our money is made of plastic." We were waiting outside of the office when he came outside with a smirk. "I gotta find one of these guys to change Australian currency, mate."

When we crossed the border, naturally, there was a crowd of guys trying to give us "good rates" to buy Francs, Shillings and other oddly-named colonial holdover currencies. But to no one's surprise, nobody was too excited about buying this strange currency from a funny-sounding white man. Although a few guys actually HAD Australian dollars, nobody wanted to buy more. Luckily, we had some extra shillings, and told him we'd be happy to trade one semi-worthless currency for another.

(Quick Backstory- Getting cash in Rwanda is damn near impossible. You can't just go to an ATM, for some reason. Instead you have to go to the big fancy bank, go upstairs into a big fancy office, and do some kind of strange voodoo international banking transaction. So just being able to get back to where you stick your card in a machine and it spits out a huge pile of money was pretty novel. And coming from Rwanda, offering to hand over a solid amount of local currency seemed like a much bigger deal.)

Getting back to the point. We set in to bar-GAIN with this Australian over the exchange rate for $100 in plastic funny money (after the fact, we determined that it should be worth ~170,000 shillings). Only this time, the bargaining took a decidedly different turn:

Aussie- An Australian dollar is worth about 80 cents US.
Field Director Philips- OK. What's that in Shillings?
Aussie- I dunno. What's the exchange rate?
Field Director Philips- Eh. Call it 2,200.
Aussie- OK. Why don't you just give me 140,000.
Field Director Philips- 140,000? C'mon that's not enough. We're not doing this to make a profit. Here's 160,000.
Aussie- No, no. That's too much. Gotta be.
Field Director Philips- No take it. It's fine. Seriously. Go buy your visa or the bus will leave you behind.
Aussie- Alright. Cheers, Mate.

(Sometime later, back on the bus)

Aussie- I think you gave me too much. Seriously, take back 10,000.
Field Director Philips- Fine, fine. But only if you tell me who this Australian dude on the bill is.
Aussie- (laughs) People always ask me that! I have no idea!

In retrospect, maybe kind of a crappy story. Take my word for it, though, when you have to bargain/haggle over just about every little thing you buy, a bargaining session so backwards is funny, noteworthy and a damn solid story. Our Ugandan friends get a kick out of it when we tell them this story of how white people bargain with each other, since we are all (allegedly) terrible at bargaining to begin with. And the guys at the border thought it was a pretty funny scene, too. So if you're hating, get off my back.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I kilt me a lion

I think it's kind of against the rules to be a mzungu in Africa and not go on safari. So, because we're good anthropologists and all, we went on a little safari. Because they're awesome, our friends at MUBS (the Ugandan business school we work with) hooked us up with a basically free trip. They do a trip every year with Drake University in Iowa, and somehow get all the park fees waived. Plus they do it in a bus, so we didn't have to pay any transport fees. All told we got a major hookup that allowed us to do something we otherwise probably wouldn't have because its so expensive. Thanks everyone.

It was a fun trip, it was interesting to spend time with American college kids again after such a long time away. Even though they were from the Midwest and as bizarre to me as anyone on this planet. What is this Midwest-Nice, why are you so friendly? It was a weird experience after explaining the basics of my country to so many people over the last couple months, I had to explain the basics of Oregon all over again (between California and Washington- no not that Washington, the state) and admit that I knew nothing about Iowa besides what I've seen on tv. "So do you really have nothing but cornfields for miles?" "Yup." "Do you really ride tractors to school?" "Sometimes."

Anyway without further ado, the animals...

First we saw zebras. I can't figure out why zebras are so cool. I mean they're basically just horses that wear their pajamas to work. Something about them though, they're so cool.

Later we went to Queen Elizabeth National Park. There we went out on a boat to do a little river safari which was awesome. One other thing, meeting these college students really showed us how far we've come in the few months we've been here. We were playing tour guide fielding questions, explaining what this is and why it is that way. Much like the real tour guides here, we made up a solid 1/3 of our facts because these silly mzungus don't know the difference anyway. "You know those birds mate for life. If his wife dies, he's so sad that he dives to the bottom of the ocean and stays there till he dies." "Those two elephants there, they're called Marcus and Potato. They've been here since the park opened. You can identify them by Marcus' ragged left ear, and you always know that his wife potato will be with him. Trust me, I know."

We saw a bunch of elephants, which were so cool. Unlike elephants at the zoo, these guys were happy. Not depressed and listless like every other elephant I've seen, but just chillin, stoked to be elephants. I'm not sure, but I think our elephants look different. They're pale and pink, like me. Am I wrong? I was told there were tame elephants there that you can kind of kick it with. I brought a banana and everything, prepared for the coolest picture ever, but I was deceived- they were not theya. Of course I forgot about the banana until I reached into my pocket that night and found a sticky smushed mess. So that's what smelled like spoiled fruit. It was me!

(you'ze a bad mutha)

We were walking along the path and stumbled across some tracks. Now I'm now biologist, but that looks like a cat print. A big cat print. (The little clump of dirt at the bottom was like an inch or two across).

I think this is an Impala or something. This aint National Geographic, so that's the best I can do.

We saw lots of buffaloes. Not exactly the coolest cats in the jungle. Maybe if they didn't have they nerdiest haircut in creation they'd like a little more imposing and wouldn't get punked for their lunch money by the hippo.


We also saw tons of hippos. Now they say that hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa. I don't know that I buy it. Maybe if he's mistakes you for a bag of cheetos... Ya Fat Bastard. The hippos were funny though, they looked like big fat naked babies or something.
(No I don't have any more Cheezy Poofs to share with you.)

