Monday, November 30, 2009

That's Dooty Baby

We did our second big trash cleanup in town on Saturday. It was pretty awesome really. It got off to a rocky start, and looked like the 10 of us might be cleaning up trash on our own. By like 9am we were sitting in the shade in the center of town plotting our excuses to ditch out. I've gotten pretty extreme double takes before, but the 10 of us sitting in the shade of the clock tower at the town center in matching t-shirts got something on a different level entirely. I think the rough equivalent at home would be if you saw a fleet of porpoises in matching funny hats juggling flaming chainsaws in Times Square. It might attract a little crowd.

At the 11th hour, my bulletproof excuse proved unnecessary, Brad called with good news. He was at CRO- Child Restoration Outreach, the organization for streetkids. He says he wrangled some manpower, so we should head over there. Manpower wasn't quite the right term I guess, probably kidpower would have been better. I walked into the compound and was instantly swarmed by zillions of kids. Within fifteen whirlwind minutes I had a sweet CRO tshirt on my back, some latex gloves on my fingers, and some tasty gruel in my stomach ("If you love us you'll taste it"). An hour later the Islamic University Students Union showed up with wheel barrows. Away we went.

The trash pick up was cool I guess, as much as I hate picking up after myself, much less others. Cruising the streets in a huge pack, well, picking up trash was pretty fun. There was something kind of satisfying about getting homeless kids that live on the streets to take ownership and help us clean up those very streets. On the other hand, it's hard to love a society in which children and foreigners come in to pick up the piles and piles of garbage on the streets while grown men sit on the stoops to watch and laugh. Frustration is spending hours cleaning up other people's candy wrappers then turning around to survey the 6 square foot stretch of sidewalk you just finished cleaning, only to see someone dropping a wrapper on it. That would have been bad enough, but he also felt the need to point to it and tell me to pick it up in case I hadn't seen it. Thanks dude, maybe if you understood the concept of sanitation you wouldn't need to worry about cholera in your food.

Everything was moving along nicely, I was on enormous bag number two and had a fleet of kids swarming around doing my bidding. Everything was going well, so I let my mind slip and started to switch to autopilot a little bit. Big mistake.

Bam! Human feces! I don't know how I knew it, but it was just kind of one of those snap to reality instantaneous things. Uh oh, I have anonymous doodiebutter on my hand, that's bad. Hopefully the study I just saw on the news about a 100% failure rate for latex condoms in Kenya doesn't extend to latex gloves in Uganda. Peace out trash cleanup, I got a hot date with some Clorox.

So all in all it was a pretty solid microcosm for my entire life here:

1. We almost failed from the get-go despite good planning, but then everything fell into place at the last second and went great.

2. It was energizing and rewarding to help the community, but 75% of the people we were trying to help didn't actually care.

3. Fine as a whole, but the shitty parts really suck.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Karamojourney- part 2

So after the buildup I pretty much was ready for anything when I got to Karomoja. It's probably the only time where a monkey riding an elephant wouldn't have caused me to significantly reassess my situation.

We stayed two nights in Moroto, the major "town" in the region. It had the feeling of being basically the last outcropping of civilization on the edge of the earth. The only cars were military or NGO, and all looked like they could survive a bomb blast- to be accurate, most looked like they just had survived a bomb blast. It was the kind of place that makes you realize what SUV's were invented for, since the main road into town had a mile or two long stretch of "bumps" easily the size of volkswagons.

On the way up there, we arranged for a friend of a friend of a friend to meet us at the buspark. It was a complete shot in the dark affair, we had no idea if this person was going to rob us, take us to his own or just flat our not exist. It was pretty much an exact repeat of the Rasta affair- if it was bad we could always just get out of dodge, it it was cool it would amazing. We get out of the bus, and shock of shocks- no on there. I had pretty much already marked him off in my head when who should show up, but some dude. "You must be the new friends, I'm Wilbert." (Somehow he spotted 4 whites guys in a crowd). Turns out Wilbert was amazing and the best host anyone could want.

Moroto was a funny place. It was the driest, most inhospitable place I've ever seen. It was the only place I've been that the local children said cute little things like "F*@k your mother. You give me money." I've been to a few other NGO hotspots, and they all sort of feel the same- which is to say not very pleasant. They don't really have the feel of real places where people live. The economy is warped because everything on the market gets baught up by aid workers on USAID dollars, and the locals get like millions of tons of relief food a year. The people are weird because they are subject to an ever changing parade of NGO's trying to fix them without adressing the fundamental problems in their lives. And of course, it is by nature a hostile, inhospitable envirnoment, since you must keep in mind that somtime in the recent past something horrible enough has hapenned to draw the attention of the international community to this previously forgotten corner of the earth.

The comparison between Lira, Gulu and here was very interesting. Lira kind of has the feeling of a shell of a place. It used to be the place to be for NGOs, everyone and their mother in international development had a Lira office up until a couple years ago when they all moved to Gulu. Walk around Lira now and one is struck by the number of nice Mzungu style houses that are sitting empty and for rent. They are too expensive for the vast majority of locals, and owned by rich absentee landlords who'd rather they stay empty than be dwelled in by the unwashed masses. There are broken down signs everywhere annoucing that and this and that project has been generaously provided by the good people of some silly country. Unfortunately, judging by the haggard upkeep of the signs, the generous people of Salt Lake City, Utah may have forgotten that there are real people whose problems never got solved by all the promises and good intentions. When all the NGOs left Lira, they headed for Gulu.

