Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Interesting Restaurant English

Ladies, your prayers have been answered.

My good friend Steven was kind enough to inform me freshman year of college that I had been confusing "homely" and "homey" for the first 19 years of my life.

"I would like to order a drink, please. No, wait, let's make that a beverage." (Also, check out item number 14. This explains EVERYTHING.)

There is plenty more where this came from...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Breastfeeding and Cockroaches? Musings from an Amateur

Some of you may be thinking to yourself, "Is there any method to Joel's blog posting madness?"

The answer is, in short, no.

My kindly dad once told me that I had the musings of an Erato, or Thalia. (I must admit most of my topics are more Dionysian.) But permit me to continue that trend.

Prior to leaving for Uganda I asked anybody who would talk to me about what to expect in Sub-Saharan Africa. I also tried to read up on the region as much as possible, hitting fiction and non-fiction with like gusto: Joseph Conrad, David Lamb, Paul Theroux, Alan Moorehead, Barbara Kingsolver, even one of my idols, Bill Bryson.

One thing I heard from several different sources that African children do not cry. This is false. The neighbor boy Emma, age two, cries twelve times each day. African children do cry, perhaps just not as frequently as Western children. Because Matooke Six-Pack has so many kids, there are millions and millions of children in Africa, and they are EVERYWHERE: riding every bus and taxi, singing carols at Christmas concerts, dining at very fancy restaurants, playing in the local dumpster, peeking through your fence, climbing your water tower and breaking the pipes that lead to your showerhead. There are so many kids all over the place that I hear, on a daily basis, way more kids crying than I ever did living stateside. One thing people should have warned me about was the popularity of breastfeeding your baby in public. If one were to espy an African mother at her home she would be cooking or cleaning or some other domestic chore, but as soon as she boards the bus she lets it all hang out. Imagine an already awkward young man going to Africa for the first time and driving to a remote village to meet with a rural group of thirty or so women. Now, imagine that young man, sweat pouring down his face because he is so nervous, getting up to make an introduction speech before fifteen breastfeeding women.

I asked my friend Nasser if he could share for me the general opinion held by Uganda’s Muslim population about public breastfeeding. In other words, I wanted to know how Muslims about felt strongly encouraging their feminine members to wear a headscarf while their Christian counterparts so liberally display their mammary glands. I don’t think I ever got an answer.

I was at East Burn public house with fellow traveler Brad sampling a local quaff in the week leading up to my departure when we met a man who had previously traveled to Uganda to do some missionary work. After the customary bullshitting, I asked him if he had anything spectacular to tell me about Uganda. Insects, he said. Beware, of the insects. Spiders so big they can palm a basketball, mosquitoes terrorizing the aspiring sleeper and carrying more disease than a 14th century European rat, murderous caterpillars, etc. Actually, I’ve found the insect situation to be quite tolerable. Sure the occasional cockroach may be found hiding in your shoe or dancing on your toothbrush, but aside from that I’ve found no big and scary difference between the insects here and everywhere else I have been, and, like I said, they are all easy to live with. We have very few spiders in our house. The termite tunnels that try and creep up the wall can be knocked down or sprayed in a flash. Bright blue wood bees the size of a human thumb are absolutely harmless, they just sound like Harriers taking off. In fact, man’s efforts to control the African insect are, sometimes, self-contradictory. I can’t tell you how many times I have had the grin wiped off of my face after pulling down my mosquito net only to find I have trapped myself with ten of the little bloodsuckers. And little they are. African mosquitoes are surprisingly tiny, I guess I was expecting the worlds greatest murderer of all time to be more substantial. Perhaps the larger, scarier insects were all killed by the enormous rats.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Village (Idiot)

