On texting and cauliflower rice

Aaron’s been laughing at me because a group of Italians made me nervous to go back to the US. We spent last weekend at a fancy resort in a national park, and in the middle of our lunch a group of fifty or so 2016-06-25 08.21.44Italians joined us on the deck. The few couples and friends who were all enjoying their meals with a view of the river soon got a view of the tour group’s backsides as these interlopers crowded in front of tables to take photos, yell at each other across the other guests, and then go pile mounds of food on their plates and sit down. I looked at them, horrified, and told Aaron I wasn’t sure I could live in the US. “They’re Italian, Leslie,” he said, but then he also started eating quickly and we got the heck out of there. It was a funny thing to prompt it, but it really got me thinking about what moving back to the US means. We’ve been trying to process our time in Uganda and what’s next for us in the States, but it’s hard to put five years of life into the 30 seconds that we expect to be given in conversation. I’m full of excitement, but also a little nervous, and I will probably stand out as a complete weirdo as I re-enter American society.

In 2005, when I emerged from Malawi after two years, the two first things I noticed as distinctly different then when I stepped on the plane were texting and Frappuccino Lights. On the little tram between terminals at one mid-journey airport the teenagers, particularly, were all tapping away at their phones sending messages. At the next airport I approached the Starbucks counter warily – it had been a very long time since coffee did not come instant from a can – and asked the difference between a normal Frappuccino and this new light version. The guy behind the counter looked at me like I had just lived in a village for two years. I just stared back. The busyness of the airport also overwhelmed me a little. I was used to two, maybe three hours of interaction with people a day, and all of it at a walking pace. This was a race of humans streaming by me as I sat in the airport cross-stitching. “How did you get that needle and scissors past security?” asked one woman. “Oh,” I said, “I guess I just forgot.” I didn’t mention that I don’t think Malawi even had x-ray scanners and certainly wasn’t looking for a pair of mini scissors disguised as a pen that had offered unending delight to my village kiddos who tricked each other all the time by offering them the “pen”.

Now, the two things that immediately come to mind–don’t judge, these are just my very first two thoughts–when I think of reentering life in the US is cauliflower rice and USB chargers in cars. Blame Pinterest for the cauliflower rice (but what is this, really?!?) and the fact that our car here got broken into and our plug-into-the-cigarette-lighter phone charger went missing (as did the cigarette lighter) combined with shopping for a car for the second. These don’t seem particularly earth-shattering things, but then again, Frappuccinos weren’t either. (I blame my disorientation of that back-from-Malawi journey on the fact that the entire 48 hours felt nearly impossible to reconcile with my life in the village.) This time I’ve been back to the US on five trips in five years, although stacked toward the end, and I had internet even during those first two years and so I am not quite the new-world newbie that I was from Malawi. The world can’t sneak up on me quite like it did before.

A few months ago, Aaron and I spoke at Peace Corps’s Close Of Service conference for current volunteers about to leave Uganda. Readjustment is hard, and one of the hallmark examples is crying in the grocery store because of all the choices. I had to tell them that returning from Malawi, I rejoiced at the cereal selection. Then the amount of people all got a bit too much and I quickly wrapped up the trip, but still: Cinnamon Toast Crunch hadn’t changed in two years and was every bit as wonderful as I remembered. I did say the hardest part was people asking how my “trip” was after two years away. Speaking at the conference was like speaking to myself, since we were essentially leaving Uganda at the same time, and it was a great experience.

As a nice bookend to talking with the outgoing group of volunteers, a few weeks ago I led a training for the incoming class of Peace Corps Volunteers on community mobilization. During my hour-long session, I repeated the words “learn” and “listen” approximately one bajillion times. It has certainly been my mantra for my time here: from experiencing and asking about Ugandan culture to figuring out how to lead a nonprofit organization, I’ve been stretched more than I expected. I assume the same thing will happen when we get back to the States. I mean, I’m going to let rice be rice, but otherwise, I hope to embrace changes and explore our new home in Charleston. (One more caveat: all I hope to learn about humidity is how to live in a house with air conditioning for the first time in my life.) I know I won’t love everything about being back—there’s a reason those Italians made me think of Americans, and it wasn’t just because several of them were wearing red baseball hats with white lettering that made me look twice before I made out that it said Actionaid—but there’s a lot I’m looking forward to. I don’t really have an answer yet to what I learned or what things were like for the past five years, but I know that I’m excited for the adventures to come and I’m so glad we have had our experience here in Uganda. Just please be warned that if you ask me “how was your trip,” I will kick you. It was a crazy, fun, hard, long, short, and sometimes disorienting five years of my life, thank you very much.

 

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Welcome to ordinary, y’all

When I wrote the first email linking to this blog in 2011, I said that I was starting a blog because that’s just what you do when you move to another country. Well, start calling me Leslie Ann and serving me sweet tea, because we’re moving to the South.

