Sunday, February 10, 2013

Out of Africa

I will no longer be commuting to Africa for my job.  I've decided not to go back.  My phase of the project was finished, and while there may have been other opportunities to stay involved, it is really good to be home, to stay home, to have my life back.

In a revelation, I have arrived at the conviction that if I'm going to "suffer" (I mean, really, that's dramatic.  I wasn't dying over there, but I was away from the fullness of my life, the interactions that warm my heart, the continuity that I've built for myself)... if I'm going to "suffer" (okay, so by suffer, I mean risk.  If I'm going to desperately miss people and events, if I'm going to challenge myself, if I'm going to stretch further than is comfortable, if I'm going out on the limb)... if I'm going to "suffer" for my work... then that work should be writing.  I owe it to myself.  I owe it to my work.  Steinbeck would be proud, though he's a little distant from me right now, as my original "Travels with Charley" remains on its own adventure in Tanzania.  Hopefully, he'll find his way home.  Steinbeck and Charley have prove quite resourceful in the past.

I will desperately miss Africa.  There's a Tanzanian shaped indent left by the loss.  I am different.  I had no choice.  I miss the wild, the monkeys, the mongoose, the sunrise.  I don't miss the weird bugs especially, but I do miss the option of a surprise every day.  I will miss finding out what kind of fruit my favorite tree produces and how the project finishes out.  I already miss tea with the ladies and afternoon walks with Ina and Swahili lessons with Lydia.  We all still keep in touch and I wouldn't be surprised if I run into them again someday.  Just not today.

My life goes on without Africa.  Africa goes on without me.  I still write, gold is still mined.  Superficially, so little is changed.  And still.  All the changes that matter have occurred.  I am different.  My perspective is forever altered.  And other people are changed as well.  I made it better, for a little while.  Friendships were forged, and some old ones grown stronger.  I did a good thing, and I am proud of that.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

family traditions

I'm getting ready to go home, to be home for a while.  And, while I pack and prepare to get on another couple of planes and lose a couple days of my life to airport limbo, I've been thinking about my heritage.

As an American, I identify with precious little else.  I've got some English/Scottish and a bunch of Eastern European block countries in my background somewhere, but I could not tell you where my ancestors came from.  I think I've got some German?  But I only think that because of how thoroughly I was taught to scrub things clean.  And I may have made up the Scottish heritage entirely, as I can't really abide the bagpipes.  So, I'm a American.  An American mutt, from the East Coast, right outside the Capitol, if anyone's asking, but mostly, staunchly American.

I've grown up very proud of that, and I've grown even more attached to it as an expat.  Americans are wanderers... or at least my Americans have been.  My family, whoever they are, wherever they come from, they have always been wanderers.

My great-grandmother, a Heil, lived in Baltimore long before I got there.  She held railroad stock, fiercely independent woman that she was.  And my grandmother Helen used to be walking through the streets of Irvington, a place none of us are likely to ever get back to, and would catch of glimpse of her mom on the train, going anywhere, reading the newspaper.

My grandfather was active-duty military for most of his life and each of his children were born in different states (and one in a different country)!  Not even the world was a big enough adventure for him.  He needed to see heaven too.

My aunt Carmen, who died just a few years ago, was a feisty old woman, whose walking club offered a farewell hike after her wake.  She told me a story once about being in a South American country during a political coup.  The tour guides packed all the visitors into a church until the fighting was over and then began making arrangements to send everyone home.  Carmen marched up to the folks in charge and asked "when will we go back out there and see it?"  The guides told her that she'd be on a plane shortly.  She asked why?  All the good stuff was still waiting for her, probably made better for the excitement.

My parents took a roadtrip around the country for their honeymoon.  My brother and I have our fond roadtrip memories, as children.  We've seen the United States from the ground.