Ugandans have many signs of wealth which you might find interesting. For instance, anyone who can afford one buys a wristwatch. This is just an African twist on what I like to call the “California Complex,” that is, a propensity to acquire luxury items a person cannot realistically afford for the sole purpose of boosting one’s image. In California, you’ll be amazed at how many Mercedeses and BMWs you’ll find in the parking lot of a discount strip mall, miles away from any financial center, and being driven by men and women who are far too young to have finished their doctorate. Ugandans behave similarly. Cell phones are another good example. People buy expensive phones with internet surfing capability, even though there is rarely a reliable internet connection to be surfed. Men and women get more haircuts in one year than I have had in my entire life (perhaps I should have chosen a less unkempt example that doesn't say so much about me, but this will work for now). It is not unusual for a woman to spend over ten hours in a hair salon, perming this, defrizzing that, dying these, dreading those. Men, on the other hand, have next to nothing hair-wise, but still sit in the chair for hours each month, which comes in the form of twice-monthly visits to trim the stray hairs which poke up above the suede. A wrinkled shirt won’t garner you any respect, despite how many degrees you have, because it suggests you can’t afford to keep yourself looking sharp and therefore haven’t made it. Finally, everyone goes home to the village for the holiday season (“the village” is the place where your family hails from, and where your extended family is likely to reside), and if you do not have a village to go home to, you are a very, very poor man. Ugandans, even if they have spent the last thirty years going to school and living in an urban center, never lose that close connection with their village.


Yesterday, Caitlin, Eddie, and I went to Eddie’s village just an hour outside of Mbale to kick start a new business education program there. Around ten in the morning we crushed into a matatu (minibus) and took off. Fortunately for me, I was able to get a window seat, which means I could extend as much of my torso outside of the vehicle as possible and away from the stagnant, malodorous air inside. Unfortunately for me, the conductor did not see me hanging out behind him, and slammed open the sliding door with such great force at one station that he pinned my arm between the door and the outside of the window (on second thought, he had to have known I was there...), to the result of men screaming, children crying and women fainting and all sorts of hullabaloo. After that, I rejoined my fellow passengers inside the vehicle, forced to ride the layman way.

After a twenty minute boda ride we arrived at Kamu Trading Center, the local market. For anyone who has not seen the African open air marketplace, a few words to describe it. It is utter chaos. Men and women carrying baby elephants on their backs and on their heads weave in and out of dense human traffic to which there is absolutely no order. Old and young walk to and fro, people sitting on anything with a remotely flat surface, and tables popping up in every imaginable place. Goats and chicken are slaughtered in the middle of the thoroughfare and, in the case of the former, left hanging to drain just feet away from a women selling grilled corn. Colors abound here. Tomatoes, onions, passion fruits, mangoes of all shapes and sizes, enormous avocados, massive jack fruits, the smallest garlic cloves you’ll ever lay your eyes upon, soiled heads of cabbage, papayas, carrots, over one million different kinds of bean, ginger, lentils, ground nuts, red and green peppers, yellow bananas, and, easily the most abundant, matooke, the green plantains used to create Uganda’s national dish, found here still on the vine. Bicycles add a different speed element to the mix, but still follow the rules of the market. People move out of the way of the cyclist, who creeps along just faster than the pedestrian. Motorcycles part the crowds easier still, but not as easily as the car, which has fortunate capability of moving along at a continuous slow, pace, with the driver acknowledging he might have to run over a few toes or potatoes to reach his destination. The king of the market is the matooke truck, which rumbles along with no less than two dozen sweaty Africans hanging from its siding. To manage, I usually try and find a heavyset, normal-walking local and fall in behind them, using their mass to wedge my way through the throng. Dust is everywhere. Vehicles kick up dirt, spew exhaust over every child, adult and vegetable. Everything is filthy, the African market is not the place to sport your new white shirt. Crushed mangoes and torn black plastic bags coat the ground an inch thick, and, perhaps my favorite part, the smell of fish spoiling under the terrible African sun can be found in the background of every sniff. The sun is always overhead at the African market.