Gulu is a bloated bizzaro-world place if ever there was one. Walking down the streets, there are white people everywhere. The shops are full of weird comfort items for internationals that have no place in Gulu. $5 can of Pringles anyone? Gulu is on the gateway to Darfur, so it feels kind of like human suffering Disneyland. Everyone is there transiently, looking to have their life affirming help-experience. The money comes in bizzare waves because every time your Aunt Sally from Grand Rapids, Michegan hears about Darfur on the news, her $20 filters through here. The classic Gulu story is this: It's harvest season, but there is no corn to be found in Gulu. Corn field after corn field and no corn. The people are hungry, and have money to buy corn. But, the corn is not there. It turns out NGOs had swooped in and bought up all the corn in town, entire fields, to ship to the Sudan where the price of corn was much much higher. So, the locals were relying on food aid because there was no corn to be had because all the corn was being shipped to the Sudan as food aid. Hmmm...

In Moroto I had the feeling that I was a little early to the party. The NGOs were there, but it still felt very lonely compared to Lira and Gulu. I have no evidence to base this on, but somehow feel that 3 years from now when Gulu is Lira, Moroto will be the new place to be. Kind of like LA nightclubs, everyone has to be at the new hottest place. The dark little question no one wants to ask of course, is: did the NGOs leave the people of Lira any better off than the people of Moroto are now?

On Sunday we set off for the village. One car, one driver, one guide, 4 silly white dudes. Ready to hit it.

The rest of the story will follow hopefully soonish. I'm having trouble securing computer time to write these days, because we currently have 7 people in an office trying to share 3 computers and 1 internet connection. For some reason people seem to think that work should take precedence over me writing stories about poop. I'm doing my best, bear with me.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Basin and Range

For all you non-geologists out there, that means that crossing Nevada is a whole lot of boring flat stretches, maybe 20-30 miles wide, broken up by some pretty steep hills. On the whole, that is less boring than just the flat (here's looking at you kansas), but possibly more annoying.

And here's the reason why. Not only did the mountains severely impact my ability to learn about the horrors of Obamacare ("git your guvment paws off my medicare." confusing, I know. That's why I wanted to listen), but I guess that Thursday also happened to be the trip to the last big rodeo in the sky for all the cows in Eastern Nevada.

I figured this out, based on three clues and my excellent skills of deduction:

(1) There was a mysterious wet, brown streak down the right hand side of my lane, even though I was driving through a desert.

(2) When we went through the mountains, the massive trucks slowed to maybe 20 mph, much slower than would have been necessary for most cargo.

(3) When I eventually had the chance to pass the trucks, I saw cows inside. Over and over again.

The third clue really gives it away, I know. But it also explains the mystery of the first two. You see, at the crest of each pass, these trucks would start leaking what I will delicately describe as a runny, foul smelling and mud-like substance. Except, in the immortal words of Paul Barish "that doesn't smell like mud." The dripping would continue for miles and miles.

And here's the clincher. Not only did the narrow desert lanes leave no choice but to drive in the mud streak for hundreds of miles. Not to mention these yahoo truckers did like 90 in the flats (which the Jimmy really can't abide) and 30 in the hills. With the added bonus that my only company was very intermittent sermons on the radio, a dead iPod and a murderous drifter with a lazy eye who kept telling me I had "purty skin." As if all that weren't enough, there was a big storm coming into Tahoe that night, so I had to push straight to the Bay. 600-something miles.

(Made it, though)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving Y'all

How big is our thanksgiving turkey?

Big enough to ride.

Karamojourney up North

This was definitely a weekend to remember. I heard some crazy mind blowing stories, I reevaluated my perspective on life a little bit, and I spent seven hours staring out the window of a bus debating whether to quit my job. Needless to say, I did more than just sit by the pool and drink margaritas. It was basically a “go to the hardest, scariest place you can think of” type weekend.

Together with two of my roommates I trekked up to Karamoja, a region in rural northeast Uganda. Talk to any Ugandan and they’ll give you their assessment of Karamoja, generally it falls under the category of super unsafe and crazy to even think about going up there. On the other hand, almost no one has been up there, and those who have say that it gets a bad rap. Upon leaving I assumed it would be something in between, particularly since they said something similar (though much less emphatically) about Lira. A few tidbits, mostly if not exclusively hearsay, to get to know to get a basic idea of where our heads were at upon leaving for the trip:

My friend read a book which described it as: “where the Karamajongs all wear traditional clothing and assault rifles are as common as walking sticks and blankets.” (Traditional clothes are primarily blanket based, so basically that’s a lot of guns).

A person in Northern Uganda, whose current address was within an IDP camp when I was in highschool, told us “Watch out for those people, they’re uncivilized. They walk around naked and shit in the streets.”

