Sunday, May 20, 2012

Perro Vida: The Dogs of Surf Town*

It’s an easy day at Tortilla Flats.  The expats speak in a charming Orange County drawl while sipping Imperials. The tourists, happily day-drunk, munch on mountains of nachos.  The surfers bob up and down in a consistent surf.  The locals are policemen on bicycles, shirtless shop keepers, and five year olds tending their surf boards.  Pura vida whispers in the ocean breeze as a long-haired dude moseys to the bar, orders a whiskey, and says to no one in particular “hair of the dog

I break off a piece of tortilla and toss it down to the scraggly mutt whose been at my side since I arrived in Domincal two days earlier.  Everyone in this tiny Costa Rican surf paradise seems to have a canine side kick.  Mine came with my room.  Her name is Gamma. 

Gamma arrived on the beach one day, bright eyed and tail-less.  She was received by the resident muts with neutrality; she’s neither alpha nor beta.  Straight away she teamed up with Tits McGee, a medium sized, golden haired teenager whose nipples hang like ornaments on the low branches of a Christmas tree.  Tits needs friends.  She’s the kinda dog the other bitches roll their eyes at.  Poor Tits is constantly dodging efforts of the beach muts, attempting a quick mount beneath the coconut palms.  Gamma isn’t much of a wing woman.

Lucy is a cowardly Pitbull who hides behind the bar in a cupboard that may have at one time been a bread box.  Lucy has been bred for excellence in aggression and trained for total submission.  She’s the beach beta.   Her owner looks in her direction and she runs for the cupboard.  The small surf dogs sniff her tail and she rolls belly up.  Like many girls on the beach, Lucy has no idea what power she holds. 

At sunset the beach gets crowded.  Two German Sheppards herd a hunky California beach boy, jogging Hasselhoff style into the surf.  The Sheppards (and I) watch contently from the shore while he catches a few waves. 

Free agents scavenge the garbage cans, while a lab hangs back with a group of children playing in the sea foam.  Across the way a shaggy stranger paws about in the turtle nesting area.  A tall blonde alpha and two dark Chihuahuas taunt tits.  Gamma has settled close by.  She takes it all in, happy to be ignored. 

Happy to be ignored is the general vibe in Domincal.  It’s a sleepy town, the kind of place where you could fall asleep in a hammock and wake up three months later with dreadlocks, a pick-up truck, and a dog.    

My friend Victoria with Tits McGee (on left), and Gamma (on right).

*This is a belated post from my trip to Costa Rica last November. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The In-Betweeners

Living in a foreign country for an undetermined amount of time forces you to prioritize. In the absence of permanence there is compromise. What do I need? What can I live without? How much do I invest in my life here? This can be a positive, it helps you simplify and identify what’s important to you. Fifty pairs of shoes I can live without, a constant source of reading material is non-negotiable. This transient lifestyle is more challenging in other areas of life. For me, the most difficult area of compromise is in personal relationships.

The social landscape of Dar es Salaam is unique. While there are more than three million people living in Dar, I, along with most people I know, mainly socialize in a small community comprised of educated Tanzanians and ex-pats (short for ex-patriot). The ex-pats come from all over the world, every nationality has a small residential representation, many of whom live in an area known as “the peninsula”. The peninsula is separate from the crowded streets of the rest of Dar es Salaam, and is surrounded on three sides by beautiful views of the Indian Ocean. The diplomats live in the fancy houses that are ridiculously expensive, yet fit within the budget of the various foreign embassies and aid agencies. They are mostly families doing a few years in Dar, then moving on to the next station. Throughout the nicer areas of Dar apartment buildings are shooting up. These over-priced shared spaces are filled with well paid female aid workers, business men, and a variety of characters with unique stories. Beyond the pail young savvy ex-pats live in shared houses in gentrification-friendly neighborhoods where the real estate is cheap and so is the beer.

Because of the transient nature of the ex-pat community there are all sorts of unique living situations, mine for example: I enjoy a beautiful house on the ocean just off the peninsula, and share with a wonderful American woman and her daughter, it was meant to be temporary, but then I stayed.  While I would like to count myself amongst the young and savvy, by living in a big beautiful house on the edge of the peninsula I have given up a certain amount of ex-pat cred. I’m neither here nor there, I exist in a sort of in-between state. This is true of my timeline in Dar.

Typical Dar timelines are as follows:

The short-termer. Interns, students, volunteers, and development workers all fall into this category. They’re mainly females in their 20s. Short-termers have an air of excitement and adventure about them. They enjoy a funky social world with lots of beach time, and a sweet life in America waiting for them at the end of three-months. Surfs up!

