Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reports of Reverse Culture Shock are Greatly Exaggerated

I think I can officially say it. The readjustment really wasn't that bad. I was expecting it to be hard, but really, coming back was just not that big of an issue. Things were about the same as when I left. People don't seem to love Obama quite as much, but on the whole, not a lot has changed.

(Somehow, my being 1/2 of the Obama Brothers didn't get me through the White House gate)

People have been asking me a lot about what the best and worst parts about being back are. Honestly, I think the answer to both is just how easy things are here. If you need to do laundry, or replace a broken light bulb, or buy produce, you just do it. No brazenly disinterested shopkeepers, no obstacles, no bargaining. Just exchange money for goods and/or services, and be on your way, credit cards accepted.

(Farmers Market in Copley Square)

But that's also the problem. Living here, there's not that much mystery. That great feeling of waking up and having no idea what kind of trouble you'll get into that day is, sadly, pretty far gone from my life these days. Maybe there is a way to find it again, and believe me I'm looking, but so far, no luck. Just organization beating out chaos, every step of the way.

("A little road just for bikes.")

It's been a bit more than a month now that I've been back. I just took the last of my malaria meds, which means so long LSD dreams (which I'll miss, even though they really got less intense right around the time we made the switch to the Made-in-India variety). I'm looking for a job and plotting my move out west. A few other thoughts:

I'm missing all the fresh food and floored by the cost of mangoes at the grocery store.

I'm loving having microbrews back in my life, except when the bill comes.

The rude, ignorant people at Best Buy made me nostalgic for the cheerful, goodhearted incompetence of their Ugandan counterparts.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Blue Highways

Some few weeks ago, I got an unusual phone call. Without getting into too many details, a friend needed a car driven from Florida to Connecticut, about 1,400 miles. It sounded fun enough, a good chance to see some other parts of the country, and it's not like I don't have the time, so a few days later, I got off a plane in Tampa.

(Not Florida, but very patriotic)

Now, I've gone down that way a few times in recent years to escape the awful, terrible, miserable, soul-sucking New England winter, so just seeing that airport brought back fond memories of Crabby Bill's, pirate festivals and severe dehydration. Driving back from the airport with the top down, enjoying the warm night air and gladly stuffing my jacket into my bag, I couldn't help but wonder why I decided to come back to the North.

Then the sun came up. I guess it was about three months early for my Florida trip, because it was like 90+ degrees and sticky, nasty humid. I thought I was down with the heat since I'd been in Africa, but no, not really. Of course, I left my wife beaters and golf pants with Luke, so maybe the real problem was the lack of polyester paisleys and plaid on my thighs. Actually, that's probably true as a general rule in life.

(Luke looks much more comfortable with the heat)

Either way, I raided my friend's closet, and one salmon polo shirt and a pair of blue shorts later, I was wandering around Ybor looking for a place to grab some lunch. I'll say this about Florida. I've never been to a place that hates pedestrians more. Some people call it over-roaded, others just settle for Concrete Hell. Either way, with all the humidity, my old standby of hiding in the shade really didn't work that well. Long story short, I wasn't too sad to leave Florida behind.

In some ways, this trip was a sort of trial run on solo road tripping, given that I'm hoping to drive out to California in the next month or so. On that level, it was a roaring success. I remembered how to drive without too many surprises, except for the pockets of swamp gas in northern Florida that would fog up the inside of the car without warning. Actually, that was pretty disorienting and terrifying the first time it happened.

(Northern Georgia, I think.)

I had a nice chat with a redneck mechanic about why someone might want to visit “a country as messed-up as Africa,” though I think we ended up talking past each other most of the time. I ventured off the interstate to get semi-lost in rural Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia without really losing the general northeasterly trajectory that would get me to my next waypoint without wasting too much time. Really, the only unpleasant time was getting stuck in traffic going over the GW bridge in New York City, but that was at the very end of the trip, so it didn't matter.