The Karamajongs are said to be one of not too many cultures left that are resisting the influence of the “modern world.” They live basically the same life they’ve been living for countless generations, keeping cattle and hunter gatherer ing. The karamajongs believe that all cows on earth were ordained to them and them specifically by god. It is their divine right and duty to take by force all the cows they see. They have been raiding villages back and forth with the neighboring tribes for a zillion years, and until recently it wasn’t such a huge problem. Trouble came with the influx of cheap guns from Southern Sudan and the Congo, and it came in a big way. I was told that the average Karamajong adult male has more guns than changes of clothes.

We asked someone what the traditional Karamajong foods were, the answer: “UN relief.”

I was told by a Rasta that “Karamoja is fine, as long as you bring plenty of cigarettes, soap and salt. Kids will come up to your car with guns and demand you give them something, if it’s not one of those they’ll probably kill you. But other than that it’s just fine.”

I called the US embassy before leaving (in itself noteworthy) they connected me to “Ranger Station B.” The guy there gave me some helpful info: “don’t ever ever go outside of the town centers after dark,” “if you get ambushed, give away anything you have to to get out alive,” and “there is daily gunfire between the army and gunfire, so keep your eyes open.” He gave me the cellphone number of the UN security chief and told me to check in with him periodically. You know just to be on the safe side.

The stage was set for a notable weekend.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Arches National Park

I think it's official, the coldest night of the trip was in Arches. Despite waking up to a massive blizzard in Colorado, somehow I was much colder here. I think it was related to my choice of campsite. I had the option of "protected site" or "spectacular view;" I went for the latter. I'm pretty sure the ground was frozen beneath my tent, which would explain the cold, I guess.

Other than that, Arches was pretty nice. Although I have to say, I'm not sure how I feel about being able to tour parks by motorized wheelchair. It's nice that a lot of people can visit the parks, I guess, but it isn't very rugged. And it means that a night of camping will run you $30. That is just outrageous, if you ask me.

Pretty cool scenery though. Pretty cool, indeed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Kansas (empty silence)

Really not too much to say about Kansas, so I'll let someone else handle it:
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call "out there." Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.

Extra credit if you can ID the passage without Google.

My Punk Ass Landlord

How about this for a strange little story that kind of changes my perspective on everything:

First the backstory: I don't like my landlord, he's kind of a punkass. Everyone hates their landlord and thinks theirs is the worst ever, but this one is on another level from home. He is allegedly the richest man in the district (vaugely like a state), and allegedly gets personal phone calls from the president. He is very fat, in a country where being fat is a major statement of wealth. Everytime I see him he tries to renegotiate the terms and fanangle us out of more money, contract be damned. The last time I paid rent he said he was tired of dealing with us and that he'd just evict us that night unless I paid him more money on top (I didn't). During the months it took to get him to sign the contract and my organization to clear the funds to pay the rent, he would just randomly show up at our house unannouced at like 7 am ready to do business and demanding money. I had thought he was just generally difficult and kind of an a-hole. Turns out the rabbit hole goes a little deeper.

I was driving up in the village the other day with some of my roommates and our friend Juliet who is super well connected around Mbale. I pointed out the house where I was told our landlord lives. Since Juliet knows virtually everyone and everything in Mbale, she chimed in. "Oh really? Who's your landlord?" I told her his name, and she of course knew who he was.

"No, that's not his house. His one is that one there, with the really high wall and big gate. He has to have a house with very high security." Ok, fair enough, he is pretty rich. Had the conversation ended there, it wouldn't have been anything worth writing about. But then:

"I don't know if you know this, but your landlord is one of the 'wanted men of Uganda'. He's known to be a very bad man and is very dangerous. It's common knowlege that people who cross him get killed or die mysteriously, but you know how Uganda is- people with money never go to jail."

This is the same Punk Ass Landlord that I hate with a passion and have habitually been crossing for the last 6 months. Maybe next time I'll just fix the sink myself.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bourbon, Tent, Snow

Given Luke's latest post, I thought it would be fun to contrast his camping experience with mine last night. Yesterday I finally left the plains behind, and crossed into the Rockies. First stop was Great Sand Dunes National Park, which for those who don't know, consists of an expanse of sand dunes, tucked away against the Sangre de Cristo mountains in southern Colorado. Pretty striking landscape, given that I'm used to seeing dunes on the Oregon Coast.

(Not much sign of ocean around here though)

I got here in the early afternoon, wandered around on the dunes for a bit, and couldn't help but notice some ominous looking clouds on the horizon. Sure enough, I found out that there might be some snow headed my way overnight. Nothing too serious though, or at least that was the story. I took a big nip of an Extra Special Super Select Bourbon I picked up in Kentucky to give me strength for what would inevitably be a cold, windy night at around 8,000 ft, and tucked myself in to bed.

(Goodnight Colorado)

I wake up this morning to that pervading, numbing silence that can only mean one thing. I was hoping that maybe the wind had just stopped because it was another, cold, clear and beautiful day up in the mountains, but no such luck.

(Just like camping in Uganda, except not at all)

Given the overnight low of -1, plus expected accumulation of I-don't-know-how-many inches of additional snow, I'll be spending the night in a hotel in lovely Alamosa, Colorado. For the record, that means sleeping in a bed, a shower, a proper meal, etc. It's hard to be too upset about that.