The long-termers. This group is a bit more diverse and includes entrepreneurs and others with business interests in Tanzania; white Africans who have made Tanzania their home; teachers; volunteers who came to Tanzania for a few months and wound up staying; and other randoms. Many long-termers socialize within a circle of other long-termers. It can be emotionally exhausting to be connecting with people and then saying good-bye over and over. On the other hand, many of the long-term men enjoy the company of the short-term girls.

The in-betweeners . In-betweeners are an assortment of professionals that are in Tanzania for an undetermined amount of time (myself included). In the beginning, they take advantage of every social activity available. Dar is a friend-conducive environment. When you’re a young ex-pat you already have something in common with most people you meet: you’re away from home, doing something somewhat exotic. You bond over the quirks of Dar. You spend the first several months balancing work and a demanding social calendar. You make many friends, who then start to leave. You begin to see why friends of yours who have been here longer are jaded. Your social circle becomes a blend of short-term, long-term, and in-betweeners, which can be challenging to navigate.

Relationships in Dar are difficult because of something we all know, but no one says: this is temporary. There is a steady influx of young ex-pats who are fun, interesting, young people. You meet them at the bar, soccer practice, embassy karaoke, reading on the beach, etc. When you meet someone at a bar, within the first five minutes you will know where they’re from, why they’re here, and most importantly, when they are leaving. Because that’s the thing: as steady as the influx is, there is an equal outflow. Dar’s a revolving door, you never know who might be coming or going. 

It’s important to have a local support group in what can be a stressful environment, but the revolving door can complicate things. Is it worth investing in a friendship with someone who may be out of your life next month? A common solution to this is superficial relationships—exchanging pleasantries amongst large groups of friends who you hang out with every weekend. These relationships are an easy way to keep people at an arm’s length. You enjoy their company until they’re gone (which they will be, eventually). No harm no foul, but, ultimately no depth. While it’s great to have a large group of weekend friends, these relationships are based on low-expectations, which, among other things, lend itself to an unfortunate atmosphere of accepted flakiness which is rampant in Dar.

As I said in the beginning, this transient lifestyle forces you to identify what’s important to you. Relationships, I have learned, are not something I’m willing to compromise on. And so, as with all investments, it becomes necessary to accept the risks, in this case, the possibility that a good friend may up and leave. In some ways that gives the relationship, in its temporal state, more value. It allows you to let your barriers down and experience life in this crazy ex-pat world more fully. Beyond a support system, you gain perspective, humor, someone to share the cost of a late night taxi, and someone who in ten years you can call up and say "remember that time in Tanzania…".

I’ve learned to fully embrace my experiences here, no matter how long it lasts. We can enjoy the beauty of a sunset, even though we know it’s temporary; what’s more, that sun will rise again.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Rugby Team Seeks Woman or Young Boy

There’s a rugby tournament in Dar today. I’ve been encouraged to show up because I’m a girl, and according to rules and regulations “every team must have at least one woman or a boy under the age of 14”. I’m considering playing if only to celebrate the fact that it has finally been recognized that women are just as physically competitive as pre-pubescent boys. Victory! I’m proposing a Scrabble tournament where every team must have at least one man or a girl who doesn’t speak English.

It’s touch rugby, so, instead of tackling my opponent (either another girl or a boy under 14) I would just touch them, with both hands. This is all I know about the game: each player is matched against an opponent on the other team. If your opponent tries to get past you with the ball, you touch him and that’s a “down” (or something). The team tries to get the ball down to the other side of the field by throwing the ball sideways, like a fish at Pike’s place market, while running forwards without exceeding 5 downs (or whatever). When your team makes it to the end of the field with the ball that’s a goal, called a “try” (maybe?). It’s a fast game.

I played once, many moons ago. I was invited to play with the “co-ed” team during their weekly pick-up game. I showed up at the International School of Tanganyika’s football pitch that afternoon expecting a “Thanksgiving afternoon family pick-up game” atmosphere. Instead I was thrown in without warm up, introductions, or explanation beyond the command “cover that guy”, a big guy, with little shorts. In fact all of them were big guys with little shorts (and nice thighs). There were 23 men and 1 girl (me). These guys took their rubgy pretty seriously. It was a Friday afternoon and they wanted to blow off some steam. I ran up and down the field trying not to get trampled. They were big, sweaty, and going full speed. It was a strange sensation playing with them. I hadn’t been physically intimidated in a while; let’s just say, I now have new respect for Mulan. I’d like to say that I turned out to be awesome, but that would be a lie. I got a few “touches” in and tossed the ball several times before I bowed out 20 minutes into the game. I felt like I was in the way, maybe not as a girl, but as a beginner; a very small beginner in a pool of large players. It was like the time in college when I was thrown into the “Advanced pig-showing group” though I was a novice, I was way out of my league. Luckily, Uncas carried us to 5th place.