View roos special delivery in a larger map

I could really get used to this whole “not having a job” thing though. It's just nice to be able to float around without much schedule and meet up with friends from college who are apparently all in grad school now. If only there was some way to get paid doing it.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

I'm still in Africa

I have been talking to some people and there seems to be some confusion. There are two authors of this blog, myself and Patrick. Patrick is now back home in the US and writing gripping transcripts of conversations with the elderly. I, however am still here in Africa scratching around in the dirt and eating bugs.

I went back to Sipi Falls (the place we went for my birthday / 4th of July) with my new roommates for a little team building retreat. We had a good time, and saw our guy Juma the mountain guide again. We placed some flowers on the grave of the dearly departed Tin Can Tony I, and did our best to honor his memory with some quality Waragi soaked campfiring. Of course no Marple reatreat would be complete without Mr. debating a white girl about the relative merits of caning women and how best to treat a beezy like she aint shit. To that end he did his best to enlighten Rachel as to the fair 60/50 breakdown of rights in a relationship. As in women and men are equal, men are just more equal.

We went for a nice little monsoon dayhike Saturday afternoon. The first hour was really nice, not too hot not too cold. Then the sky just opened up and poured cats and frogs for the next 6 hours. All these crazy Oregonians refused to hide from the rain, so we got completely soaked- as wet as if I had gone swimming in my clothes. Luckily, since it's Africa, it was still pretty warm so it was fun. Hiking through streams above our ankles on like a 30 degree incline above a 200 foot cliff. All in all, a good time.

Oh, and finally. This doesn't really seem like that big a deal to me, but little tidbits like this tend to interest some people the most for some reason. The guys from the campsite where we were staying said that their cousin brother ran a matatu up there so we could get a ride back into town from him. I figured ok, one random 15 passenger van is as good as any other. The van shows up, its an 8 passenger van. There were 11 of us, plus the driver and conductor. It turns out 13 people in an 8 passenger van < 23 people in a 15 passenger van.

Since we were so overloaded, the driver decided to put more air in the rear tire. Cue the leaky bycicle pump with a plastic bag o-ring. At one point I told the amusing anecdote about the first time I came up to Sipi and our tire fell off and we had to lift the van oursleves because there wasn't a jack. The logical the question was raised as to why we didn't just "use the spare tire" right now. Since, upon closer inspection, we were currently sitting on 3 spare tires, that was out. Finally air having been taken care of it was time to fuel up, as we were currently past E. Cue soda bottle full of fuel. Somehow I don't think getting the car serviced entails quite the same things on Pat's road trips. Africa.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

(Historic) New York Baseball

I'm spending a few days in New York City, which wouldn't be complete without at least one night of martinis and storytelling on the upper East Side. For those of you who may not know, the Yankees just finished off the Twins to advance to the ALCS, right around the same time that the Red Sox wrapped up the season by coughing up a lead in the ninth. Whatever. Go Angels, I guess. 

Given all this, though, Raymond and I got to chatting about baseball. As it happens, he has only recently, like in the last 5-8 years, become a baseball fan again. Why, you ask? Well...

* * * * *

"What you have to understand is this: As a boy, I loved the Giants. Loved them. The first game I went to was a World Series game, the Subway Series in 1936, between the Yankees and the Giants. You remember that series I'm sure? There I was, an eleven year old boy, watching Bill Terry playing first and managing the Giants. And of course, there was [I don't remember the names, but he proceeded to name the entire infield for the Giants]. But of course, the Yankees eventually won that series. In those days, we feared the Yankees. We feared the Yankees, but we hated the Dodgers. 

"And you must remember in '51, when the Giants and the Dodgers finished the season tied and had to play a three game playoff. I went to the second game with my father, with all those guys who were absolute heroes to boys like me, guys like [again, he names the infield, the managers, the pitchers, of both sides]. Naturally, we didn't even know whether there would be a third game until the Giants won the second. But afterwards, my father asked me if I'd like to go to the third game. So we waited in that line, which I remember was quite long, until we got the tickets.

"I think he bought 12 tickets, because my father was quite a successful businessman. He had planned to give the tickets to his favorite clients at the lumberyard, but would you believe it? Nobody could go on such short notice. It turned to my advantage, because I was sitting in the stands with my father and cousins when he hit That Home Run. But I don't need to tell you about that. It is probably the greatest in the history of baseball.