Aaron is taking on a new role at Palmetto Medical Initiative* and he will be overseeing both the Uganda and the Nicaragua programs. They are rehiring for his current position, and we’re moving to Charleston, South Carolina, to be based at their headquarters. We’ll be leaving Uganda in early July, just one month shy of our five year anniversary of life here in the Pearl of Africa.

We’re both looking forward to this next adventure. It feels like a good time to leave Uganda: we always figured it would be about a five year gig – we wanted something longer than the two year Peace Corps stint, but we didn’t want to be here for decades. We haven’t yet really processed what the past five years have meant to us and how they’ve changed us, but we’re setting aside time to make sure that we have those conversations and reflect on the good and the bad before we go and get caught up in the busyness of the next adventure.

We had some inkling over Christmas that this might happen, and it made us extra aware of how great it was to be within a three hour time zone of all our family, and what we wanted this next phase of our life to look like. It also made our annual visit to Charleston for Aaron’s meetings in January particularly interesting. The first time we were there, over a year ago, we flew in at midnight and while Aaron waited for the luggage I browsed the brochure racks. Soon I was waving pamphlets in Aaron’s face while yelling that the plantation tours mentioned not a single word about the whole reason these beautiful, antebellum homes were able to exist. Charleston is charming, but I had just read a book about slavery set in Charleston and I was a little prickly throughout that trip. This year, I tried to look for the good, too, and not just the differences from the Northwest. It’ll certainly be an adjustment, but moving to somewhere completely different is part of the appeal. We’re excited to visit new national parks and cities and explore a part of the country we’ve never been to. (And somehow figure out how not to be there in July and August; humidity and I do not get along.)

We still have nearly four months in Uganda, but since both of our jobs are now advertised online and we bought our plane tickets today it seemed like a good time to let everyone know our plans. You can still look forward to posts about life in Uganda before we go (I could probably just publish what’s been drafted and never posted and have plenty) and once we pack up, leave Uganda, visit Washington and pick up our things, drive across country, find a place to live, and buy furniture, you’re welcome to visit us in Charleston!

*Palmetto Medical Initiative has changed their name, so while he’ll now be working for One World Health, he didn’t switch organizations

Spice Island

Okay, okay, we went on vacation in paradise. You don’t want to hear about it. But here’s the deal: Aaron and I went to Zanzibar in 2005, shortly before moving back to the US from Peace Corps in Malawi. Last week we were back, celebrating our 10 year anniversary about six months early (this is what you do when there’s a huge sale on flights). I think that makes it noteworthy, and not just a chance to brag about relaxing on a beach somewhere.

Let’s compare the trips.

In 2005, I took a matatu the ten hours from my site to Aaron’s site. We had Easter brunch – all cooked over wood fire – with his good friends and then we took a bus about two hours north to a town in Tanzania. Right away, Tanzania was mind-blowing. We went to a local restaurant for dinner, with the same kinds of choices of ‘sauce’ as Malawi: beans, fish, beef, greens. Then they told us we could choose from rice, posho, or chapatti. I didn’t even really know what chapatti was, only that there was an alternative choice besides rice or corn mush. And it looked like a tortilla. I was sold. From that flavor explosion of a dinner, we took a two day train ride to Dar es Salaam, where I ate a rice dish with cashews served in a pineapple. On the fifth floor of a building, which meant the building was taller than one story. More mind blowing.

We took a boat to the island of Zanzibar. Aaron got seasick while I watched Keanu Reeves save a bus in Speed – no need to buy the headphones. Did I mention we had to sign a waiver at the Peace Corps office in Tanzania to be able to travel to Zanzibar in the first place? That was the caveat of our vacation being approved by Malawi Peace Corps, since Zanzibar was having potentially contentious elections soon, and we weren’t allowed to hang out or stay in Stone Town, the only town on the island. So upon disembarking the boat we found a bank to exchange traveler’s checks (traveler’s checks!) and then straight to a taxi toward a beach town. We wandered on the beach with our large backpacks until we found a lovely place, got shown a room, and then proceeded to have a horrible, horrible night in a room nothing like the one on display. It is hot in Zanzibar, and there was no fan. The bed was the worst bed in the world. The bathroom was vile. The next morning we asked for a refund of the next two nights we had already paid but the owner refused. Aaron trudged off to the police station in town to try and argue our case. I waited anxiously on the beach (beautiful, but hard to enjoy when your boyfriend may or may not have just been arrested by the Tanzanian police on an island with rogue tendencies) until he trudged back, having filed an official complaint but without a refund. We hoisted our packs back on and walked along the beach until we found another lovely lodge. This one actually was, and while it was way above our budget (ha, we paid $35 a night) it was perfect. We spent every day eating seafood at one restaurant after the next on the beach. I desperately wanted to go on a spice tour but Aaron didn’t, a short-term decision he regretted when I resented him for it for the next 11 years. On our way off the island I insisted we have a quick stop at the Stone Town market to buy spices before dutifully getting on the boat without exploring town outside the one stall selling vanilla and lemon grass.