To play or not to play? This is my Saturday morning dilemma. I’m heading to the field in a few hours, where I will either A) Spend the day two-hand touching under 14 year olds, or B) Drink beer on the sideline with my girlfriends and enjoy the show. Life is full of difficult decisions.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Prologue and Intro to Chapter 3: American in Dar

I left you (the reader) in Ujindile, finishing up my run in the Peace Corps.  That was August.  September through early-October found me relaxing in Zanzibar, the beautiful island-nation off the coast of Tanzania.  By mid-October I’d moved back to my parents house—a joy all adult children (and their parents) should partake in at some point in their twenties.  By late October I’d headed to Jersey City, the place my maternal side of the family first immigrated to in the 1920s.  They had a grocery store which supported their large Italian family, all of whom lived upstairs.  I lived on the 8th floor of the Candlewood Suites and worked long hours as a corporate health-care consultant.  I made small talk about the Jets in the elevator, and looked forward to quesadilla Friday’s in the cafeteria.  Once, the self-check health station at work, which takes your blood pressure and weighs you, told me I was borderline obese, so I stopped the quesadillas and focused on the New York Sports Club.  Mid-January my contract ended.  I hit the road and followed a spiritual journey guided by Jet Blue flight specials:  horse-drawn buggies and retirees in Charleston, SC; ghosts and bee-keepers in Savannah, GA; friendly men and delicious cake in Charlotte, NC; a blizzard watched from an apartment that smelled like Subway in Chicago, IL; culture shock and a cattle call of unemployed RPCVs in D.C.  That felt like the end of the road: D.C, where all wayward RPCVS go to compete for work at NGOs.  I think I could have been happy there—in some strange reality where I got a real job and started on a track towards something other than the next adventure.  But, in the midst of doing that I stumbled upon another adventure, disguised as a job.  A job based in Tanzania.

At the moment, I’m in Zanzibar, just for the weekend; writing from the top of a tree house looking out over a rainy beach with tourists trapped under thatch, and dhows in the mist.  Tomorrow I head back to Dar.  Back to the office to organize volunteer trips to Tanzania: host families and work placements at orphanages and schools for American and European volunteers coming abroad.  Helping others start down a path that brought me to where I am today. 

I wrote that update a few months ago and never posted it. In fact, I've got a whole folder of mediocre blog posts that I just haven't gotten around to posting and now seem irrelevant. Out with the old, in the with the new. New city, new job, new Chapter of the blog. And so it begins:

A Day in Dar, as Recounted During my Lunch Break

This morning I got an iced latte at Africafe. They used long-life milk to make it, but it was delicious. I picked up my intern at the office and hit the road to Watoto Wetu, an orphan center just outside the Dar es Salaam city limits. We sat in traffic for an hour and listened to the New Yorker: Fiction podcast while motorcycles weaved in and out of the line, and young men on foot tried to sell us tropical fish out of small aquariums balanced on their heads.

At Watoto Wetu I sat and watched two Swedish volunteers and one Icelandic volunteer teach English. They were playing hang-man with eight Tanzanian children who live at the center. Several held my hands, touched my freckles, and played with my Ray-Bans as I watched the students guess the word: T S H I R T.

After an hour and a half at the orphanage the intern and I are back on the road, windows down, pumping Jackson 5. I texted a few friends to see who wanted some chipsi, a rare lunch treat only awarded to myself on days when all of the food in the refrigerator has gone bad. Then my mind got to thinking: you know what goes well with chipsi? Beer. Beer and chipsi on a gorgeous Wednesday afternoon in Dar. That's the ticket.

Ten minutes later I'm back in the office and back to reality: work to do, presentation to prepare, volunteers to organize. Beer will have to wait, but not too long, tonight the girls and I are breaking out the dancing shoes. Beer and music with a light breeze on a Wednesday night in Dar: that's the ticket!

And that's a lunch break intro to my life as an American in Dar: volunteers, cute kids, randomness, office, and dancing. Some 1st world comforts with 3rd world charm. It's not a bad life, though it could use a little more writing.

