21 October 2009

freedom hangs like heaven.

I finally read The Poisonwood Bible, and although Kingsolver is much too flowery a writer for my taste, I still couldn't put it down. Perhaps because I'm here, but it turned out to be one of those books that will probably forever stay with me. Part of me wishes the preacher had tripped coming off the plane and sustained a brain injury that would leave him forever mute, but I'm sure anyone else who's read the book could have predicted I'd react in that way. There are passages throughout the novel that I felt like were stolen from my own thoughts. About trying to make sense of your own culture, lifestyle, and beliefs in a world where they're frankly absurd. The daughters' reactions to the lives and behaviors of the villagers. Reconciling yourself to the reality that you must live under every assumption based on everyone who's ever looked like you while knowing full well you'll be lambasted for venturing any assumptions of your own. The child-like fascination with the local food, dress, culture, lifestyle - everything. The odd things you find yourself missing from home. Your tiniest, most mundane action being fascinating, every single day for months on end. Feeling like a regular in an establishment to which you've never actually been. The notion that no amount of time or language ability is enough to allow a white person to truly fit in and be accepted. It's comforting to know that you're never the only
one.

As I come down to my final weeks here, I'm starting to think about what Ethiopia will mean to me - how do I take this experience home with me? How have I changed? The five-person narrator style of the book did a lot to set me reflecting on how people allow Africa to affect them. (This will be one of the few times I willingly refer to "Africa" in the broad sense - culturally, each country is drastically different, but the overall effect on Western mores is similar, and that's the only context in which I'll ever use the term). Some people end up feeling forever guilty for the privilege in which they were raised - I don't want to be that girl. There are aspects of America that I'm sure I'll find overwhelmingly gluttonous - we probably don't need twenty varieties of canned soup, but all I can see is the other side of that equation. With rampant consumerism comes choice, and the belief that all of those choices are equally (or at least marginally) valid. I'd rather have twenty soups I don't have to eat than have to justify my job, love life, children or lack thereof, eating habits, what I do or don't do on Sunday mornings, or anything else to anyone else. I now appreciate those choices more than I ever would have if I'd never lived without them. I'll probably also forever appreciate the tiny details of my privileged life that I've historically taken for granted - running water, electricity, parents who allow me to live my own life, friends who appreciate that I form my own opinions, a government that allows me to publicly disagree with it. I'd like to fall somewhere in the middle, not renouncing my own background to become "African," but not also writing off the entire experience as a closed chapter in my life, never to be revisited.

Less than four weeks left. I just can't believe it's been this long already and I don't even know how I feel about leaving. There are reasons here for which I'd stay, not forever but for a time. But there are also reasons at home for which I'd leave tomorrow. People join the Peace Corps to "find themselves," but after life here, everything seems feasible, so how do I weigh those reasons and figure out how I'll carry Ethiopia with my for the rest of my life?

13 October 2009

photos finally posted.

The links in the last post should actually work now - I finally
finished posting photos from the trip. Hope you enjoy!

06 October 2009

victory is sweet, even deep in the cheap seats.

Photos:

Uganda: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2892561&id=2001205&l=a8e8ff8849
Rwanda: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2892547&id=2001205&l=bc92401ce9

As the photos suggest, the trip was incredible. I've never met so many ridiculously friendly people as I did in Uganda. Even the immigration officials had enormous grins on their faces. When we stumbled into the rioting in Kampala, people went out of their way to make sure we weren't involved. Our bus driver warned us about streets to avoid, and a woman ended up walking us a kilometer out of her way to show us to a bus station we were trying to find. And this wasn't limited to saving the mzungus from chaos - on Bushara Island, a stunningly beautiful camp on Lake Bunyonyi (thanks Will for the recommendation!), the staff were equally attentive (apologizing for food being late? Inday?). Bushara was a Peace Corps Volunteer's dream - sustainable, eco-friendly camp (composting toilets!) staffed by the local community and where all profits go back into the community. Scholarships for students, orphan caregiver businesses, handicraft cooperatives, vegetable garden on the premises, dance troupes, dugout canoe trips - the works. We further proved our theory that if you're willing to make a fool of yourself, people will love you forever. Ugandan dance is not beginner-friendly. Lots of spirited leaping high into the air - exhausting. But more more free and uninhibited than most Ethiopian dances, so it was refreshing to move something besides our shoulders. We definitely felt it the next day though! We stayed in a sweet little "treehouse" (although not actually in a tree) with a balcony overlooking the lake and a gorgeous outdoor shower. Glorious. I'm going back if I ever find myself in Uganda again.

