Friday, January 5th, 2018

The day began as every other day in Tofo, Mozambique. The sun began to rise just before 5am and the first beam of light came through the window, past the curtain blowing in the sea breeze, and hit my face at 5:35am. After rolling over a few times to dodge the expanding beam of light the persistent sun convinced me to start the day. It was 5:45am and the sun was already bright and disorienting, light penetrated throughout the entire house. I opened the door as gently as I could and tried to step over Charlie, the dog who sleeps at my door, without waking him on my way to the bathroom to shower and start the day.

Still wiping the sleep off my face to look in the mirror after the shower, I could hear Dolly, the little terrier, prancing down the steps from the loft to greet me. Upon opening these groggy eyes, I could see the line developing for the bathroom with Elliot, my friend from University, and Richie, Elliot’s friend and the owner of the home, waiting patiently with coffees already in hand.

While eating a bowl of granola with soy milk, an indication of this life of luxury they were providing, we calmly went through the talking points of our morning discussion including number of dives, conditions of the ocean, any surf, who is making dinner, what’s for dinner, a beer in the market after work? Once the boxes were checked Elliot and I walked two minutes out to the main road and at 6:40am we were picked up by one of his coworkers and piled into the back of the pickup and were off to the dive shop.

As the employees of Tofo Scuba went through their morning routine of opening the shop and preparing the gear and boats for the dive clients, I made my way through the bustle and out to the beachfront restaurant to stay out of the way. In the restaurant with a toasted egg sandwich in hand I watched the waves come in, all the while calculating how long I would be able to hold the sandwich down before sea sickness would take over out on the water.

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At 8am, Elliot’s dive instructor safety briefing was complete and we began walking down the beach ready to push the preloaded 9-meter inflatable sided boat, for our two sequential dives, out into the water. With a tractor behind us pushing the boat through the sand stronger than the waves crashing ahead of us, the five divers and two instructors managed to launch the boat and we all heaved ourselves aboard just as the skipper fired the dual engines to bring us to our first reef of the day.

Since the diving conditions are a bit challenging in Tofo, we were instructed to take a negative entry to start the dive. The easiest way to describe a negative entry is by imagining how a boat full of Navy SEALs would enter the water. Our instructor, while using a GPS, counted down the meters to our drop spot. With 20 meters remaining we were instructed to put our masks on and hold our regulator in hand. With 10 meters remaining we were instructed to put our regulators in our mouth and prepare for the count down.  Elliot gave us the three, two, one, go! And we all rolled back off the boat at the same time and immediately began our decent to the ocean floor 30 meters below. Once oriented in the water we found the dive line Elliot was swimming to the bottom and we followed it down to ensure we did not lose the group in the current. Once reaching the ocean floor we checked in with our buddies and the instructor to give the OK sign before following the current along the reef beginning the dive.

Continue reading “Friday, January 5th, 2018”

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The more the merrier

Christmas with the Masanjas

Family Christmas with my family in Iganga felt the same as family Christmas back at home. Sure there were some differences, but the structure and feel of the whole festivity contained the same core components that makes celebrating this holiday so special to me.

Just like at home…

… It was a huge ordeal with extended family traveling out of their way to celebrate together.

… There was a large special meal prepared.

… There was an open door with friends and anyone else without a celebration welcome to join.

… The little children were running around screaming and drinking bubbly, sugary beverages.

… The youths were up to no good, but stiffened their backs and were extremely respectful when facing the adults.

… An uncle showed up with a home brewed alcohol beverage.

… Some went to church while others stayed back.

Unlike at home…

… We cooked on open fires outside.

… We sat and talked under the shade of the trees.

… The main meal was a late lunch instead of dinner.

… The evening turned into a massive party throughout town.

As one can tell, the only differences seemed to be situational upgrades. Cooking and relaxing outside on a nice sunny day rather than tucked away from the ice and snow outside created a whole new dynamic. Rather than the little kids’ screams and shrieks filling the house, they faded out in the open air. Rather than cooking in a crowded kitchen with well meaning hands getting in the way, only those who knew what they were doing got close enough to the open fires. Rather than enjoying a warm beverage under a blanket after the meal, cold beers were consumed under the cool shade of the trees as the sun went down. Rather than everyone teetering out as sleep consumed them, beers kept flowing till the heavy bass from the music in town motivated them to stumble to the party.

The only addition I’d like to add that doesn’t run parallel to this story is the underlying feel of Christmas in Uganda. In Uganda people talk about where they live and where they are from. Where someone works is usually where they live, but where their family has lived for generations is where they are from. Christmas is all about reconnecting with where you are from with people fleeing the cities and taking the trip “out to the village.” A Christmas is best spent out in your village, with your family, enjoying each others company alongside a hefty meal. For me, this raw celebration of those around me, in the sought out simplest of settings, and without the distractions of my daily toil really made celebrating Christmas a treat this year.

To give you a visual sense of how Christmas day played out, a few photos and captions may tell the story better.