More lunch break updates to come! Mungu Akipenda

Friday, August 20, 2010

Gettin Kindergarten'd Away in Ujindile

Building projects are a funny thing. Peace Corps discourages them for a number of reasons, some of them legitimate. First of all, I suppose you could say building projects are out of our scope. When we're sworn into service we take an oath to fulfill the three goals of Peace Corps:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

No where in the mission statement does it say "procure large sums of money to build structures that will likely decay once the volunteer has left the village". Which is the next reason Peace Corps gives: buildings are not sustainable. They require upkeep, staff, and a whole list of other needs that the village can not guarantee after the volunteer's wallet is gone. Which brings us to the next point: Volunteers should not be seen as a giant wallet. Villages should see their volunteers as technical resources, not nipples on the magical teat of aid money. Plus building projects are difficult execute, often requiring more time and money than originally budgeted. After careful consideration of all these arguments over a two year period of time, I decided to go ahead and do a building project, in the last 3 months of my service.

The argument that I used to convince myself that this would work was simple: Ujindile is different from other villages. They have a track record of sustainability: projects that Peace Corps volunteers did years ago are still chugging along, and there are no unfinished building projects in the area. They own the projects, contributing financially and physically to every project we’ve done, in most cases without me asking (the last volunteer must have had something to do with this). They’ve never pressured me to do building projects or contribute money to anything (aside from a few individuals who tried their luck early on and were shot down). I’d already finished all my Peace Corps projects, which were for the most part successful, and felt like the village appreciated me as a volunteer, even when I did small education projects that we all knew no one understood (like the “pet care seminar”). Knowing that there would not be another volunteer replacing me (it’s difficult for a new volunteer to walk into a village with a fresh building project, and big expectations), I decided to bite the bullet and go out with a bang; thus Project Awali was born.

Awali means kindergarten in Kiswahili. In Tanzania, primary school is mandatory. In every village there is a primary school which provides free schooling for 1st through 7th graders. Some villages have chekachea which pre-schoolers may attend for a fee. Rarely do villages also have an awali. When I arrived in Ujindile, they had an awali class of 30 students, a fair amount considering awali is not free, and they had no classroom. Instead they rotated between classrooms as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders went out to do their morning chores.

This May, when I approached the village leaders privately to see which kind of building they would like done I expected them to suggest something along the lines of “new doctor housing” to attract a good doctor, or “new CCM building” for the upcoming elections. Surprisingly, they unanimously suggested an awali, then they spot pledged full support and fiscal responsibility (corruption and disappearing funds can also be an issue). For the billionth time in the past two years I silently thanked Eliguard, my Peace Corps supervisor, for placing me in such a motivated village.

The next few months were a blur. We secured funding, designed the building plans, hired a builder and were off to the races. On the first day the builder estimated four months till completion. I told him he had 6 weeks. The Awali Committee took care of all the banking, loyally submitting receipts every week. The builder worked Monday-Saturday 8-6p.m, taking time every morning to teach the apprentice village builders how to build a circular classroom. Sometime after the first week of drawing and digging I slipped off to Dar to pick up a few friends visiting from the states. When we went back to the village the foundation was laid and the walls were up. A few days later I slipped off again and when I returned the roof supports were up. I ran to town for the night to pick up shadowing volunteers and when we came back the roofing was on!! I nervously checked up on the budget (which we’d feared we’d under budgeted), and kumbe! there was still plenty of cash left over for desks and chairs.

When I left the village on August 5th I was told there was one week left till Project Awali was finished. It’s an unsettling feeling to leave the village whilst a project is ongoing. I’ve heard several stories about half-ass volunteers who abandoned projects mid-way and went back to the states (I know these volunteers must have done other great things over their two year service, unfortunately when people gossip they usually focus on the negatives). I crossed by fingers, packed up my house, and headed for COS (completion of service).

At COS I reflected on my first two year of service, I’ve had many experiences, some good, some bad, some very, very strange; I could have stopped there and had a wonderful service. However, in the last three months I have seen a new side of Ujindile: super human work ethic fueled by community values that make this village exceptional by any standard. Had I not participated in this last project I would have missed out big time. On August 12th, my last day as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I sat with Eliguard reviewing my illegal operation (Project Awali was funded and executed outside of Peace Corps) he said “you know, every village is different, this could have taken another village two years to complete”. Not five minutes later Pasta called to announce that the last wall was painted that morning. What’s more, 50 students were signed up for kindergarten this fall; a good sign for the future of Ujindile.