I hold this heritage inside of me, so deeply that decisions made in this vein - running away to the beach, new-city adventures, strolling by myself through a park, solo roadtrips much longer than normal people would commit to - these aren't questioned, they are assumed.  Of course.  The people who have come before me have led me to these experiences, they followed this path first, to the wanderlust of my life.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

the holiday spirit

LOOK AT THIS! A garland that Elisabeth bought in Honduras almost a year ago and then bestowed on me without really understanding why she bought it FITS PERFECTLY above the mosquito net in my bedroom, making my (small) contribution to holiday decorating complete this year.

Tiny bits and pieces regularly reinforce that I am where I belong. Africa isn't home, but nonetheless, I am supposed to be here now. With my South American Christmas decorations and the ninety degree weather and the online ordering that defaults to Tanzanian shipping. Regardless, there are cookies (biscuits) baked by the neighbors, the best ever Vince Guaraldi piping through my computer, and an employee running around with a Santa cap and his normal neon orange jumpsuit. (Listen, I know it sounds like a prison, but it's hard to see people underground unless you stand out! And you want to seen underground.)

As a bonus, even nature gets decked out for Christmas in Africa.  I left my office the other night, under threat of rain, and found a rainbow.  Potentially the only rainbow that I will ever see that actually ends in gold. : ) Liz may be in Ireland, but I must have stolen the leprechaun!


Saturday, December 1, 2012

rainy season

We've having a hell of a time with lizards in the rainy season. Both Vitaliy and Janet have had lizards land on them while coming in the front door of the office, so we've taken to swinging the door wide and pausing to check for falling lizards. This is the craziness.

I feel responsible for this actually because I reported in an email to my little sister earlier this week that we needed more lizards to deal with the influx of very big bugs. Noting also that I have seem to have become accustomed to this way of life... I'm not even going to bother with spray or traps or a swatter. What I need is a lizard.

More on these very big bugs. They have arrived in force within the four walls of any building since the rainy season has begun, and I'm trying very hard to ignore them. They like to play dead and then jump up when you get close, which let me tell you is both really obnoxious and quite hard to ignore. There was a giant spider (the size of my hand, friends) which had stationed itself directly beside our front door, maybe three feet from the keyhole. This is not far enough away. I was taking a deep breath and ignoring it while unlocking the door, with the "I am bigger" mantra playing in my head, hoping that as long as I didn't make eye contact with it, it would be as good as dead. Janet took this monster on, by blowing on it until it moved away. During that exchange, I went to the other side of the office and pretended I didn't notice anything at all was happening.

It's so hot, a lot of things just stay still until their energy is needed... and then they POUNCE. I am glad that I learned this lesson a long time ago in the Blue Ridge Mountains... and that the moment before I learned it was slightly more traumatizing than the moment itself.

When the lizard fell on Janet, she managed to shake it off quickly, but it remained in our little vestibule, terrorizing us simply with its presence. I wrangled this seven foot lizard with a broom! (I felt I owed her for dealing with the spider.) Oh, did I say foot? I didn't mean foot, I meant inch. But it was a serious attack all the same, involving said broom, and a door, and some flailing and waving, and only a little shriek.

So I had to swat the lizard from the screen door, unfortunately causing it to run in my direction, instead of out the doorway.  I commenced to pushing it toward the doorway, complete with the door that doesn't stay open, so I was simultaneously pushing the door hard with the broom to let it swing wide and then pushing the lizard with the broom so that it didn't get me. As this lizard was bigger than the usual ones that run along the walls (though not as large as originally noted), it didn't move as fast as those guys and so I was able to push it out the door.  Of course, the lizard then showed great interest in the broom as perhaps something edible and I had to shake the broom vigorously to dislodge it. We stared each other down after that, but he eventually received the "I am bigger" message and wriggled off.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

new developments

It's been a busy couple of weeks, with a quick trip home and lots of catch-up once returning, and more to do in the next couple of weeks than time might allow (but I'm always up for a challenge).  To keep everyone up to date...