2016-03-02 09.52.13 Now, 2016. We booked everything ahead of time, on this magical thing called the internet, with the help of reviews that allowed us to avoid unfortunate lodging mistakes. We flew to Tanzania and then flew to Zanzibar. Three flights, not a single issue, and no one got motion sickness (or had to watch Speed). We had arranged a private taxi to our beach town. We checked into our room, which had air conditioning. We did pay nearly three times as much as ten years ago, and found a similar situation for all our seafood eaten at lodges up and down the beach. We relaxed on the beach, explored new restaurants, swam in the ridiculously hot ocean, went snorkeling, and walked to the reef. We had the best lunch ever at an Italian-run joint where Aaron got the three-course plus wine seafood lunch (tuna carpaccio, seafood platter with lobster, rock lobster, calamari, and prawns, ice cream). We avoided translucent crabs that came up from their holes on the beach at night. We saw one sea snake, apparently quite poisonous (another difference from last trip: smart phones), and two long slithery creatures we decided were eels. We watched bikes and scooters pass by on the beach. We watched the stars. We discussed a spice tour, but I wasn’t happy with our options and Aaron warily accepted my promise that if we couldn’t arrange it later, I wouldn’t hold it over his head for the next 11 years.

In our private taxi from the beach to Stone Town for two nights (and yes, Zanzibar is about to have elections again but this time we needed permission from no one to stay there) the driver asked if we wanted to add a spice tour to our trip to town, since it was on the way. Yes. I grinned like a maniac the entire 2016-03-08 09.37.30time we were on it as we walked from plant to plant at a community demonstration garden. I guessed spices like a champ and we were given fresh coconuts to drink and eat while we were clothed in palm leaf regalia like a tie, pursue, and crowns. Then it poured rain as we ran to the car. It stopped right as we got to Stone Town, which was good because cars can’t actually drive into the middle of the town because the streets are all too tiny so we had to walk about five minutes to our hotel. We set out for some adventuring, with just a little drizzle occasionally reaching us through the winding stone alleyways. Until it started raining harder. And harder. We got back to the room, cranked the AC because while it was pouring it was still crazy hot, and waited out the rain before going out in search of lunch. I had been thinking we were quite the fancy travelers, nowadays, but I didn’t notice any other tourists having to wring their clothes out from the deluge, so perhaps we aren’t quite so professional as we thought.

Stone Town was a delight. We spent the first evening at a seafood market for both tourists and locals where everyone is warned not to actually eat the seafood. You would think they would just sell fresher seafood instead of having everyone from taxi drivers to guidebooks warn you not to eat it. We stopped in little shops, went to the market for spices where I bought 20 spices and three blends grown on the island, plus cocoa nibs and dried hibiscus flowers. We had an amazing five course seafood dinner at a rooftop restaurant with a 360 degree view of the city for our ‘anniversary’ meal (they sent the menu to our hotel that morning; I was in heaven).

Both times, we were enamored with the vacation. It was great, however, to be back in ‘our’ country where we knew the language (Tanzania’s national language is Swahili, so there isn’t as much English there and Chichewa and Luganda don’t go very far) and left the majority of the humidity at the shore. Besides, I have a feeling I’ll be back someday.

Photos here, if you like looking at other people’s vacation photos.

Back to Uganda

This post went the way of most of mine: written but not published. So I’ve added on and figure better late than never.

We’re back in Uganda after two and a half months (me) and six weeks (Aaron) in the US. It was a wonderful time visiting family and friends—probably our most relaxing yet (easy to say when I was there for 10 weeks)—with a special shout out to the nephews who were the highlight of our trip, as always. Other things that make the top of the list:

  • Seattle parks with the QuisenberrysIMG_0424
  • Making Christmas cookies with Oliver IMG_0641
  • Wine tasting and mead tasting in Traverse City with the Romeros
  • FullSizeRender (1)
  • Cider tasting and ping pong tournaments in Holland, Michigan with the Strouds
  • Our best dinner yet of 2016 in Charleston (yes, it’s early but I would wager it will keep its standing) and our best happy hour…plus, we got to walk to both places from our downtown hotel
  • A singing telegram man named “Frenchie” showing up for dinner in Colorado with our friends (actually, the entire weekend with these folks)FullSizeRender (2)
  • Cross country skiing and hiking with the FranzensIMG_0426IMG_0639
  • Food, of course: sushi, cheese, wine, cider, ice cream, cheesecake, fish, brussels sprouts, and so much more.

