Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Corps Samples

I have been trying to keep up this whole “writing” gig as it seems to please people. However, I have only semi regular internet access. Hence, this post will combine several of the writings I have made over a period of time.

The other night I had to correct a waiter from the best hotel in town that 20,000 minus 13,000 equals 7,000. This is not the first time. I once explained to my class the 80/20 rule; I have found an exception: 99% of problems here can be solved with a 1% dose of common sense (maybe one day they’ll develop a topical unguent). I have tried desperately to find “professional” work worthy of an engineering degree, and have been left wanting. Case and point: the bricklaying department is expanding our piggery. They are laying courses of bricks for additional pens, and I notice that they are placing the bricks with the short side facing the outside of the wall, making the wall 8” thick. When I asked the teacher why they are making the walls absurdly thick, his answer was because it’s the strongest pattern. Never mind that the wall is only supposed to hold the weight of a pig lying against its base. This project has a material waste of 50%. I determined all this in the course of 10 minutes observation.
If I was teaching a ‘real’ business class, like with calculated forecast projections, market suitability matrices’, floating average cyclical business trends (specified to individual markets), that would be challenging; I would have to put a lot of effort in to my work. But I’m not. My last class was on the importance of marketing, and for an example, I used the story of the pet rock. I might have lost weight, but I can feel my technical acumen getting a pot belly.

It is not that I tire of the work I do, for even my rainbow of morality can realize it is important and worthwhile. Yet, I find myself staring at a void in my life that I was absolutely convinced 10 months ago I could not possess. I believe normal people call it “loneliness”; I call it want of companionship. It is not even specific to a gender, but more to the role of equality a true companion represents: A bro to share my broings on about town, or a lady capable of appreciating an elaborate waltz of wooing.
I have many Ugandan friends I commonly associate with: Simon, Patrick, Sam, John, Johnson, Samson. Yes, madams are conspicuously absent from that list, and I believe I have the reasoning of it if I can indulge you to read. With any conversation there are certain overarching subjects of discourse: providing new information (personal, professional, cultural), commenting on events (past, present, future), giving opinions of mutually interesting subjects, use of humor, wit, and insight. I could try for more on the topic, but it is not the point. The point is, that when engaged in conversation, with even my friends, the only item on the list they can readily articulate is the cultural information exchange. Every other aspect is found wanting, to the point where it is plausibly believable that I have found myself in possession of a cadre of yes-men. If I make a point that invites discussion, they cut that avenue off at the pass and just agree with me with prodigious use of the head nod. It is this basis that has led to my near exclusive friendship of the y-chromosome. With men, at least, we can share a common bond of manliness that transcends all cultures and peoples (with, as always, a few queer exceptions) and makes going to have drinks an altogether pleasant affair. With the women however, I can find no common ground. We can have the normal Ugandan conversation that always revolves around my culture and their culture, as it is the only subject on which they seem to be able to start, hold, or continue a conversation with. Yet through it all, I can read the message in their eyes: “you give me a baby”. They wear this look like sunglasses. It is raw, intense, and lusty. But it’s not what I am that they are cravenly coveting, it’s what I can give them: a child; the best, most efficient, most dependable way to ensure the support of the muzungu and consequently themselves. Having a child here is as common and normal, for all ages capable, as checking the oil ([pulls out dip stick and checks] Hmm? Not pregnant. Better get that fixed).
This is the bread and blue band (cheaper equivalent of butter) of my local social interactions: men who only ask me to take them to America so they can get a chick, and women who only want babies. The agony of choice.

One memory of college stands out as being especially quirky: the best Asian food I have ever had came from Socorro New Mexico, specifically a combo restaurant/travel lodge named Asian Garden. Tuesdays, during the last couple of years, would always be “Tai Tuesday”, and much gorging thereof was practiced. My and Ryan’s favorite dish was the “sesame beef”, a meal so tasty that I would describe its flavor as decadent. Many was the time that we would postulate on what exactly the chef did to make the meal so delicious. We eventually settled on witchcraft and underclassmen sacrifices, as every other hypothesis was implausible (eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth).