I've created a rapport with some of the guys here, and made some friends with a few of the ladies... it feels like I'm becoming the sweetheart of the mine site (hey, I'll take it, but I'd prefer internet). I also was informed of the LIBRARY. Shut up, there's a library. I haven't seen it yet, but it exists. And that's enough for now. Though, again, lest it be forgotten, I'd also like reliable internet. Coming back wasn't easy, but it was nice to reconnect with some of the folks here. Soon, I may even miss them when I'm away.

I was finally issued a Tanzanian cell phone. Of course, I received it two days before I got on a plane to come back to America, the most perfectly reasonable time to get me a phone that works in Africa. Anyway, I'm issued a Tanzanian cell phone with an icon menu much more challenging that my fancy iPhone (now reduced to a $400 alarm clock) and instructions in Swahili. It also has no balance on it, so I can't actually make phone calls or send text messages. Rebecca called after my triumphant I-have-a-phone email AND GUESS WHAT THE RINGTONE IS?! Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." Let me repeat that. The default ringtone on my Tanzanian cell phone is half a step away from legitimate sexual harassment. Elisabeth has suggested that I switch it to "In the Jungle."

I arrived back to the mine site and found a giant sparrow's nest in the cornice on the front of our house and bats (lots of them) living in the roof of our office. So far, I'm doing my best to ignore them and they are ignoring me, but the encroaching wildlife is growing larger. No longer is it just bugs the size of birds, but actual birds and small mammals sharing my space. The monkeys also are becoming bolder, playing closer to the office. One was hopping up to hang onto the window sill and stare at me... which is either awesome or creepy. On my return home, my father informed me that he had been bitten by a monkey as a child (I can't wait to hear the WHOLE story of this and an explanation of why none of my family has heard it sooner, but we're saving it for Christmas). I'm not feeling so friendly towards the little monsters anymore.

The best surprise since I've been back was being invited to dinner by the couple next door, Kathy and Vick. I went over last Wednesday night and she'd made chicken dinner... but with stuffing and carrots and white wine and potatoes and people who are willing to treat me like family. It felt almost like Thanksgiving, which was sweet and inadvertent, as no one but Americans celebrate that holiday. Though, as a typical American, I think everyone should... I know that there were pilgrims and such... maybe not everyone has access to turkey... but it seems like an obviously good plan to globalize Thanksgiving.

Thank God for you all.  : )

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

this is a vegetable

My friend Lydia is teaching me Swahili.  She is also helping me do nearly everything else.  It is thanks to Lydia that I am able to make phone calls and send emails.  She's reactivated my security card twice and organized my flights home and back.  She has let me borrow her bicycle, though it was too big for me.  She will only print for me if I ask her to do so in Swahili, but I think it's a fair exchange as I must ask her to print something for me twice a day, on average.

Lydia has also outfitted me with a hard hat and safety glasses.  She has tried her best to also get me steel toed boots and a bright orange "Bulyanhulu" shirt.  The boots are a full-size too small, but I don't mention it.  She brought me a swath of fabric and suggested we make a shirt out of it.  When I asked her how, exactly, she told me she'd take me into the village and we'd have one made there.

She's gotten us drinks and lunch.  She has cooked us land nuts.  She comes by our little office to make sure we're getting along okay.

I love her, even if we don't always understand one another.  She's constantly explaining something to me, very patiently.  I'm sure I'm giving her a blank stare on a regular basis.  Sometimes it's because I don't understand the words she's using.  Sometimes it's because I don't understand why one would microwave peanuts.  Sometimes it's because I don't know why the warehouse doesn't have six 6 work boots or size M work shirt.

Today it was because she was holding a grasshopper.  These three or four inch bright green guys showed up as soon as (the real) rainy season started here.  They are beautiful.  Saturated lime green and translucent, with bony little legs and wings.  They get eaten almost immediately.  I've seen at least three carried off by birds and I'm not sure whether it's because they are so noticeable or because we have an abundance of birds on the mine site.