Coming back to Uganda was good. It generally feels like home wherever we are at the moment, and it was great to be back in our house and start to get into a routine (or at least attempt one; Aaron left three days later for Masindi and I did the same thing a few days later for Iganga). We even did pretty well at the jet lag. Even when things go well, transitions can be tricky, though:

Two days after getting home, Aaron and I opened a bottle of wine to have a glass before dinner. This is our “house” wine, which is what we call this particular bottle that’s super reasonably priced but better than most wines here twice as expensive. This is wine that when we take it to a friend’s house, someone invariably asks, “What is this? It’s really pretty good.” It’s also what we are best prepared to weather a natural disaster with, because it’s not available at the store very often, so when it is, we buy 10 bottles.  Yes, an emergency preparedness box should include fresh water, tuna fish, peanut butter, and candles. We have one or two of each of these items, but our dresser doors are full of wine.

I took one sip and yelled toward the kitchen. “Aaron! Was I in America too long? This is horrible!” Aaron took a sip. Grimaces. “Yikes, that’s really not good.” We spent time debating whether or not it was a bad bottle or whether our latte sipping liberal elitist taste buds had been corrupted by the country filled with places like Costco that tempt us into buying more cheese than we need and places like Whole Foods that convince us to buy more expensive chocolate than is necessary. Final verdict: we’re not sure. We tried it again the next night to see if it had improved, but it hadn’t. We’ve opened another bottle of it since then, and I’m still not sold.

And it’s hot, so very hot, outside. We’ve been sleeping with two fans. Aaron’s colleague who holds the same position in Nicaragua talked about 100 degree days, and while we probably don’t top 90, it somehow just feels ridiculously hot. We did appreciate being able to come back and eat dinner outside again, though. And because it’s not the middle of winter, and because Uganda has monkeys, we 2016-02-13 15.25.00got to spend this past weekend going hiking in search of chimpanzees. It was so cool to see them in their wild environment. On the hike we first passed a bunch of fruit peels on the ground, and the guide pointed out how the chimps had stopped to feed here. Then we heard numerous hoots off in the distance and knew we were getting close. When we first got to where the chimps were, there were about six sleeping. It was cool, and I was resigning myself to just seeing them lounge a little through the foliage, and then all of a sudden hoots came from all around us. The chimps were on the move after their nap to look for more food, and the guide moved us to where we’d have a great view of them passing by. Then we followed them as they rained fruit peels on our heads from the trees. It was one of those moments you’re so glad you get to live in Uganda because where else can you hike to see monkeys?! (video link below)

https://youtu.be/8Ne9-I7-3TM

 

How (not) to train for a triathlon

Most of our weekends in Uganda aren’t that exciting. We love getting out and exploring new places….but we hate the inevitable traffic and dealing with crazy drivers on the way home, and so sometimes it’s easier not to leave Kampala. Or the house. (Just kidding, a little.) This weekend, though, we went way beyond our normal 5 kilometer radius to drive five hours to Fort Portal. We last went in March to watch friends participate in a sprint triathlon. Inspired, Aaron and I decided to participate as a team in the next event, which was supposed to be in March 2016. I planned to go home to the US and dig my lap swim goggles and swimming suit out of storage, and we’d still have lots of time to train. Then we learned that the race has been moved up to October. No problem, we found out in June, so still lots of time. See below for our schedule:

June (four months before race) – We found out we have five fewer months to prepare than we thought. It’s only a 750 meter swim, 16.9 kilometer bike, and 4 kilometer run, so there’s not technically a huge training curve, which is good.

July (three and a half months before race) – We continued the ‘we rarely exercise’ streak we started in January.

July (three months before race) – I bought a swimsuit for the race when we were in Philadelphia. It wasn’t really the right kind, but it’ll be cute to sit by the pool in, and it’s very difficult to justify buying something for a specific purpose when you have that exact thing somewhere in a box. Dilemma of life, when most of yours is packed in your parent’s garage.

August (two and a half months before race) – Okay, back in Uganda. Time to start training. Wait, I’m feeling jet leg, weeks and weeks after returning? Yeah, better skip working out today.

September (two months before race) – See August. Add “how in the world am I going to get goggles, and where is Aaron going to find a bike?”

September (one month before race) – My co-worker brought me goggles from America when she visited. They arrived a few hours before she left for the airport – thank you Amazon Prime! Then I headed to Iganga for the week and the goggles sat around.

October (three weeks before race) – Aaron bought a bike. A friend is leaving the country and was selling his 12 year old son’s bike. It seemed like a safer bet than the used bikes on the side of the road, so Aaron became the proud owner of a kid’s bike. At the same time Aaron started biking, I started swimming. It had been four plus years since either of us had even sat on a bike or entered a pool for more than floating around.

October (two and a half weeks before race) – I got crocodiled by that lady in Masindi on a jog, and justify my lack of practice by deciding I didn’t really want to deal with things like that.

October (two weeks before race) – Aaron went biking with friends (friends with normal-sized bikes) for a 16.9 kilometer bike ride. He didn’t die. Success!

October (one and a half weeks before race) – This was supposed to be when I seriously trained for swimming, but it started raining every afternoon and I just rediscovered my pack of Pumpkin Spice Latte Via packets that my mom gave me last Christmas. Every day around 2:00 pm I looked outside at the clouds rolling in and put on a frown while my heart smiled at getting to sit at my desk and drink a fake latte instead of swim.