(Lucky for these guys nobody taught me how to slaughter deer in Africa)

Waragi, tent, stars

(What a view, huh?)

We went for a quick work/camping trip last night, Africa style. We cruised to Tororo, the next town over to talk to an organization doing basically the same thing as us. It was kind of a uniquely African thing all around, to start with we drove 2 hours to pop in at their office because despite two weeks of looking we couldn't find any way to get in contact with them. No phone number, no website, nothing.

We hopped in a matatu and set off. A little cramped, a little slow, but business as usual. After a brief stint of wandering around lost in an unknown town, we found our bearings and strolled into the office. "Hi! Remember us? We're white, can we have a minute of your time?" Done and done.

We had a nice little meeting in the morning, and set an appointment next week to trek out into the sticks in the village and visit a bunch of their projects and clients. We had an afternoon to kill, so we decided to check out Tororo Rock, a volcanic formation looming above the town. We set out about an hour before sunset so unfortunately we had to adjust our plans and settle for sitting on top of a reservoir.

(Mighty Tororo Rock)

(Brad, Me and Nasser taking in the sights)

The following is a brief budget of everything involved:

Matatu fare (public transportation): $1.50
Boda-boda motorcycles taxis: $2
5th of Waragi gin: $7.50 between 3 people
2L water: $1 between 3 people
tent rental: $2 between 3 people
camping fee: $2.50, and few slugs of waragi and a cigarette for the night watchman
lunch: $1
dinner: $6- all you can eat
breakfast: $.75
Sketchy Mexican blanket borrowed from roommate: free

Total: about $15 for two days.

(Goodnight Uganda)

As I think will become a common thing here, thanks to Joel for hooking up the great pictures.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Redneck Fish Fry

If those words don't get you just a little bit excited, then you and I have have very different priorities in this life. Picture the scene. I pulled into a campsite in western Kentucky as the sun was going down, and see a few RVs huddled together. In the middle was a circle of rednecks, complete with camouflage hunting jackets, bud heavies in koozies and a seriously large campfire. As I pitched my tent, listening to the guttural, hacking hoohaw laughter, I started to wonder if I hadn't made a mistake.

Then one of the guys came over. He wanted to invite me to sit around the campfire once I finished setting up camp. "Come and be neighborly," he said with a laugh, "if'n you don't mind a bunch 'er fellers settin' aroun' and gittin' lit."

Cue one of the more entertaining nights in a while, and definitely the most culturally foreign experience I've had since getting back from Africa. It started innocently enough, just beer and chatter, about how they'd been fishing all day, and I'd been in Africa, and such. Then the guys started getting a little more drunk (because they had all been drunk since noon).

"Ya know, we're all kin aroun this here fire," one guy told me. I didn't know, but I guess it makes sense. It was the day before Veteran's Day. "Yessir. One big, happy inbred family. Family tree looks like a telephone pole." (laughter) "Did you know, I once went to a fambly reunion to find me a date? It worked too. That's where I met my wife, only problem is, she's ugly like me." (more laughter) "So, is you inbred?" I told him I didn't think so, but how can you be sure. "Well, we'll take care of that before the night is over." Not sure how that would work, but funny, in a creepy sort of way.

Then someone gave the call that the food was ready. I played it cool, not wanting to move too quick, when the guy sitting next to me slapped me on the shoulder, yelling "this ain boston, now, go and hep yoursef to some food." Don't need to tell me twice. I filled my plate with fried fish, fried potatoes, hushpuppies (that's fried cornbread) and hashbrown casserole, which upon further inspection appeared to be more fried potatoes, swimming in cream cheese. Light fare, but so delicious.

("Eat Beef - The West wasn't won on salad")

Now, during this whole time, there was a rotating cast of guys in cut-off tee shirts and jeans, playing guitars and singing hilarious old cowboy songs. The fact that I'd never heard any of these songs made me really reconsider my life decisions, but they told me not to worry, since they were all "purty old."

As the night goes on, beers keep appearing in my hand and the songs keep coming, punctuated by stories of various uncles getting thrown in jail for drunken misdeeds. Then, from across the fire, the head chef, patriarch and big bull moose points at me. What followed was a monologue I can't hope to recreate, but I'll give you the gist. Picture a big, drunk good ol' boy, splashing beer all over everyone around him as he gestures with his two enormous hands:

"Listen here, fella. I been watchin you since you set down therr, and you aint hardly took your eyes off'n them git-fiddle players the whole dang night. The way I figure it, you prolly dyin to play us a lil tune. Well, have at it now, give them boys a rest."

I tried to beg off, saying that they were doing fine, I just wanted to listen, that I didn't know any songs, but he would have any of it. "You better play fer all that fish you jus ate," he told me laughing. "Play fer ya supper."

So what the hell. I grabbed the happiest, drunkest, most story-telling of the rednecks, and asked him if he wanted to sing a little blues. What followed was a hilarious, long and utterly filthy story about a young cowboy, out trying to make a name for himself in the world and looking for a pretty, young Holstein with big udders. I'm can't be sure, but I don't think he was really singing about a cow.