"And then fast-forward to The Catch in '54. Willie Mays. Of course, they won the series that year. And I was just a young man then. So after the Giants left, it was hard for me to really follow a team for quite some time. Of course, the Mets eventually became the spiritual successors to the Dodgers, but I never liked the Dodgers to begin with.

"Plus, as you probably know, my father was quite a baseball player in his youth. Of course, in those days, baseball wasn't nearly as glamorous as it is today, at least not for the rest of the population. Young boys being then as they still are today, it had the allure. But it certainly wasn't a respected occupation by any means.

"Now my father, Lefty Shapiro, was quite a player. In those days, there were no scouts, and naturally, there weren't any farm teams. Men from the big leagues would go around the city watching the afternoon games in the parks, looking for players, and offering them contracts. 

"One day, my father was playing with his friends over in Prospect Park when a man from the Dodgers came by. Of course, in those days, they weren't called the Dodgers. They were the Brooklyn Superbas, but that's not the point of the story. Anyway, this man watched my father pitch for a while (he normally played first base, you see, but he also pitched from time to time), and eventually came over and told him that they wanted to bring him to play for the Superbas. Of course, my father had enough sense not to accept on the spot. Instead, he asked his girlfriend at the time.

"Now, I'll say this again: in those days, being a baseball player wasn't a glamorous occupation. Keep in mind, we're talking about the first decades of the twentieth century. For starters, the pay was lousy. You were constantly traveling on rickety overnight buses. Then you'd arrive in some dusty town in the middle of the night, to sleep for a few hours in a fleabag of a  hotel before playing a game or two the next day. Then you'd get back on that bus and do it all over again. And the pay really was lousy.

"Anyway, his girlfriend told him he had to choose, either baseball or her. So he married my mother and left baseball in the past. But he was always a big baseball fan. All his life, he loved the Yankees and the Dodgers. So I was brought up listening to baseball. Not watching it, mind you, because this was before the days of television, but listening to baseball on the radio and pouring over box scores in the morning papers.

"It was hard for me when the Giants left. Baseball wasn't the same. So even though I follow the Yankees now, I eventually had to come back. It's just too good a game to stay away forever."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Know what I'm hungry for?

Mysterious orange tropical fruit, that's what.

For some reason, these pictures never got posted. In the first, you will see Luke enjoying a "coconut," a robust, mid-bodied fruit that is best enjoyed after first beating it against a log for 10-20 minutes. Doing so softens the indigestible flesh, unlocking the crisp, floral flavors. Just remember to spit it out when you're done.

(don't lose a tooth)

This next is me, punishing a mango. What's important to appreciate in this picture is that there was a mango tree in our backyard in Lira, meaning every morning, we'd head out to the mango tree, grab the mango stick and knock down a delicious, ripe mango. Luke was much better at picking ripe mangos, while my specialty was finding hard, sour or rotten ones.

(for example, that mango looks pretty sour)

This was supposed to be a series, but through a combination of laziness, seasonality and camera theft, I can't seem to find any pictures of us eating jackfruit, which looks (and presumably tastes) like some kind of creepy pod of slimy alien eggs. Maybe if we all pray really hard, Luke will post a picture of the people selling jackfruit in Mbale...

(In case he doesn't, this one is stolen used legitimately from Sironko DV)

Next in our educational serious, Luke will cover mysterious tropical fruits starting with the letter "P."

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Boston Boda Boda

Just cause I'm back doesn't mean I have to stop having fun, right? I've decided the secret is just to keep living like I'm in Uganda. In the sense that even if something is not strictly "safe" or "wise" or "practical," if it sounds fun or convenient, hop on board.

The other night, I got a call from some friends a little after midnight. One of the guys had just moved into a new place downtown, complete with a roof deck with sweet views of the Boston skyline. Since it is still relatively warm here (according to them. I'm freezing, all the time), they figured what better way to pass the night than with a few drinks under the night sky. Honestly, I can't say they were wrong.