At the market, Eddie uttered the most disconcerting words one can hear in Africa, “You just follow me.” Eddie led us to one shop, set back from the main road a few yards, where a his uncle and four other Ugandan men sat under the shade of an awning while scores of chickens with their legs tied together fought for direction and anything edible. Eddie’s uncle spoke little English, so conversation petered out after a couple rounds of “How are you? I’m fine.” It was now, finally time to get down to business. But first, we had to meet another uncle, and, after him, we absolutely had to stop at his Aunt’s new husband’s house to say hello. Actually, the first good half hour after our arrival was spent cruising around and greeting people, until Eddie had checked off every cousin, brother, uncle, aunt, half sister, cousin-brother, and brother-brother off of the list. After introductions, it was time to introduce ourselves to the villagers who would comprise the group. This is also a process that demands explanation, for it is a very different one than we are accustomed to. The men shake hands. First the hand is extendedb, even before the owner has finished approaching his target. The hand, large and extremely calloused from years spent clutching a hoe or machete or saw, has cracked fingernails, many scars and other signs of hard weathering, but still grips with astonishing delicacy and vigor. Then comes the best part, trying to read and see if that hand is going to perform the ol’ Ugandan Thumb Shake-- that is, the two hands unite just as any other handshake begins, but then, then, the plot twist comes. Out of the blue, with no wink, grunt, or any other signal, the hand releases only to rapidly regrip itself, around the other’s thumb. Thus, for a split second the two actors are locked around the thumbs, the oldest and most sacred of all the shaking appendages. The bond has been made, but its strength is too powerful to maintain for long, and the hands part momentarily before resuming the starting position. If the connection is a good one, with good flow, accurate speed, cosmic energy and all around perfect deliverance, the hands will go for another thumb-lock and reversion. This may continue until both parties are satisfied. My personal record is seven thumb-locks in one greeting, actually with the hand whose owner had ripped me off with a muzungu-priced good during a previous visit to his shop. The women learned to shake hands from a different school. Though it is often far more worn and rugged than those of their husbands, the feminine hand strikes with a limpness that I don’t think warrants analogy. But the body language is what is the most interesting part. For, you see, a woman, when shaking a man’s hand, must first get on her knees, even if she happens to be wearing an evening gown. I have had five village women battling for knee space in front of me at one time simultaneously. Instead of making me feel powerful or masculine, I just feel awkward and embarrassed. The elder, more traditional women even talk to men from the same position. Later that day in the village, Eddie’s archaic neighbor came out of her house to send us off. We had already started down the path, so physical contact was impossible, but she came running out anyway. Seeing that we had noticed her and her cries for attention, she immediately dropped to ancient knobby knees and with clean dress into the dirt and, throwing her arms in the air, wished us a safe journey.

I absolutely love going to the village; it is one of my favorite things to do. The people are welcoming, genuinely enthusiastic, and always optimistic. And they love greeting foreigners. One man in Eddie’s village (some uncle) spent I’m not kidding ten minutes trying to untie a knot on his gate to let us into his compound, just for us to shake his hand and then leave a minute later. But we parted with him smiling and waving.

The meeting with Eddie’s village went well. Our plans were well received, and next week we head back to discuss our educational curriculum and agree on a schedule. (Oh, and to also make a few introductions.) I am kind of wishing I had a village to go to during the holidays.

Caitlin cooking while the cute neighbor boys get away with murder and grate cheese on the floor. Those are guilty smiles, people
Caitlin and Eddie with Eddie's father, Tom posing on a bluff above the market
The first group we met with

I just had to show you. The rat Eddie and I killed in our kitchen the other night. Sleep peacefully (I know I won't)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Pictures from Entebbe (wow, Joel, what a creative title)

The Entebbe Country Club. Despite Tiger's popularity, golf is still slow to catch on here in Uganda
Entebbe Botanical Gardens
I believe this white flower is called a tiger lily, but don't ask me for any more details on Ugandan flora, I just like the picture
Towering yucca plant growing tall in front of a backdrop of suffocating curtain vines
Someone, I believe it was my usually reliable Field Director Luke, once told me that Lake Victoria fishermen have one of the highest AIDS prevalence rates, hovering around an astonishing 80 percent

Man swimming in Lake Victoria. Apparently there is an otter species living in the waters here that penalizes men from swimming naked at night by biting off their members

Hey Bush, where is your African plane with your picture on it?

Acting like a responsible, mature adult in front of my sister

That flag says "Next Adventure" on it after the sporting goods store in Portland. Think the'll send me a free kayak?

Wonderful old colonial administrative building in residential Entebbe, now called home by who knows how many squatters. At least the colonists did something positive for the Africans

Colonialism, nationalism, and...gardening

“A visit to the botanical gardens?” you might have proposed.
There was a good chance I would have replied with something along the lines of, “Blah, no way! Gardens are for Babylonians and old people.”

This was the Old Joel. The New Joel is a huge fan of botanical gardens actually, which means I have grown more mature and open-minded since coming to Uganda (I don‘t think it is because I have grown more Babylonian).


My sister, on holiday from her freshman year as a collegiate academic at the University of Puget Sound, decided she needed to fly all the way over to Uganda to remind me that her first semester grades were much better than mine. There wasn’t much I could do in argument (she showed me her transcript), so I am left with the thoroughly enjoyable task of showing her as many different cultural and geographical aspects of Africa as possible in a limited amount of time and money.