After we finished, while everybody was laughing and clapping, the big bull moose was still sitting back in his chair with his beer perched on his belly and his hands behind his head. Once things quieted down he bit, he looked at me, nodding with a big grin, " I knew you could play, boy. I knew from the second you set down here. Nicely done."

The next day, I was going to go out fishing with them, but it turned out to be too windy. So, after some coffee, I had to say goodbye. Big Bull Moose grabbed my hand, put one of those enormous paws on my shoulder and told me that when that I get tired of eating all that salmon out in Oregon, "come on back to Marshall County. Us boys'll be here, drinkin and singin and eatin all the fried crappie we can find. You're always welcome."

(Somewhere in Missouri)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Another day in the Village

As I think I mentioned, we went back to Veronica's village the other day. Since I no longer have a camera of my own (thanks Kenya), here are a few pictures my roommate Joel took. His blog is The White Nile, and its on the Our Peeps list on the far right. Give his blog a look, it's pretty hilarious.
Not a lot to say, I think the pictures speak for themselves in this instance.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Look at me, I am Good! (Part 2)

In the past few months several new people have joined the team living in the house here in Mbale. Among them, Joel and Brad really hit the ground running. Before they arrived, I had spent months talking about how we should organize a neighborhood trash pickup. Within a week, they had taken on the project and developed a far reaching framework bringing in the local government and community groups for a monthly neighborhood trash cleanup.

They worked through countless ludicrus frustrations, for example one meeting with the Mbale Industrial Division Municipal Council: They waited an hour before a single councilman showed up. After an hour and a half of waiting, they finally managed to get the meeting underway. Ten minutes later the group had reached a consensus: another planning meeting with the same group of people in 3 weeks- the day of the proposed trash cleanup they were meeting to plan. It took them weeks of no-show meetings and gallons of waragi, but eventually they got the project rolling with the personal backing of the Mayor, the Minister of Health, and the Chairman of the East Africa Corporate Club.

The big day rolled around; another cloudless, sunny day in Africa. Perfect for rooting around in other people’s refuse. The speaker truck with music and a PA showed up, so we were all set to get noticed. The neighborhood secondary school showed up in full force, so we had man power. The Rotarian doctor showed up, so we had surgical gloves. The mayor didn’t show up unfortunately, so we had a keynote timeslot with no key note speaker. MAPLE dance-off anyone? All in all it was a smashing success, and we are excited for next month when we will have a Coca-Cola sponsorship and TV/radio advertisements. Mwebaale nyo (thank you so much) Brad and Joel! Mujebaale (well done)!

(Trash is bad)

Building on the huge success of Brad and Joel, the rest of us are currently developing their own community projects:

Tree Farm
Our MUBS intern Denis and I have begun rallying the populace to start a community tree farm. So far, we have secured 7 acres of land in the village from our surrogate Father and MUWA member Mr. Mungoma. Recently we spent a day slogging through the mud and beating back bushes to check out the land. We verified that the land in fact does exist and is most definitely fertile.

(Trees are good)

We have grassroots support and a pool of free labor in the kids of MUWA members who will be home from boarding school for the holidays with nothing to do and a semester worth of chores to make up for. Next week we will be meeting with Denis’ dad who owns a commercial tree farm to absorb some knowledge. Soon we will begin talks with the powers-that-be in local and regional government and academia to get buy in from the top. The plan is to combine this program with a series of small trainings focusing on environmentally friendly entrepreneurship and sustainable cooking methods. With a little grit and determination, and a lot of the Ol’ Marple luck, hopefully we can build on the success of the trash cleanup.

The women of our house aren’t slacking either. They are hard at work organizing a Girls’ Empowerment Slumber Party. They have a date set with the lovely ladies of University Link Highschool, and are getting their nail polish all organized. Jokes aside, they are going to start a weekly session giving the girls some sort of “You are beautiful, you have a future” talks or something. I’m not really sure what they're actually doing, but I’m sure it will be cool.

(Hooray for feminism!)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Two Things:

1. I like listening to country music when I'm driving. Without even considering the just awful alternative on the radio (except for you, NPR, and your cousin, the local-affiliate music show), Country and/or Western is storytelling music and, because of that, it helps to pass the time. Plus, driving along these back roads, slapping the steering wheel and singing along about beer drinking, sexy tractors and wrong-doing women, it just feels right (my mustache is coming in quite nicely, by the way. I'll fit in in no time).

(near London, KY)

2. On a related note, I had figured that my favorite little country sweetheart came out with a new album while I was in Africa, because of all that trouble with Kanye. That's about all I knew though. Then the other day, while I'm driving through Coal Country, West Virginia, home of all your favorite mountaintop-removing, stream-poisoning, State-Supreme-Court-Seat-Buying coal executives, this song comes on. The thing is, even though it was the first time I heard it, even though I didn't even know she had "new" music out, I knew it had to be my girl. Nobody else writes lyrics quite like this:

She wears short skits, I wear tee shirts,
She's cheer captain and I'm in the bleachers.

That's solid gold. I should probably be embarrassed for being such a fan of teenage girl music. I should probably be more embarrassed for recognizing her song-writing. I should definitely be too embarrassed to admit all this publicly. But you know what? Whatever. She can write a mean song. Ask any teenage girl.