Anyway, greeting Lydia the other morning ("mambo"), she's holding one of these bright green bugs.  I'm ignoring her, as it's clear than giant African bugs and I are not getting along, no matter how pretty they are.  But she holds it out to me, as it's crawling over her hand.  I say, "Yes, I saw a bunch of them this morning on my way in."  Very excited, she'd like to know where.  So I point back in the direction of the little schoolhouse, a little confused, but not for the first time.  And she explains, "We eat these."  "Those?" I ask.  Yes, she's nodding.  "Do you cook them?" I'm certain my face is giving me away.  "Fried."  "Oh, so they crisp up?" I try for clarification.  "Yes, very crispy.  Very tasty." She's clearly thrilled and I'm not sure she won't just pop that live thing into her mouth.  I'm still making faces, I can tell.  I turn away, so not to truly offend her, because I love Lydia and if she loves eating grasshoppers, then who am I to say otherwise.  She didn't ask me to eat one (not yet).

I'm walking away, to begin a meeting, and she laughs a little.  Very sensibly, as if commenting on the weather... "This is a vegetable."  I'm sure I paused a moment, but then we laughed together.  Of course.  A flying vegetable.

Later that day we saw another giant African bug, with pinchers at least an inch long.  And I stopped and squealed at Lydia. "What is that?!"  And she shrugs, "I don't know.  A bug."  And, not being sure of anything anymore, I ask if she eats that too.  And she gives me sharp look, "No. We kill these."  And she stomps it.

Friday, November 2, 2012


I am really terrible at killing mosquitoes.  You'd think that I'd be better, considering I've been clapping at them for a solid month now, but I'm not.  I'm still miserable at getting them.  Now and again I'll get one, but I've heard that there is an illusion of improvement right after the area's been sprayed.  Just my luck.

Regardless, thankfully, I don't have malaria.  I'm taking pills and bathing in bug juice and there is fogging around the camp three times a week, but the people-who-know suggest you get a malaria test every two weeks.  I went a full month of being in Tanzania before they caught me (I don't much like doctors or clinics), but I have had my first malaria test and it is negative.

It is worth noting that once you detour through the security compound and travel along a barbed wire fence through the secret passage to the clinic, it is actually a good time.   No one comes to the clinic for a headache - there's a serious issue by the time you get to the clinic.  There was someone in physical therapy outside the front doors, re-learning how to walk.  A fair number of foot and toe injuries.  I also saw a guy with big black open blistery wounds on his swollen legs - yikes!  Now, I just require a finger prick and I made an appointment, so... apparently none of what is going on in the waiting room is an emergency and I am passed right on back.

The doctor is very happy that I have come in for my malaria test and the lab technician, an old man named Wilfred dressed in burgundy scrubs, is also quite happy to see me.  I'm not sure if this is because I am a pleasant person or I'm the least of their worries today (black wounds, man, that is a problem!) or because my attempts at Swahili are so funny.  Wilfred calls me "mami" the whole time, which means I love him.  Also, the finger prick is the lightest thing I've ever felt.  I actually asked Wilfred if he missed me, which only made him like me more.  Wilfred, in fact, is the person most amused by me since I got here.  As I was wondering if I was only being humored back in the States, I am pleased to find that I can truly be entertaining.  After the finger prick, I asked if I could sit and watch my malaria test "change color."  I thought that meant it was like a litmus test, but it's more like a pregnancy test (at least the way pregnancy tests work on commercials.  I don't have first hand knowledge of this.)  Wilfred talked me through the specifics of the superficial malaria test - which lines mean what, what happens if it's invalid, the whole nine.

Then there was the second round of testing, which involved a microscope and which I was not involved in.  All the same, no malaria.

Malaria, by the way, is apparently unmistakable.  The symptoms are discussed as "flu-like," but anyone who has had malaria said it is definitely not like anything normal... you feel like you are DYING.  Vitaliy believes he has malaria twice a week on average.  He's tried to diagnose me with malaria at least half a dozen times since we arrived.  Neither of us have malaria.  No one in camp has malaria.  We will not get malaria.

But we will get tested for it every two weeks.  I'll be going just to visit Wilfred.