Wednesday, and my sister’s first morning here in Uganda, began with a walk to Entebbe Airport. This just so happened to be one of those incidents that begun with me saying “Follow me, everybody, I think I have a good idea where [insert location] is!” Even though I have little or no clue where I am actually going. My sister and I and Brad and Asha (his girlfriend) set off that morning trying to find our way to Aero Beach, but ended up wandering to the airport. This wandering phase, because it was kind of my fault as I was the guide we shall call the “sightseeing tour” of Entebbe, ended just in time to observe the lunch hour lull at a cafeteria in the taxi park. A lesson I learned from Peter Mayle proven time and time again its relevance: Truck stops and taxi parks, no matter the country, often have very good food, usually at a very reasonable price, and always delivered in very massive proportions.

After a filling lunch of public transportion chaos and local Ugandan cuisine, our quartet segued to Aero Beach, a curious oddity. Rusting away on a beach only a kilometer away from Entebbe International were two old passenger airplane skeletons. The larger of the two bore the faded black, red, and yellow of the Ugandan flag, an oxidized remnant of some past foray into the national carrier gig, though it did not appear like it had ever been flight-worthy. A dark black mold had grown over much of the dirty yellow paint, visibly contrasting a dull metallic gleam revealed by peeling undercoat. The only two remaining doors hung awkwardly on broken hinges and the engine turbines had been stripped bare and now provided a number of small lizards with an excellent basking place. Heaped disorderly under the left wing was a pile of junk: broken chairs, tables, bed frames, paint cans. Inside, there was nothing, not a single chair or flotation device in the entire cabin, merely a few thousand corners all worthy of requiring a tetanus injection merely by looking at them. Prior to our visit, I had heard rumors that one of the planes on Aero Beach was the Air France liner hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. En route from Ben Gurion to Paris, a group of frustrated Palestinian men took control of Flight 139 and rerouted to it to a country found universally reliable and friendly to bad people the world over, Idi Amin Dada’s Uganda. Israeli paratroopers landed, despite Amin’s bumbling efforts at mediation, and all hostages were released save just one casualty. I am not certain what has happened to that plane, whether it is rotting on an Entebbe Beach having been repainted in Ugandan colors or with a picture of a smiling Barack Obama on its tailfin, or if it is sitting on proud display in some Masada museum, I cannot tell. I am certain, however, that airplane skeletons wearing national colors is eerily symbolic of Africa’s past tradition of engaging in luxurious endeavors which it could not sustain, and letting them fall into decay(see David Lamb's The Africans, specifically the national air carriers chapter), at times even marring pristine, untouched country.

These days the main attraction of Entebbe is not rotting airplane carcasses, believe it or not, but an expansive 40 hectare garden started in 1897. Begun partly as an experiment, the Botanical Gardens were created in part to give botanists an idea of which plants could survive in tropical, equatorial Uganda. A number of species were introduced, and, perhaps not to anyone’s surprise, it appears as they have all performed marvelously. Foreign varietals of cinnamon, fig, pine, apple, clove, mahogany, and even hazelnut trees towered spectacularly, shrugging off the pesky strangling fig and curtain vines with almost local impunity. The only failure, we were told, was a species of oak tree that couldn’t quite handle cohabitating with African termites.

The oxygen breathing contingency was less breathtaking. Aside from an impressive array of birds to see--a listing which includes hornbill, two varieties of turaco, red-chested sunbird, palmnut vulture, fish eagle, eagle owl, among others--there was not much to see that moved. The occasional vervet or colobus monkey chattered in the sprawling canopies above, and I believe I saw the tail end of the bright green tree snake before it fled into the high grass, the latter being exciting news at the time due to my sister’s great phobia of anything serpentine.

A pleasant afternoon cap was spent walking around Entebbe on our way back from the botanical gardens. The quiet town was replaced by Kampala in the 1960s as the administrative capital in Uganda, thereby locking Entebbe in a different time and era. Massive colonial government buildings lined the streets, windows broken and whitewash dirtied and overgrown with vines and squatters, but still exuding an air of languor that suggests “a deck chair, a shady veranda, the chink of ice on glass, and the curling smoke of a cigar.” Winston Churchill, I venture, would have absolutely loved Entebbe. We did.