(Cumberland Falls, KY)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Day of Rest

Russellville, KY- I decided yesterday was as good a day as any to lay off the driving for a bit, and explore. I woke up in the Daniel Boone National Forest, whipped up a delicious breakfast of instant oatmeal and bananas, then went for a nice little hike. All in all, not a bad way to start the day.

(Just missed me...)

Then I drove to various streams, waterfalls, natural arches and lookouts within a thirty mile radius of where I slept. All told, maybe one hour of driving time. A nice little break.

And because I got to my campsite early enough, I had time to gather wood for my first campfire of the trip. Nature's TV, as some grizzly through-hiker on the Long Trail once told me, laughing as I tried not to breath through my nose. He's right though, it does pass the time.

(Look Ma, no paper)

Since I just crossed into the Central Time Zone and gained an hour, I'm rewarding myself by sitting on a couch, charging my various electronic devices and enjoying some speedy, free wireless at the local public library. As I plot out my next few days of travel, I just have to say, these libraries are an underappreciated resource. Other than a shower, I can't think of one thing that they don't have here.

(Still in one piece, though getting a bit ripe)

Look at me, I am Good! (Part 1)

I have at all costs resisted talking about my work here in Africa in any way shape or form. I guess one could take this as an admission that I don't actually do any work at all. The truth is that I actually work reasonably hard- certainly not as hard as if I were in the US getting paid, but harder than my neighbors or any of the government people we interact with. There are a couple reasons I don't talk much about the work: (1) I think it's unprofessional (and I'm nothing if not a consummate professional and model worker bee at all times) and (2) the nature of community work and working in Africa in general is that its incredibly frustrating and seemingly pointless on a day to day basis. Nothing works as planned and everything reverts to chaos, especially when working with the community. I could easily fill pages and pages with bitching about broken appointments and the minutia of my day, but that would be neither fun to read nor to write- so what's the point.

Lately though, We're finally seeing the results of the months and months of work. Partly its a change in gears from me and the people around me, and partly its just success begets effort. So without further ado: a kind of ingenuous, sort of unforced account of how successful and awesome my organization is. It's super long, so I broke it into two parts.

As some know, in May Pat and I cut the stakes on Lira where our project was originally based and showed up on the doorstep of Mbale with absolutely nothing of value and no clue. Our good friend and associate Fred at MUBS business school in Kampala, recommended that we meet his mother in law, who runs a community savings group called a SACCO right in town. We looked her up in late May and found that she lived not two blocks from our house. When we arrived, Mbale United Women’s Association (MUWA) had fallen into dormancy. The accounting was in a state of disrepair and the books hadn’t been updated in several months. The chairwoman Veronica had lost the motivation to continue on and was planning her resignation. The members saved sporadically at best, and meetings were few and far between. In a word, MUWA was broken.

Veronica was overjoyed at the prospect of working with two silly looking white dudes in golf pants, and Patrick and myself were lucky enough to meet with her daily for months building a personal relationship and organizational partnership. A normal day was sitting down with her in her workspace and just talking while helping with whatever tasks she thought were idiot proof enough for us not to mess up. We ground g-nuts, we washed simsim, we pounded millet. But mostly we just talked and plotted and schemed about how to fix MUWA. We interviewed the members as often as we could to develop an idea for how we could actually make a difference and help these women in ways that they themselves value. As the weeks past Veronica became energized by our presence and started to clear the cobwebs from MUWA and bring it back into operation.

(Mommy Veroinca in pink with her stepmother)

We decided that the best way to provide something of value to these women was through training. That's another long story for another day, but in short we got disallusioned with the microfinance model and it became clear to us that in Uganda, people need education more than they need loans. So we set out to start teaching business skills education. Today was the 10th week of the 12 week training program we developed for MUWA using materials from the Freedom from Hunger Project, a bussiness skills training organization out of UC Davis. During the first month we covered “Planning a Better Business,” which focused on planning skills and the fundamentals of business. Next, we jumped into “Manage your Business Money,” where we really dug into separating business and personal money, calculating profits, and tracking expenditures and income. Currently we are covering “Increase your Sales,” focusing on customer care, marketing, and pricing. Outside of the trainings, my roommate Jaime spends her week visiting the women at their businesses and working one-on-one to help them use a basic cashbook and develop business plans.

Many of the members have found our training to be extremely valuable, and there is always a small crowd packed in the little space in Veronica’s house where we hold the trainings. From the beginning, several of the women have been taking our training to heart and really making an all out effort to implement their new knowledge and skills. One of the biggest and yet easiest things we provide for our clients is the sense of empowerment and efficacy they get from knowing they have a team of the brightest minds from Kampala and American expatriates at their back.