October (two days before race) – I’d swam six times, Aaron biked a handful of times, and we’d rarely jogged. Good luck, Team Stromero.

October 30 (day before the race) – We drove with friends to Fort Portal. We arrived to find the camping space a complete mud pit. Seriously, someone must have driven around in it and done donuts. It also smelled like manure. In the lodge’s defense, we were staying at a place called Kluge’s Guest Farm, but paying to sleep in a tent on top of mud while smelling manure was not in our plans. Luckily, they set up a secondary camping spot due to the unfortunate condition of their regular space. We fixed ourselves our picnic lunch, had a gin and tonic, and the setting looked much better.

gorillaartikkel-40October 31 (the race!) – All of us in our car suggested ‘four wheeling to get to the race site’ should have been added as a fourth leg of the triathlon. Once we got there, the race route was beautiful. There’s a crater lake surrounded by rolling hills in the middle of farmland, and the swim is in the lake, the bike ride is through the nearby villages, and the run is around the rim of the crater. There’s also a brutal hill/stairs down to the lake. To start the race, they lead you down so you don’t run down and trip and roll down and kill yourself, but after the swim you have to go back up (how this is not a published fifth component of the race, I don’t know) and people cheer as you come up the stairs when all you want to do is lay down on the road and never get up.

The best I can say about the swim is that I finished. I mentally freaked out, and all six days of training went out the window. Afterwards, though, I talked with lots and lots of people who said they mostly breaststroked or backstroked across the lake, so I didn’t feel quite so alone. I had a plan of “walking fast” up the brutal stairs to the transition zone but the best I can say is I stayed upright.

Kyaninga

Before the race…notice the blue skies

Aaron took off like a champ on the bike. About forty minutes into his ride it started pouring. I was under the impression that the best part about doing a team triathlon was that after the swim you could change out of your bathing suit into running clothes and not have to do the run soaking wet. Unfortunately only the first part worked out for me. I was wary of how the run would go after the disappointing swim, but I found my groove and had a great (muddy) run around the crater. Leslie and AaronOnce I did stop to, um, enjoy the view (read: catch my breath) but how could you not with such a great setting? As did pretty much everyone, I walked up the gigantic hill at the end, and then Aaron was there at the top to finish the last few minutes with me.

In the evening, we had Halloween trick or treating at the tents for the little kids and then despite our idea that we’d all stay up celebrating all night, by 10 pm pretty much everyone was in bed exhausted.

November 1 (the day after) – So, yes, it was a five hour drive to get home, but it was worth leaving our bubble to do something new and we were both very proud of ourselves for finishing. Number 22 out of 27 teams isn’t last, you know.

November 2 (two days after) – Uganda does have bad traffic and bad roads, but it also has cheap massages. Consider that a win.

The reason why I’m a bad blogger

There’s nothing I hate more than languishing blogs.

Correction: there are things that come above “languishing blogs” on the hate-love scale, and some of them are direct correlations to why a blog might take some time between updates. Take this fun anecdote as an example.

You’re jogging down a dirt path outside of town. Your head is full of slightly anxious thoughts that if you actually go on this run will you have time to get back to the hotel, shower, drive to dinner, and eat before your work-related evening Skype call? And will there be hot water in the shower, because there wasn’t yesterday?* Anyway, you’re jogging along, out of breath, with anxious thoughts swirling in your head. Then you run by a group of people and a lady busts out of the crowd and lunges at you, snapping her arms together like she was charade-ing ‘crocodile’, much to the hilarity of her friends. You’re too startled to respond and really, just too weirded out to know how to respond, but you know you’re not happy about what just happened.

Most of the things that happen to me here in Uganda could happen to me anywhere. Take today, for example. I exploded a cloud of Starbucks Via powder all over my clothes this morning, and now I’m praying that it doesn’t rain. Right now I just look like someone who has faint brown dots all over her shirt and khaki trousers, but if it rains, I’m going to be someone who spilled coffee all over herself. I would actually wager a guess that this has never happened to anyone in Uganda before, ever, and yet technically this could happen to anyone anywhere. It doesn’t mean I want to blog about it. (Oops, I mean, didn’t plan to blog about it.) It’s sort of similar to the jog. In one way it’s just too commonplace for me to write about, and in another it’s entirely new and might make good blog fodder, but who really wants to write about the time you spackled yourself with coffee powder?

So the blog languishes, because sometimes blogging is a fun way to step out of life and act as cultural observer, and sometimes you’re not sure you actually want to record for all posterity the time that a lady in a ‘Masindi Women’s Local Government’ polo shirt tried to Captain Hook you on a jog.

*The answer was no. But it didn’t really matter, because you decided that six minutes of jogging was plenty.