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Upon arrival I was greeted with morning tea and spot in the shade.
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My host mother hustling between open fires preparing the meal. On the left is matooke steaming in banana leaves. Matooke is from the banana family but doesn’t have any sweetness and is usually prepared mashed like potatoes.
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My host mother and sister, Maureen, checking the status of the matooke.
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Maureen and host brother, Pius, preparing to serve the fried rice. Mother is multitasking as only moms can really do. You’ll also see a chicken and a beef stew just above and to the right of the rice. Matooke can be seen still wrapped in the banana leaves.
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Maureen sipping the malwa (local brew) as my host father grins with joy and uncle wonders why I’m taking a photo.
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Post meal relaxing with the family.

Hiking Sabinyo

Mount Sabinyo has three peaks and the third marks the intersection between Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Getting there required an approximate 10-hour bus ride from Kampala to the town of Kisoro in the far southwest of Uganda. The early rising group decided to take an 8am bus all the way to Kisoro to (hopefully) ensure arrival before dark. The other group elected for a 9am bus to Kabale, which is the city before Kisoro and roughly still two hours away. Once in Kabale their plan was to catch a mutatu from Kabale to Kisoro for the last leg of the journey.

I quite predictably joined the early departure in order to take just one mode of transit all the way to Kisoro. The hope of arriving earlier meant getting situated and properly eating before the 6am hike the next day. A lesson learned over and over here is you can only plan so much. Our 8am bus ended up leaving at 9:15am, the same time as those taking the 9am bus. Our bus then proceeded to stop significantly more throughout the journey. Then once hitting Kabale, the bus driver decided there were not enough passengers to drive all the way to Kisoro, so he made us get out and set up a car to take us the last leg. The sedan from Kabale to Kisoro lasted about two hours as we rode four in the front and four in the back. This was the first time I’ve ever seen someone drive with a passenger also in the driver seat. I’m still unsure if she was helping to receive a discount on the fare or if she just sat there perhaps getting in the way of the clutch and stick.

I wouldn’t call it predictably, but not at all unsurprisingly the “early morning” crew managed to reach the destination over two hours after the other group. Fortunately, our group was in high spirits as we arrived late in the evening because other than the high spirits, our bodies were in no way in proper shape for a 10-hour hike departing early the following morning. To ensure safe passage on these long haul rides, tactically dehydrating and fasting is a technique commonly used. Although this strategy can enhance minor discomfort throughout the journey, it prevents all sorts of extreme discomfort that can otherwise not be attended to.

The Mountain

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Mount Sabinyo means “tooth” in the local language. Other than that, I cannot really tell you much about the significance of the mountain for a few reasons. The first is because I was usually sucking wind and using all my energy to try and seem cool any time we caught up to our guide as he frolicked up and down the paths significantly ahead. The second is because the guides were there for our physical safety. There were two men who went out ahead of our party with guns to scope the trail and one with a gun who followed behind. The guns were not meant to shoot anything in particular but to scare off large animals that may have wanted to share the trail.

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Of the three peaks, the first one took the longest, roughly 4 hours to reach. We started off on quite a flat trail that led through a bamboo forest, a stream, and a swamp on the way to the base of the mountain before gradually hitting steeper and steeper inclines.  The pace set at the beginning felt more like a jog than a walk, which really did not instil any confidence in me in regards to my chances for success. Upon reaching the first peak we took a well needed extended rest before proceeding to the second and third peaks. Each of these next peeks only took about an hour each as we climbed up and down ladders and steps to the tops.

If it were up to me, I would have liked to have been airlifted to the first peak to skip the grueling hike and to just enjoy the adventure of the ladders in the clouds. The way up the ladders was physically challenging, but focusing on breathing and keeping a steady pace occupied the mind with the finish line feeling closer and closer each step. The way down proved to be a bit trickier. A few of the people on the hike were scared of heights, which required me to coach one of them down the ladders. Although heights are not particularly scary for me, coaching someone down makeshift ladders in the clouds proved difficult.

For example, I’m was telling my friend Ashya, “okay now put your left foot on the rung that your right foot is currently on.” I look down to provide some insight on how far to go. “Okay now let’s keep going steady one at a time. We have at least 5 or 6 more before we need to switch ladders. There is a space big enough to hold one foot before switching ladders. I’ll let you know how I maneuver it when I get there, because I can’t really see where the next ladder starts.” As I’m trying to guide her down I’m also wincing as I speak because I know my words aren’t exactly helping or downplaying the frightening component.

Once we made it back to the first peak we were all either riding the adrenaline high from the ladders or shaking from fear, but little did we know, the hardest part was yet to come. The journey back began with high spirits as we chatted down the path, but bend after bend we started realizing just how far we had to go. At least 3 times someone stated “Ah the final stretch is here,” and each time they were incorrect. Eventually, once somber silence took over the excited euphoria, we made it back feet dragging.