(A little customer care role play)

One member, Gertrude, is one of our brightest success stories. In the short time since we began trainings, Gertrude has given her stationary shop a facelift and revamped her whole business. In just two months, Gertrude has increased her MUWA savings deposits by over ten times. Another member, Veronica, has taken to heart our lessons on planning for unexpected events and capital budgeting, and increased her purchases of raw materials from 10 kg per harvest to over 300 kgs. Veronica has been steadily putting money into her MUWA savings account each and every week, and is well on her way to her goal of owning her own factory producing her porridge flour, groundnut butter (like peanut butter) and other dried goods. Josephine is another member that deserves recognition. Like Gertrude and Veronica, Josephine has really taken our training to heart and pledged herself to improving her business practices. Josephine has been a model for the other members of the benefits of saving and reinvesting profits into her small drugshop. Small entrepreneurs everywhere can learn from Josephine's example showing that it doesn’t take a rich woman to save and use financial services.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Hijack that Wireless

Williamson, WV- I'm parked real sketchy-like on Main Street, stealing wireless from might be a "Mountaineer" shop, but is more likely just a proud fella from the Mountaineer State.

I just wanted to say thanks to everyone who sent me birthday wishes. There isn't much signal where I've been, but every now and then I get a bunch of messages through on my cellie. So thanks everyone. I feel very loved, even though I spent my birthday freezing in a tent, thanks to unseasonably cold weather (overnight low of 20 degrees, or -7 for those of you on the other system). So cold in fact, that I had to get into my sleeping bag at 7pm.

First time in what, 25 years that I was in bed by 7 on my birthday. Oh well. I'm still having a great time. Jumping the border into Kentucky in a view minutes...

For those that are interested, my progress so far is below:

View East Coast Exodus in a larger map

Saturday, November 7, 2009

That Pretty Much Sums it Up

There is what's outside:

(Berkshires, looking north)

And the boundary of my personal bubble:

(Noble Steed)

And the contents of said bubble:

(Already starting to smell like feet)

Friday, November 6, 2009

For to where is de grave Jim Morrison?

I was talking with Former Field Director Filips the other day and an interesting story came up that I had forgot about from Paris:

I was on my last day in town, my travel companion / older brother has already flown out. It's my first full day alone in 8 months, and my first time doing anything without Pat right by my side. I hadn't really been in a real city for more than a few weeks in months. And of course I speak maybe four words of French- if you count menu items. Needless to say I was a little out of my element.

I was staying in a backpackers hostel in Paris, hanging around and generally impressing people with my Africa stories. At some point this weird, sketchy long greasy hair skeetchball Euro finds his way into the conversation. He says some generally unintelligible things, and one by one people make their excuses and go to bed. Fast forward to the next day and I'm out and about in a botanical garden zen-ing out and absorbing my last dose of order beating out chaos. Who should show up, but the sketchy skeetchball Euro.

I was bored and killing time till my flight, and he was is very insistent in a little-language-incommon sort of way. I wasn't quite sure, but I think he told me he was on a mission to find Jim Morrison's grave and needed a wingman. Why the hell not?

We proceeded to wander around Paris for the next several hours, both completely lost and clueless, asking for directions to a grave yard. At some point we found a graveyard, and asked Monsiour Creepy caretaker where we could find the dead rockstars section. Apparently we wandered our way into the wrong graveyard. At that point I decided to ditch out, because 1) I don't really care about The Doors at all, 2) I still wasn't quite sure whether this guy was a graverobber or what, and 3) I think he may have wanted to eat my skin.

Busy Day.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Overheard in (Upstate) New York

(Why taking the Interstate is overrated)

Grizzled Old Guy #1:
You know how God created all men differently? Well, there's something I've noticed.

Grizzled Old Guy #2: Oh yeah? What's that?

Grizzled Old Guy #1: Well, he made some of us good-lookin ... and he gave the rest of you hair. Haw Haw Haw. (Removes hat to rub his shiny head). See that? That's a bald guy joke.

--Griff's Southside Deli

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pre-Departure Checklist

Maybe it's just because of the season, but all the dislike I used to have for Boston has been replaced by fond memories of fallen leaves and pumpkin coffee. Fall in New England really is a special time.

(near Inman Square, Cambridge)

I have spent the last six weeks trying to see this place with a fresh pair of eyes, which I think has been reasonably successful. Actually, I think Boston overall isn't a bad place, except during the winter. Then it really is just not for me. In fact, I'm gonna let you all in on a little secret, and if you New Englanders want to call me weak, first think about this: God taught me how to sweat so I could keep cool in tropical climates (that's science). Not to mention, by living in the frigid North, you are effectively questioning God's plan. And questioning the Big Man like that just isn't smart, people. Not smart.

(God also gave me these two opposable thumbs so I can draw faces in gourds)

Theology aside, it has been a fun six weeks in Boston, consisting of: harrowing (read: exaggerated and mostly untrue) barroom tales of my heroics in Africa, moaning about the Red Sox, sleeping on couches and in the occasional alley, but mostly trying to be as bad an influence as possible on all my friends unfortunate enough to have a job. Even with one unexpected trip to the ICU, it's a little hard to drive away from Boston knowing that I probably won't ever live here again without getting a little reflective.

(Goodbye scarved statue)

But that's what I did. Day one of the Great American Road Trip went off with only minor surprises, in the form of an unbelievable amount of garbage that I somehow thought was worth putting into boxes and keeping for a later date. Day two consisted of getting rid of approximately half of said garbage, then a little real life tetris fitting everything into the car.