Spoiler alert: passport is in my hands

I’ve been waiting approximately 26 months to write a blog post about the Ugandan immigration process. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it, but it has been the bane of my existence for, well, 26 months. Every time I went I would think “Ah jeez, I should blog this new ridiculous development. In fact, if I start drafting it in my head it will preoccupy my brain and I will no longer want to hate the mean immigration officer in front of me. As soon as I’m home and this is all over, I’ll write a post about it.” And those thoughts kept coming, for 26 months, as I visited for the 10th, 20th, 30th, 40th time to the dreaded Ministry of Internal Affairs. It’s not over. [UPDATE: yes, it is.] The latest drama was Friday, just two weeks before I’m scheduled to leave the country for vacation and I’m currently without my passport. But since it hasn’t worked to not blog about it until it’s over, I’m drafting this now in full and total confidence (said no one about Ugandan bureaucracy, ever) that it will be done next week. I will not, however, publish it until it is. By publishing, you can assume that it’s over. I have my passport and a one year work permit to come in and out of the country. Or, I’ve given up, gotten a temporary passport from the US Embassy, and hope that you’re all planning me a welcome home party because I’m not going back. [NOTE: it was the first one.]

The reason it has taken so long to get a work permit is not exactly all the Immigration office’s fault. To get a work permit for an NGO your registration for the NGO has to be current. When I first submitted my application, UVP’s registration was expiring in three months, and although we had turned in the paperwork for a renewal, the timing was too close and they wouldn’t issue my permit. Then, not surprisingly, there was issue after issue after issue with the NGO renewal. We had to get the US State Department to notarize/certify our IRS 501(c)3 letter. Let’s just leave out the fact that it’s already a government document, being certified by another government agency. Then we had to send this certified copy to the Ugandan Embassy in the United States. They had to certify it and send it back to us and then we had to send it to Uganda to put in our file. Favorite moments from this process: 1) when the Ugandan Embassy in DC yelled at my colleague for calling and asking a question because they told her she shouldn’t be calling from Uganda, and 2) when the Ugandan Embassy refused to send back our certified copy because the self-addressed envelope we sent them was too small and they asked us to mail them a new envelope.

One year after we started the NGO renewal process, we got our new five year certificate. I felt giddy, walking in to the NGO Board with my updated work permit file, ready to move on with the process. Ten thousand trips later, I was feeling less optimistic. One of the worst moments was when one of the employees looked over at me and said, “Sometimes I feel very sorry for you, because you are always here and nothing is happening.” You know, I feel sorry for me too, sir. Favorite moments from this process: 1) When they lost my file and to help them I told them what color it was and the lady looking for it said, “You think we can find a file by its color?” Well, yes. You don’t have an electronic system, and there are piles of files everywhere in this office. Knowing it’s in the 5% of files that are dark blue seems like an incredibly helpful piece of information. Correct answer: “Um, no?” 2) When the NGO constitution I had included was decided to be unacceptable, despite the fact they had no problem with it during our NGO renewal. I had to go to three different government buildings to get it certified (three times each, mind you), then have a Ugandan lawyer stamp it, before it was judged okay to include.

The day my file was approved by the NGO board was a miracle. Two years of my life had passed, but still, now it was just a few trips to the Ministry of Immigration and it would be over. Stupid me. Favorite moments from this latest process: 1) When I was referred to a different room by the front window to go find out my file number. I asked at the first desk in the room, and he directed me to a desk with no one at it but a client/waiting chair next to it. I said, “He’s not there, but I can wait there in the chair?” He nodded. I go sit in the chair. Four minutes later I hear “Madam, madam” and first guy calls me back over. “Do you think you can sit there when the owner of the desk is not there?” “I am very sorry. I had asked you if it was okay and you said yes so I assumed it was okay if I sat there.” “It is not.” Proceed to go outside, cry on the steps, and wait through the lunch hour for desk guy to show up. 2) When I was referred to a man they called “Big Ben” to find my file, which was lost (new office, same story). “You wait for that man who sits in the chair there (just a random chair at the edge of the room) and then he will trace it for you.” While I waited for Big Ben, I cried in the hallway. Another Immigration guy called me over. “How are you?” “I am not very good.” “Why?” “Because I think my passport is lost and I fly out next week (a week exaggeration).” “Can you say it’s lost?” “Um, yes?” “Ah, can it be lost if it was given to us here in this office?” “Um, no?” “Of course not. It is here somewhere.” I look around at piles and piles of files. Good talk. 3) When Big Ben referred me to the registry to see if maybe my file number was wrong. After standing there for five minutes waiting for someone to look at me, I greeted a woman at a desk, then told her I was sent to look up my file number. She looks at me. She looks away. Three minutes pass. She glances back and says, “the internet is down.” “Oh, okay, do you need the internet to look up the file number?” She stares straight ahead. I decide to wait her out. Three more minutes pass. Finally another guy calls me over: “You want what?” “I was told to come here and check my file number.” “We are not the ones who do that.” “Oh, but they sent me here.” “Go over there to that desk at the far side and have him look it up for you.” I head back to where I started, and there’s Big Ben. “Do you have it?” he asks. “No, they said I should come back here.” Big Ben opens a book and looks up my file number. I practice deep breathing. 4) When it was determined the file number was correct, Big Ben starts picking through files on the floor to look for mine. Big Ben is appropriately named and it’s a lot of effort for him to reach for them. I can see at a glance it’s none of them, since mine is dark blue, and I think about telling him that, but I remember that it cannot possibly be helpful to know what color a file is, so I stay quiet.