While simultaneously doing some reflection on the bus journey home while also deeply exhaling and grunting as I massaged out the aching legs I realized how my physical health has really been low on the priority list since arriving. Focusing on work, reading, meditation, friendships, and building community have all been of the utmost importance but for some reason exercise has not made the cut. Now that the grueling yet rewarding hike is over, I’m realizing its time to start focusing on my physical health since all those other focuses seem to be stable or developing nicely. Perhaps that will start after New Years though… I need to gorge this Christmas with my homestay family and enjoy myself on vacation in Mozambique.

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East Welcome Weekend – Sipi Falls

 

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A Peace Corps tradition during the first three months after swearing in is for the older volunteers in your region to throw a welcome weekend for the newbies to meet everyone around. The east is blessed to have Sipi Falls nearby, so to follow tradition, our welcome weekend was located there to hike the waterfalls.

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Traveling from nearly a week at work in the Central region all the way east to Mbale for the welcome weekend felt exhausting yet exhilarating. Perhaps there is an adrenalin kick that makes constant movement exciting, or the joy of seeing new places and new people each day, or perhaps even the movement itself creates the energy, but being constantly on the move is somehow both exhausting and exhilarating.

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Homestay Part III – Family Bonding

Homestay Part III – Family Bonding

Jinja Trip – Busoga College Visitation

After my first weekend in Iganga, Maureen asked if I wanted to head to neighboring Jinja to see the city and visit Joel at his boarding school. I jumped on the offer to join primarily to shake things up in my daily routine but also to get a glimpse of Jinja, which I had been hearing about from current volunteers since arriving in country. After class ended early on Saturday, Maureen met me at school and we headed to the taxi stand to hitch a 45 minute ride out to Jinja.

In Uganda, a taxi is a public transit carrier van, called a mutatu, that shuttles people all around the country with usually 12+ people filling the van. There are no scheduled departures for taxis between major cities, but the constant flow of vehicles creeping by taxi stages with the conductor hollering the destination out the open door while simultaneously ushering on and off passengers creates a near on demand service.

A taxi stage is a stretch of road along side the main transit roads where taxis stop to drop off and pick up customers. In larger cities there are taxi stands located in different areas for different departure destinations, whereas between destinations there are marked areas along the road where people commonly get on and off the vehicles.

Each taxi is operated by two individuals, a driver and a conductor. The driver is the core operational component of the service and is responsible for safely or quickly driving passengers from their pick up stand to their drop off stand along the taxi route. On the other hand, the conductor is the finance, sales, marketing, and customer service team all in one. He is responsible for collecting payment, fielding complaints, hollering the destination out the door to attract more business, and ushering clients on and off as the taxi stops at its many stages along its route.

Each ride in a taxi is a new adventure. You never know what a customer is bringing with them, nor how many clients the conductor will boldly try to squeeze into the vehicle. For this reason, my sister, Maureen, did not want to be squished four across in a back row so we jumped into the front of an empty taxi and waited for the van to slowly fill before taking off.

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Lusoga Lesson Intermission

the 4th

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Fortunately, we received the Fourth of July off and managed to celebrate the only way we knew how, a BBQ. Peace Corps provided us the day off and the funds to create the meal, but finding, bargaining, and purchasing the food within the given budget was our lesson for the day.

At this point we were still getting used to Iganda town and definitely did not know enough Lusoga to bargain properly, so finding what we needed as well as receiving a fair price was quite the challenge. Even with help indicating approximate prices to pay from our instructors and family, some of us received the Muzungu discount more often than not.

Since I worked too create and divvy up the ingredient list for our 25+ person feast I left myself and a few others that live near me the task of picking up the meat the morning of the feast. In addition to all foods requiring refrigeration storage, we picked up a couple of chickens and 4kg of meat from the butcher at the market.

I managed to pay the appropriate price without negotiation for the beef. The butcher even asked me to point to which parts I wanted him to hack up to constitute the 4kgs, which gave me the courage needed to approach the cages of live chickens. I walked into the chicken coup on the outskirts of the market until someone grabbed me and pulled me to their cages to sell me their chickens. The first man I spoke to told me that I could buy the local chickens for fifteen thousand Ugandan shillings ($4/$5) per chicken, which was exactly the price and item my family told me was fair and to purchase. With my adrenaline pumping I happily handed over the thirty thousand in exchange for the two chickens. When asked if I would like the chickens killed or tied together I happily announced tied just so I could walk into the party fulfilling my word to provide live chickens.

Not until I strutted into the volunteer’s homestay that was hosting the BBQ with chickens happily in hand and after I took a few deep breathes to let the heart rate cool down and adrenaline fade from my face was I informed that I got swindled on the chickens. The host mother was holding and inspecting the birds inquisitively as she scowled over the festivities asking how much I paid and from whom I purchased the chickens. She then enquired why I purchased female chickens, to which a shoulder shrug and tooth gritting smile was all I could muster as a response. I had received female birds rather than male birds. Not only did I have no idea that I needed to buy male instead of female, but even the ability to identify the difference is not a skill I possess. We all laughed about how confident (cocky) I was about paying the fair price for all my items, when in reality I also had no idea what I was doing. I also was boasting the day before about how I intended to fully buy and prepare the birds, which I too backed out of. Something that finds its way into conversation still today!

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