But there's a little problem with Boston, a problem that is as inexplicable as anything I had to deal with in Uganda. Namely, in a city with more college students than street lights, the subway shuts down at midnight, leaving you to rely on Boston's grossly overpriced cabs. I swear, they must be funding Menino's reelection campaign or something, because otherwise this just doesn't make sense. Sorta like Nairobi outlawing spitting on the street while doing nothing about the rampant violent crime.

But I digress. After we had appreciated the roof deck in all its splendor and sufficiently rehydrated, the non-retired members of the group (aka the working stiffs) decided it was probably time to call it a night. And then things got interesting. Including myself, there were four guys left. One lived in the apartment. The other two came on bikes. Leaving me just a bit out of luck.

Unless. Wait a minute guys, lemme run something by you... in Uganda, there's this thing called a boda boda. No, not burger burger, though I agree that sounds delicious. Boda. Shutup. Listen, I'm gonna ride back on your handlebars. All you have to do is pedal. Sound good? Sweet.

I really wish we could have gotten a picture. Picture the empty streets of Boston at around four in the morning. By the light of a full moon, you see two bikes roll by. The first has the standard crew of one, but the second is carrying a bonus passenger, perched on the handlebars with his hands in his lap and legs dangling ahead, perfectly content with the world as he talks over his shoulder to his friend the conductor. It must be said that the conductor may be having a bit less fun, huffing and puffing and trying for all the world to keep this bike balanced and moving. But they're both clearly enjoying the moment. Yes conductor, are you fine? How is your good life?

(Looks like fun right?)

I'm proud to say, as the one who did none of the work, that the whole thing went off without a hitch. In fact, I'd happily do it again. The highlight was without question going over the Longfellow bridge, and seeing all of Back Bay reflected in the Charles. The Pru and the full moon, the serenity of a puritanical city sleeping soundly, having the streets as your playground without any of Boston's notoriously charming drivers to disturb you. Just you, your driver and the hum of nubbed tires on the pavement. It was all so very pleasant.

By: Pear Biter /

Then, the low point had to be coming back down that very same bridge, realizing as we picked up speed that, from a momentum perspective, I'm probably not in the best place. I'm no scientist, but I seem to remember something about bodies in motion wanting to stay in motion. The thing I remember thinking most was that if we crash, I probably won't die, or even break my bones. But at this speed, I'm definitely going to get run over. And considering that I'm currently straddling the front tire, that is going to be a bit unpleasant.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Foggy Lundun Town

We went to Europe for a little family holiday last week. I was in London for about a week, then in Paris with my oldest brother for 3 days. By coincidence my entire family was all in England at the same time, and since I'm going to be in Africa for Christmas I decided to go up there and relax for a few days in the civilized world (thanks Dad). We did most of the pretty standard sightseeing: the Eye, some castle, Roman baths, Eiffel tower, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Napoleon’s tomb, parks, etc. For me that isn't even really the interesting part. After 6 months in semi-rural Africa, just being back in a big city and being nothing more than another white person in a sea of white people was just mind blowing.

The biggest things that I really just had trouble wrapping my mind around were probably traffic and transportation related. The fact that there were traffic lights everywhere was just too weird for me. It took me close to a week to be able to just cross the street and trust that I wouldn't get plastered onto the front of a boda boda. The walk signal was just hilarious to me, a little traffic light just for pedestrians.

Bikes kind of tripped me out. Everyone on bikes was either meandering along or racing about, as if they were on bikes just for recreation- rather than as a mode of transportation. I didn't see a single person in a suit on a bike or anyone on a bike holding a baby, it was shocking. Despite the striking obsolescence of bikes there, bikes had their own special roads. A little road just for bikes. Too weird.

Or how about little rickshaws just for babies. You will never see as many babies as you do in East Africa, but I have never ever seen a stroller. Everywhere up there you see little people just chillin’ and enjoying the scenery while their elder slaves away at the back of a little cart- for free.