In the end, on that day with Big Ben, we found the file. It’s apparently waiting for a signature and I am to come back on Tuesday (the day before my fictional flight). I asked in four different ways, “But it’s really there?” “You saw the file on the desk?” “It’s just waiting for a signature and then my passport will be ready?” “The people down there said they had the file, the real file, and the passport?” On Tuesday, if it’s not there, I will demand to see it in person. It does not bode well that when Aaron had an issue last December with his passport and work permit (that was given to us six hours before we got on a flight for Christmas) they demanded to see a copy of his airline ticket before they would push it forward. But Mom and Sara, don’t worry! Don’t forget I said I wouldn’t post this unless it was finished. I’ll see you in London next week! Today, the only tears were of joy and relief.

You may have noticed that most of my favorite moments weren’t really so fun. There was one actual favorite. It was when I was waiting in line to go through the metal detector for the millionth time to enter the Ministry of Internal Affairs, past the sign that says “no guns” and I’m standing behind a guy with an extremely long metal object slung over his shoulder. I keep examining it as I wait. When it’s his turn, he places what turns out to be a gigantic sword on the table where the purses, phone, and coins go to wait for you on the other side of the metal detector. It gets pushed to the other side and he picks it up, swings it back on his shoulder, and continues on his way inside.

A moment in time…and space

Thoughts during my ten minute motorcycle taxi ride while in the field for work this week.

  1. “Wow, I’m going to have time to get all the way home tonight.” I left at 6:30 am to take a taxi to a village about 3 hours away with very loose plans of what was going to happen once I was there. The first meeting I had actually happened (thankfully) and took less than two hours, and the other people I had scheduled to meet with decided to make other plans for the day, so instead of spending the night in a place I didn’t know, at 1:30 pm I was on a motorcycle taxi heading toward town to catch a taxi back to Kampala.
  2. “Wow, I wish I hadn’t brought a toothbrush, laptop, and other heavy things that I won’t use.”
  3. “I hope the taxi stops somewhere so I can buy snacks on the side of the road.” I’d already eaten one of two granola bars, but granola bars make me thirsty so I wasn’t keen on having the second one because I’m not pro peeing on the side of the road. Then I worried maybe the taxi would stop, but only at a place with meat on a stick, which can be tasty but also are always touched by five people in previous taxis deciding which tasty morsel they want before leaving your meat stick for the next customer. Please, please, let there be a place selling chapatti, I thought.
  4. “I feel like a cross between a bobble head and an astronaut.” Safety first, so I hauled my helmet from Kampala to this village, since I assumed I’d have to take a boda boda to get to the meeting spot. My helmet was purchased in Seattle to insulate my head from cold Northwest nights on my scooter rides home from school. I wouldn’t call it the best fit for my life here. I was on the motorcycle with the driver in front of me and a large lady behind me. She had strongly suggested I not ride like a man, so I sat side saddle on the seat, with my gigantic head alternating between poking the driver’s shoulder in front of me with my face shield and my bobble head crashing against the woman’s head behind me. I could only see a slice of the world; a slice that included the plastic shield in front of my face. This is what an astronaut feels like, I thought, traveling in a strange place with a bubble around your head looking at the world through a plastic face cover.
  5. “I should market this workout I’m doing right now.” Trying to stay balanced on a motorcycle when you’re sitting sideways with nothing to hold on to and a 40 pound head requires a lot of core strength. There was also nothing to rest my feet on, so as I crossed my feet to modestly keep my skirt in place and clenched my toes so my shoes wouldn’t fall off, I also slightly lifted my legs so I wouldn’t accidentally get them tangled in the tires or something. Clenching your core and doing leg lifts for 10 minutes, with the threat of falling off a motorcycle if you relax, seems to me like the next big exercise craze.
  6. “All things considered, this mix of ridiculous and fun is pretty equal.”

Shopping

I wandered the grocery aisles this weekend, because I was waiting for something to be ready at another store. This gave me time to….appreciate…the wonder that is shopping in Uganda. IMG_0087First, tell me this aisle does not intrigue you. It seems to me a rule of thumb not to sell hair products and ice cream in close proximity, and even though “artificial human hair” may be accurate, there has got to be a better way to market this.

Next, I spent a lot of time in the wine aisle, pondering my bad options. Imagine if you had to pay $8 for “two buck chuck.” Welcome to my life.