With that finished, I'm off to Appalachia and the Ozarks to try to find a few toothless rednecks to teach me how to make the harmonica really sing. From there, I will speed through the Great Plains, stopping for only the largest balls of twine and fried peanut butter & bacon sandwiches. Then the Rockies, where I will be finding myself, exploring the meaning of life and developing a world view based on freezing in a tent at 10,000 feet.

Destination is Eugene in time for Thanksgiving and the Civil War.

Coconuts and Palm Trees Baby

I am back in scenic Kampala after a little impromptu holiday in Zanzibar. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I must have prayed to the right false idol or something because my stars aligned and I got the amazing opportunity to tag along with one of my roommates and her mom on their beach vacation. The whole thing was pretty whirlwind actually, within a day I went from petty jealousy to self loathing guilt for falling into such a crazy princess vacation. No crazy tales of misfortune and mistaken identity really (although the passport control lady called me a terrorist and threatened to put me back on the plane I came from), it was pretty much an effortless and disaster free vacation. A welcome change, I suppose.

I flew out from Entebbe in Uganda on Thursday for my first intra-Africa flight. I’m not sure if I’m glad or kind of bummed but it was pretty normal. I can’t say I wasn’t halfway expecting chickens in the aisle, I certainly fully expected it to leave two hours late. But, it was pretty much just like any other flight. One wrinkle though, I guess the intracontinent flights leave as soon as everyone has checked in, schedules be damned. My flight was normal, but I guess my friend’s flight from Rwanda to Nairobi left 45 minutes early. Which I guess is kinda cool, but still. The way back to Uganda though was on a rinky dink little airline and it was more what I was expecting. The plane had probably 20 seats, propellers and once we were airborne, a healthy dose of thick, white mystery gas pouring in around my knees. I figured it was probably ok, which in retrospect was probably a bit too nonchalant for Africa. The guy next to me decided that its better safe than sorry, so he investigated. There were no flight attendants, because it was a bathtub with wings (and by the way no safety information card, much less monologue about what to do in case of emergency). My guy gets up and hunches his way up to the cockpit and polite as you like knocks on the pilot’s door. The copilot came out and took a look (we are rapidly gaining altitude at this point mind you), and I guess it was fine because he gave us the thumbs up and went back behind the wheel.

Anyway, we flew into Zanzibar, which is an island off the coast of Tanzania. It’s basically equal measures beach paradise and cultural/ historical wonderland. The beach part is pretty self explanatory, white sand, palm trees, pina coladas, bathwater-warm Indian Ocean. It was certainly a welcome retreat from landlocked Uganda and the questionable beaches of buggy unswimable Lake Victoria. Just like the guidebooks said though, the history and culture was the real attraction. Zanzibar was the main, if not only, trading port in East and central Africa for like 500 years or something. All the slaves, ivory and spices passed through the Zanzibar markets, so there was a ton to see even for someone as disinterested in history as me. Unfortunately, since some Kenyan rascal absconded with my camera, I don’t have any pictures of my own.

We spent the first few days in stonetown, which is the original city from since forever. It’s very Indiana Jones, with narrow, narrow winding streets and mysterious goods being sold around every corner. We stayed at this amazing little hotel that was managed by a “European top chef.” It was like a Sultan palace a different design in every room and super Zanzibari-style (google it if you’re interested in all that architecture) high beds and doors and hookahs. In preparation for dinner, we placed our orders with the manager/chef in midafternoon so that he would have time to go down to the fish market and buy our little friends. Of course my roomie ordered the lobster stuffed with guazamole, because who wouldn’t on their Mom’s tab. I got the most hostile looking prawns this side of that South African alien movie that came out over the summer. No joke they were the size of bananas, and still had everything but their hats and shoes.

We checked out the site of the former slave market, which was cool although not a lot to see. It’s the site of a big church now, so most of the artifacts were gone. We checked out a spice farm which was pretty cool. We sampled a bunch of everyday spices fresh off the branch and played name that spice with our tourguide. Cinnamon, cloves, chocolate, curry, pepper, etc. All in all pretty cool, though not too exciting to write about.

We then spent like 4 four nights on the beach at a resort, which was beautiful and relaxing. We did the standard Hawaii routine of swimming in the ocean, reading on the beach and getting our day-fade on with colorful fruity grownup’s sodas. Again, there aren’t really any misadventures. We did however rent a little mini-catamarand. After a 20 minute lesson from Cap’n Max, I was ready to conquer the high seas. It was a nice reminder for how well things function in the Western world. It was absolutely the most relaxing and easygoing vacation from Africa I could ask for. It was perfect and I would tell anyone if they ever get the chance to see Zanzibar to drop everything and do it (like I did with work, unfortunately for everyone but me). Unlike Europe I wasn’t a tragically uncultured villager in the big city and was able to utilize my bargaining and demolishing food with my bare hands skills I’ve spent so long honing while here.

As great as the trip was, it is so nice to be home. I finally managed to get reenergized for work, and we’re actually seeing some amazing results from all the hard work over the last 8 months. In a couple days I think I’m going to write a totally unsolicited little update about some of the cool projects we have going on right now. Today I saw empirical evidence for the first time that our program is actually making a difference in the behavior and lives of our clients.

So basically life is awesome.