Since those times, I have always harbored a secret dream of surreptitiously trying to recreate that magical dish. Since I lacked the requisite underclassmen to sacrifice to whatever dark God of cooking there is (of whom Martha Stewart is the only begotten son), I would have to use science to accomplish the task. This is where I began to imagine what kind of scientific implements could be substituted to perform the foul and debased rituals required for making sesame beef. Visions began to take form and solidify; I was convinced that I would need some sort of tesla cannon to fry the meat which would be operated by way of some overly elaborate baroque lever. A power source might be fashioned from the overpressure of non-speech emanating from the classrooms of the school. Teams of students, press ganged in to service, would need to haul on comically large chains and pulleys to orientate the skillet to the proper axis of cosmic alignment. All these things I convinced myself were needed; in the end, it only took a package of meat, an online recipe, and a dinner party.
Everyone who knows me knows that I am prone to flights of fancy; that I revel in the outlandish. This dinner party represented none of those things. I have thrown dinner parties before, and all have been safely ensconced in the realm of the ridiculous, but this one was different. I cooked, and had catering students help. I instructed them what needed to be done and taught them cooking techniques and lessons all the while. There was pleasant conversation aplenty with the guests (the white people gang of Soroti), with many topics discussed, both funny and serious. The meal turned out so edible as to be delicious. Then I told the students to do the dishes, and they dutifully obeyed. We enjoyed desert and all went on our way. No part of the evening was eccentric, in any way. It was downright normal (if I could spit a word in written form I would, but italics will have to do). The entire evening left me feeling very much like what I remember of my parent’s behavior and countenance when I was a child; being taught to cook and doing dishes while my parents entertained guests. At the time, I remember vowing I would never be like them; I would be fun and different and interesting. And then I had this damn dinner party. I have broken my childhood vow to be different from my parents. I have now had a: “Dear God, what have I done!?” moment in my life, the likes of which have only been seen by the editor who approved the Batman Forever script.
My vacation is just around the corner, and it’s time to return to a place where the likelihood of any given white person being a hippie will return to normal western levels. When I think of all the things I want to do while home, and then all the things I need to do while home, I come to only one conclusion: America is a world of near infinite superfluousness. Wal-Mart has a parking lot bigger than our largest hospital. Meter maids exist. Light saber battles are a phone call away. Death by intentional poisoning is not in the top ten.

I like what I do here, but, among such potent levels of do-goodery, I feel I might have taken a step too far towards the granola munching tree huggers. Yesterday, during a monsoon, I did one of my exercise regimens (Shawn T’s Insanity Deluxe), in the downpour. Afterward, I ate an MRE of vegetarian penne pasta and watched the rain fall heavy as a shower spout. Then, to regain warmth, I did a session of yoga. While listening to Elvis, and wearing a bandana. Dear God. What have I become. I knew there were risks joining the Peace Corps, but I find myself unprepared for how easily I have slipped in to this lifestyle. In order to really feel like I’m taking a break from Peace Corps duties during my vacation, I think I might have to have every meal consist of some animal that has itself eaten another animal.

Next to Christmas and my birthday, July 4th is my favorite holiday. The corpulent celebration of freedom is exactly the kind of activity that I can put 100% of my effort behind. For this years’ we held the celebration of our nation’s founding in a bar/conference center named Eneku village. A scenic place, rarely patronized by simple bar folk (the Soroti gang of muzungu’s), but so patronized by us as to be at our (read: my) beck and call. For the holiday, I decided that we would have hamburgers and hot dogs. The other volunteers could provide the vegetarian items (I still hesitate to call it “food”). So in homage to our most patriotic holiday, I invaded the kitchen of Eneku village and taught the minions therein (I mean staff) how to prepare “beef burgers” and “beef hot dogs” (pork sausage is simply not available), also, as a personal snack, grilled cheese. While cooking and instructing the minions how to prepare these dishes, I was struck by how much they looked like deer. Their eyes were wide as I explained how simple it is to make beef patties; the possible profit margins; the accompanying dishes. The deer motif is really slammed home by the fact that they are all brown, and eat mostly vegetables.