Then I spent time thinking about packaging. Uganda has recently implemented a plastic bag ban. For everything. Vegetables? No bag for you. Raw meat? We heard of a Peace Corps volunteer carrying ground pork home in a cardboard box (and yes, it leaked). They also won’t let you reuse your own plastic bags, as they’re afraid the city authorities will fine them. So even if we bring our plastic Target bags to Whole Foods (I joke, obviously. I’m talking about my dream shopping) they hide them away quickly at the bottom of our canvas bags. I think most stores got caught completely unaware that this law was actually going to happen, and for the first week or so offered no alternatives. Most Ugandans don’t have canvas bags, so there has been a lot of balancing acts heading toward cars. Now stores have paper, or some have these cloth-like bags, or they’re selling canvas bags. They’re still not good at listening to the customer regarding bag culture. When I was on my second round through the grocery store during my wait this weekend, I asked the guy bagging not to put my three new items in a bag, since I had the rest of my stuff a few steps away in the luggage check and I would just add them to that. Don’t worry, I left the store with a new paper bag anyway. Just like when we used to bring our reused plastic bags to stores, and they would throw those under the counter to be disposed of and put our purchased items in new plastic bags. Grocery stores aside, we are curious how this plastic bag ban will work for street food. When buying chapati (like a thick tortilla) the sellers use a bag as their glove and then give you the bag with untouched chapati inside. Aaron also bought a gallon of fresh milk a couple days ago, which comes in a plastic bag. So far, we’ve only seen the impact of all this in the stores, but it’s only a matter of time before the police start cracking down on things sold on the street.

As I wandered, I also thought about how lately there have been a bunch of “I Love Shopping at Nakumatt” bumper stickers popping up on cars. The store I was at was a Nakumatt, and I don’t love it. It’s the most expensive in town, most of the stores are oddly organized, and I always always always forget my loyalty card but they have no way to give you points without the card. I think I will start selling “I Love the DMV” and “I Love Getting Root Canal” stickers — seems like they’d do well here.

The best part of the shopping trip (from a blogging perspective, not a life perspective) was when they wouldn’t let me purchase one of my items. I had put a light bulb in my basket. There was a sign that it was a new product, and it looked like a better glow than what we have. There was no price under the “New!” sign, but that’s not entirely uncommon to not have a sticker. At the register the cashier tried ringing it up lots of ways, sent a guy to look for the price, and then finally turned to me and said, “I think you can pick this one on your next trip.” Me: “Are you serious?” Him: “Yes.” Me: “You are saying that you have an item in your store for sale that you cannot sell to me?” Him: Yes. Me: “Really?” Him: “There is no price, so we cannot sell it.” Of course I knew it was futile to question it, but every once in a while, you just need to make a point.

Warm white light bulb, I’ll catch you on a different day.

Ordinary day

I have three blog posts I’ve written since the sole published account of our life in Uganda after coming back from Christmas holidays in the US. They’ve been languishing in my computer folders, mostly because they don’t seem particularly insightful or interesting. They’re just my life, and the longer I live in Uganda the more it all feels normal. Frustration over not being able to access half the ingredients for recipes on Pinterest? Over it. I’m more hung up on my frustration of STILL not really getting Pinterest, and that’s not unique to my life in Uganda.

I could write about how even though we have a house cleaner we have cobwebs everywhere, but that just makes me sounds picky and high maintenance, so I won’t write about that. I could write about the traffic, always, the traffic, but seriously I could never convey the true magnitude of what it’s like (this week, coming home from a friend’s house at night, I crossed an intersection using the following thought process: “Okay, those headlights are big so they must belong to a truck. Don’t creep out in front of the truck. Ah, a one headlight. That’s either a motorcycle or a car with one headlight missing, either way, perfectly acceptable to inch forward and block their way until there is a break in the other side of the road. Creep, inch, creep, oh! That car to my left just flashed their lights, meaning they might not look like it but they’ll slow down enough to let me cross. Success!”) Or the dust and the heat, but even I am tired of talking about that, and I love talking about the weather (rainy season, please come soon). Or I could write about my work permit, but I’d rather be thrown into a den of lions. Side note: Not really. Have you seen the YouTube video where the lion opens someone’s car door with its mouth at a safari park in South Africa? I knew I wasn’t crazy for locking my doors in the national parks.

So I know that I have things I could write about that might be insightful or interesting, but either 1) I can’t even bear thinking about them long enough to write about them (see work permit, above) or 2) they just seem so darn ordinary that they don’t seem like good subject matter (we all have cobwebs; I just theoretically have someone who cleans them). As I wrote when I first started the blog, I wouldn’t publish posts about my life back in the US, so what makes it different just because I live in a place where I have to chlorinate my water?

I’ll pull out those other posts from the archives soon, so you can read about our rather-boring but fun-for-us life. But in the meantime, know that we’re doing well, perhaps more gridlocked in traffic than we’d like, but generally enjoying life. Welcome to ordinary.