And don't even get me started on mass transport. Mass transport in Uganda consists of cramming into an already full 1982 Chinese minibus. It's going somewhere, and if you're lucky that’s the direction you're trying to get. They don't necessarily have routes per se, but there is a guy leaning out the window shouting where the bus is headed. So needless to say the London Underground was the coolest thing ever. An underground city, just for trains. And if you get caught up talking to someone for even just 5 minutes, that thing will leave without you. A bus scheduled to leave at 4:47 won't even wait till 4:50. How rude.

And really, time is an entirely separate thing worth talking about. We have mentioned African Time extensively. Experiencing African Time as a white person in Africa is one thing, it's annoying, it's baffling, it's kind of quaint. It took a while but I adjusted, I even internalized it and learned to operate on it. I am now pretty fully on African time- which became a problem when I left Africa.

It turns out White Time (as it's called) is kind of stressful. Everyday all day its like be here, do this, go there, do that. I don't know how many times I said “wherever we have to be, it will still be there in an hour. Let’s take a break and chill out.” I think I was “late” to each and every engagement I had for the full week. Each time some series of small things came up, which to me felt unavoidable, but it was just normal daily life things that certainly didn’t stop me from being on time six months ago. It really makes it a lot harder to be mad at clients and friends here when they’re 45 minutes late for a 30 minute meeting, it’s just a different way of living. The enduring feeling from it was I really felt like I was being pushed around by time, like as a “white” we are really subordinate to time. In Africa on the other hand, time lives to serve you. This all came to a head when I was in Paris taking the subway to the airport. I was so stressed out by the whole thing that I gave myself like a 4 hour window, and was still panicked the whole way. I was sure I would meet some small obstacle and miss my flight. Time was a hostile force trying its hardest to ruin my day. No thanks.

Oddly enough when I got into a huge crisis and actually did run the risk of failing to make it (or so it seemed), the only person who had the time to stop and help me was… Not even joking, an African. All the Whites (or French as they’re also known) in the train station couldn’t be bothered to give 5 minutes to help their poor lost brother. I’m on the edge of losing it, and up walks this black dude with an African accent: “You look lost, do you need some help?” He literally led me to my train and sat with me to make sure I ended up ok. It was the same experience I’ve had before a zillion times here in Africa, people doing nice things because it’s the nice thing to do. Maybe it was just a coincidence; probably I’m making revisionist history, but whatever it’s my story I’ll tell it how I want. African Time may have significant downsides, but we really do lose something by valuing a clock over another human being.

And finally, I couldn’t fail to mention the mini panic attack the first time I sat down to a nice meal. I looked at the menu and saw so many things I wanted so badly, things I have literally had dreams about for six months. And it was too much, I had to close the menu and take a minute to relax and chill out. I finally settled on a nice steak and a green salad with prawns plus some fancy red wine (among several other things). No exaggeration, I think it was the most I have enjoyed a meal in my entire life.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Home is where the heat is

I haven't totally given up on blogging from Africa yet. Pat has been really the driving force behind getting content up on a reasonably often basis. Now that he's gone I'm going to have to step my game up. To this end I'm semi-resolving to stop procrastinating and start posting regularly no excuses. But umm I'm actually not going to start till tomorrow (or the next couple days or something) when I get back home to Mbale. Right now this is more of a 'look I'm still alive, don't give up on me yet' kind of deal.

Anyway, I'm back in Uganda. Pat is home but I decided to stay longer. Soon when I actaully start writing again I'll explain why. I also have a little post brewing about the future shock of reentering a culture not my own from a different culture not my own, and the normal things that strike me as weird and vice versa.

I went to the bus park today to put my new roommates on a bus back to mbale. It's hard to convey the experince acurately. Four white people weighed down with bags in a sea of men all stopping at nothing to get you on their bus. I was grabbed and forcibly pushed toward the wrong bus, I was phisically detained and told the bus I take several times a month doesnt exist. I was hit by a truck and nearly run over, I nearly got pulled into a fight between two ransoms when the crowd swallowed me up. I bargained my ass off and bribed a busdriver to watch my friends' bags. But we got them onto a bus home with no blood and maybe just a few tears. How and when did this become home to me?

It's 80 degrees like always, the beer is cheap like always, the matooke is green like always. Everything as it should be and in abundance.