Project Awali

Day 1: Volunteers eager to have their children attend kindergarten this fall clear the land in front of the primary school.
It's the dry season and it is so dusty that it's not necessary or possible to wear sunscreen; the dust settles into a fine, sun-proof layer on your skin. A layer that turns into cement when mixed with sunscreen.
The project had so much help from so many different people. The John D. Durante Foundation and Mary Ryan Foundation helped with funding. Filippo the Italian architect designed the kindergarten. Sylvia, another Italian, came to the village to help drawn the plan on the Ujindile soil. Dowdi Nyarusi, "the amazing", came from Makambako to be the head builder (he finished in 6 weeks, unheard of!). Though we hired 5 official carpenters to help with construction, every day another dozen people showed up to volunteer their time. The village raised 30% of the finances, and donated almost all the raw material available in the village.
Building in Africa is an amazing process. Everything is done by hand using the simplest tools.
Digging out the foundation. The earth in the dry season is hard as rocks, but with a little Rosa Muhundo and the Dixie Chicks playing in the back round, the day flew by.
That's the same earth that we used to make the bricks. A little clay soil, a little water, shove it in a wood mold, run out of the mud and plop it on the ground to dry in the sun. People did this all day long in a big muddy pit, usually on the jog. We used more than 20,000 hand made bricks.
Perfect circle.
Next step: 1st layer of the foundation: big ol' Ujindile rocks.
Street cred.
For the first month of building school was on break. Here the students are back at school, checking out the progress of the awali.
Students back in school meant more hands to help. We used the storage rooms in the courtyard at my house to keep the cement. One morning as I hung my freshly cleaned chupies up to dry the door flung open and the entire 7th grade came in to carry cement. There I was hanging up a pair of polka dot bikinis. I think they blushed more than I did.
Awali was built on man power and team work.
Christian worked on the tip top, chiseling the frame so that the pieces of tin roofing would fit in perfectly. The men spent two weeks working on the roof in the height of the windy season, with no safety harnesses. Luckily the only injury sustained during building was when I got sawdust in my eye. After that they didn't let me near the building.
Me "How is it going up there?
Christian: "Fantastic."
He's a rock star.
This is the future sight of the classroom and blackboard. Imagine 50 smiling faces learning their "ahhh, behhhh, cehhhh's".
A 360 degree view...
...means light all day long.
When we did the drawing we had to take into account the wind which tends to bring in a nice layer of dust every day of the windy season. If the door was in the wrong place the kids would wind up cleaning all day instead of learning 1+1=mmmmbbbbiiiillliiiii.
There's a beautiful wrap around, rain-proof terrace... that the kids can play outside all year long. Even during the rainy season which lasted from Dec-May this year.
That's the teacher's office.
And the other window is the stoo, where the corn goes to dry.
Lovin' the roman columns. You can tell an Italian worked on the project.
With one week left at site everything was on track.
Just some plastering, painting, and windows to put.

I left my site August 5th. Awali was lookin good.
On August 12th, my date of official Completion of Service, I received a call from Pasta saying the building was completely finished, windows in, painted, blackboard up, and little tiny chairs ready for little tiny students. I hope to return sometime this fall to see the classroom in action and hear those magical words "good morning teecha"...I may spend a few months teaching kindergarten.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Goodbye Party Pictures

Tanzanian mamas know how to have a good time. Any excuse to dance is a good one...
especially when there are the village drummers. Their work fees are paid in ulanzi.
ulanzi-local brew.
Shake it, shake it, shake it...
And then I shook it and had a slight wardrobe malfunction.....but just kept on dancing.
Lots of lovely harmonizing.
It was freezing cold, luckily I kept getting wrapped in layers of khanga and other party paraphernalia.
Party face.
Mwenye Kiti "And these baskets are cozy's for you to put your pombe in." pombe-alcohol
Me "And there are two of them so i can double fist, awwww, ninyi!!!"
ninyi-you guys!!
This woman gave me a bag of raw wheat.
Mama "This is for dinner tonight." Me "There's not much meat on him, but thank you."
These were sort of backhanded avacados. "We present these avacados to Greta, who will be helping us to find a market in Dar as she's done with the honey". Me "what? who? market, me?"
Lots of baskets.
TAG church also gave me money. Sijui.
I'm not sure where they got this tail.
Basket of eggs.
This woman gave me a mia tano (about 50 cents)
Dada Emily, she also recited an original poem about my time in Ujindile. Sweet heart.
There was an original score.
These handmade baskets are special to the Iringa region. I wound up with about two dozen of them over the course of the party.
Christian gave an amazing speech about the importance of education, as opposed to material things, as a means of sustainable development, "that way, when the volunteer leaves the information remains". Christian, mwenye kiti, and I teared up.
Gonna miss those faces.The next generation: After the first two months of Peace Corps training in Tanga, TZ, these Peace Corps Trainees came down to Ujindile to "shadow" a volunteer (me). Amy, Kate, and Sativa are all health volunteers being inducted into Peace Corps TZ on August 18th. The after party, VIP section.

Winni.... more pictures and a video on the next blog...