Rafting the Nile is better described in photos (we successfully navigated our way down a 12 foot waterfall!), but I'm now considering abandoning all my academic plans and getting certified as a raft guide. That would be the life, for a few years at least. One of our fellow rafters was a Kiwi working for a charity that funds, among other things, an NGO in Somaliland (not Somalia!) working on education and rehabilitation for former Islamic militants. He found my excitement rather odd, to say the least, but is putting me in touch with the directors to see about possible teaching jobs. You meet the most fascinating people wandering through Africa.

And the mountain gorillas. Yes, it's worth it. A 400-pound silverback walked within a meter of me. They're such breathtaking animals, it's easy to see how Dian Fossey ended up spending her life with them. I've never felt so poor in all my life though - we were surrounded by middle age, high-end travelers decked out in all the fancy trekking gear and wearing several thousand dollars worth of camera equipment dangling off their belts, and there we were, the backpackers in ratty clothes, staying at the ten-dollar a night hostel and fretting over the cost of hiring a car to the park entrance. I think the park staff noticed and took pity on us though, because we ended up trekking the Susa family, the largest of them all (41 members when most have 10-15) and also the family that Fossey studied. After scrambling up wet undergrowth on a 45 degree incline at 2500 meters for three hours, we walked up to a sleeping silverback, the family matriarch, and her six-month-old baby. And it just gets better - we ended up seeing at least 24 members of the family, including the playful five-year-old twins who seemed to love posing for our cameras. You're so close that a telephoto lens is actually a handicap. Incredible.

Within our group, we also had a very amusing travel companion, who apparently had "the worst shower of his life" at a $500 per night resort overlooking the volcanoes. We amused our fellow trekkers with stories of Ethiopia, which was simply beyond comprehension for most. Peter frightened them all describing how excited Karen and I got when we discovered that sliced bread abounds in Uganda (seriously - people walk around the bus station selling it! I haven't seen sliced bread in two years!). Note the number of photos we took of us eating basic grocery store food. And then there were the crisp green apples on every street corner. We had a mild breakdown in a supermarket in Entebbe trying to decided between three kinds of equally priced cheese (it took us close to ten minutes to reason it out), then a similar incident when faced with six varieties of sliced bread. We won't even discuss our reactions to finding such a glorious supermarket. Just a precursor to the odd creatures we're going to be when we come home. Consider yourself warned.

We also spent a few nights in Gisenyi, on Lake Kivu, a quiet little lake town that has actually been slightly ruined for me since I learned that it served as the HQ for the interim government/genocidaires when the rebel army captured Kigali. But it boasts a quiet lakefront beach, where we had picnics and made friends with random Rwandan wanderers who asked us for, in order, a book, lotion, and to take his photo with all of us. Plus a couple of teenage boys who proved unable to speak directly to women, diverting all their questions about Karen and I through Peter ("What book is Jessica reading? How old is Karen?"). We spent our evenings at a beach front bar enjoying the local Primus (served in 720 cl bottles!) and playing with the resident dog and her seven (!) puppies. That's an impressive litter anywhere, but to have that many survive in Africa? Wow. I had to be restrained from taking one or more home with us.

All in all, an amazing trip, riots and all. Both countries are highly recommended. Peace Corps officially booked my flight and I'll be home November 15. Crazy. New VSO volunteers arrived last week and the new PCVs arrive in Assela on Saturday (can't wait to meet you all!), so I have plenty of distractions for these final months.