This is allegedly a picture of lion. What, you can't see him? Well, that orange smear in the middle-ish region, they say, was a lion and her two cubs. We could say something rolling and jumping around, evidently lion cubs. Although I don't know that they weren't rocks. I tried to get or friend to go take a closer look, but he wasn't buying it. He said he'd get me a picture of him with the lions if I'd walk out there and get him a soda first. No dice.

We saw crocodiles too, but honestly I wasn't that impressed. Our gators in the South are way cooler, and you can feed those guys raw chicken from a stick. Maybe all the biggest ones were sleeping because it was the middle of the day. Shoutout to feeding deep fried gator to the gators in Florida.

As you can see from the pic on the right, you can't be a white man on safari without a Safari Mustache.

One other thing: One of the Drake kids explained the food chain to us in a way that I think really makes sense. "My Daddy told me when I was a kid, he said: 'Son, you're a man. You're at the top of the food chain. If it walks, slithers, crawls, swims, flies, or breathes you can eat it. Don't worry about the rest.'" You don't even know how right you are bro, trying spending another 3 months here and you'll see how right you are.

What's a little caning among friends?

Whew. We are back in Mbale after some few days on the road. In addition to all them wild animals (which Luke is going to cover, don't worry), we also took advantage of being near the border to pop into Rwanda for a few days. Very worth it, and a nice country from what little we saw. Although, to be fair, we had gotten pretty mixed messages from some Ugandan friends before heading in.

The rastas told us it was awesome. Clean, fun and lots of Americans. The good people of Kigali love to party, so live it up. Sounded promising.

A somewhat more respectable friend told us to be careful. We countered that the security situation was supposed to be greatly improved and nothing to worry about. So he clarified that it is the political situation that is a little tense. His advice, which may be good general advice for life: "Don't excercise your freedom of speech too much, or you may be thouroughly caned." Interesting.

(I can't even taste the air a little.)

We didn't get caned. Not even once. Kigali is a very nice city, clean and orderly. A little like Montevideo, in that it's a bit more European and generaly smaller than you would have expected. And it's the anti-kampala in a lot of ways, mostly related to noise, traffic and air quality. And at least in the city, we didn't run into too many problems related to our not speaking a word of French.

(Zhis street is zo pretty)

Other than it just being an awesome place, we found ourselves leaving with a tragic lack of absurd stories. The last day we were there, we went up to check out Lake Kivu in the northwest, along the border with the Congo. In fact, we almost wandered into the DRC by mistake, but managed to piece together the razor fences, automatic weapons and stern faces before getting too close to turn back. The lake was pretty first-rate though, clear blue waters with some crazy volcanos in the background.

Yesterday we did an epic (in other words, exceedingly unpleasant) series of bus journeys to get back home, leaving Kigali bright and early at 5:30am, getting to Kampala at around 4:30pm in time to catch the last bus to Mbale, then sitting in traffic in Kampala for two or three hours, breathing the sweet aroma of diesel fumes and leaded gasoline. Oh Kigali, I hardly knew ye. We got home at 11:30pm, dusty, hungry and smelling like hot garbage. Anybody want to come visit?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Who do you pray for?

It probably shouldn't come as too much of a shock that there are a lot of things that I just was not expecting when Luke floated the idea of escaping cubicleland for Uganda. I didn't realize that I would quickly come to love and crave Indian food. No idea that I would re-enter the world of Mexican soap operas with a vengeance, only unlike in Argentina, even a lot of men here follow Salvador's murder, reincarnation and resulting love triangles with a passion. Also unlike Argentina, here they're dubbed in English. Never dreamed I'd eat an entire plate of bugs.

We may have mentioned this already, but it's very common around these parts to ask people you've just met what religion they are. Like maybe the fourth thing to ask, after where are you from, what are you doing here and how do you find Uganda. Needless to say, people are generally on the conservative side and some flavor of Christian.

Now Luke and I, for those who don't know, weren't exactly raised in a devout household. There have been some big time spiritual re-awakenings in the already complicated world of Philips religious identifications since we all left for college, but let's leave it that as kids we didn't get to church too often. And the broader religious identity of our family is, most simply, complex.

Initially, we would respond to people here that "Oh, we don't really pray that often. There are a lot of people like that in America." Which met with absolute shock and disbelief. That apparently is just something that either isn't done around here, or something that people just don't own up to. In any case, they would look at us like we just told them we have a pet dog that can ride a bike, then set in with the questioning.

These days, we typically respond that "oh, we're Jews," which meets with one of a few reactions. Most often, it's a sort of impressed amusement. Like, whoa, a Jew. Who would have thought. There is apparently a small Ugandan Jewish community somewhere near Mbale, or so the story goes. This is the easiest to deal with, because we don't have to explain too much. One guy even started calling us "Children of Abraham," which we nodded along with sagely.

Another group of reactions falls into the "Jewish. Is that like Presbyterian?" category. This one is fun, because we explain that that no, in fact being Jewish isn't like being a presbyterian, or even Born-Again. In fact, Jews don't even dig on the New Testament, we stick with the original, first-edition stories (we have also become experts on Jewish theology). And don't ask about the whole Jesus thing, though did you know that he was a Jew too? And get this, we pray on Friday nights. Crazy! I know! Quite often, this conversation ends with "Jewish, huh? That's interesting. I think we should get you baptized. Jesus died for your sins, you know."

So yeah. How do you like that, Dad? Even Luke is quick to tell people that we're Jews now. All it took was a trip to East Africa. On a related note, there is a bakery here in town that makes really good Challah. You can bet we've been eating a lot of that, too.

(Break Bread)