The guests of our party were of course the local volunteers (me, Chelsea, Joanna, Brennan, Linda went to Amsterdam-traitor), Chelsea’s mom, another volunteer named Jam (insert bread joke here), a contingent from America’s hat (Canada), and 4 of my staff. I should note that all of us were supposed to bring members of our staff’s, but only mine actually showed up. Whether this was out of friendship, respect, fear, or the promise of free food and drink, I know not, but I’m going to believe it was the character and camaraderie of my fellow staff; Joanna believes it’s because of my corrupting influence. I’ll leave the final judgment to you, the readers, as to what the real reason was.

Anyhow, merriment was had by all. Proper hamburgers were experienced (having been raised on the grill this wasn’t difficult) and copious imbibements consumed (having gone to NMT this too wasn’t difficult). I even made a 4th mix of music for the occasion whereby all were treated to a semi-sober rendition of the national anthem. After much fun and carousing, the night came to an end, just like the power 3 hours before. Then, what I am now calling my 2nd holiday miracle occurred:

Nurse Angela, Opio, Johnson, and Samson were my guests for my 4th party this year. I tried to play a nice host but still felt as though I did not spend enough time with them, favoring the muzungu’s and our shared reverence of the holiday. However, despite this feeling, at the end of the night they all thanked me profusely, humbly, and sincerely for inviting them to this obviously very important holiday for me, and sharing with them all we had. They said that, instead of saying thanks for the free beer, and food, and the entertainment provided by drunk muzungu’s. Their thanks for the invitation had such potent solemnity as I have never in my life heard before, and truly, I was at a loss for words besides a pitifully meek reciprocal thank you.

As I am writing this very sentence, I know that it is being done so only by way of our schools electric generator. “But Michael, the power is unreliable in Uganda, why is this noteworthy?” I’m glad you asked. I live near a large town, which given its population and location on a major highway, has reliable connections to electricity. Occasionally a windstorm knocks down a line, or a truck a saves nature the trouble; rarely there is load shedding. Sometimes it’s the power companies doing (ir)regular maintenance. But his time is special. We’ve been load shedding for the last week, which is the longest period of time it’s happened since I’ve been here (almost a year). Some would say that this is caused by people using their air conditioners more, or refrigerators having to work harder against the heat. I laugh in the face of those notions. The reason I, and the town, and many other town don’t have power, is because the government has failed to pay its electric bill; some 97 billion shillings (~38m USD). Until the payment is received, the electric suppliers have taken about 100MW of power off the grid.

Up to 5pm, I will have power from the generator, allowing me to do my computery things. After 5, I will be enjoying in that oh-so-Ugandan way: a warm beer drunk by candlelight, explaining what load shedding actually means, and convincing people that the sky is blue because that’s Gods favorite color, thus proving he’s a dude.

I am very much looking forward to being home for a little while. A nice vacation in America: that ethereal land where all the privations and savagery of life are subtly hidden behind a veneer of minimum wage barista’s and 24 hour emergency rooms. For at least a week and a half, I will no longer hear the everyday “So-and-so’s child died of malaria; So-and-so’s brother died of aids; there was an outbreak of ebola in central”. For a week and half, I can reasonably expect that the worst thing I will hear is that New Mexico still hasn’t balanced its budget or that the gun show was the week before I came.

1 comment:

  1. Michael -just got my PC assignment to Gulu Town Vocational School in Gulu - I leave for Language immersion and site visit tomorrow - when I finally get there for good i want to plan a trip to plagiarize some of your work and ideas. I also want to visit Boddie's hammock manufacturing program and pick up two I ordered. Looking forward to meeting you in person. I know Linda B and spoke to Joanna today.
    Karla D
    ps I Have enjoyed your blog for many months now.