Tuesday, December 16, 2008

everywhere a sign, blocking out the scenery breaking my mind

It is said a sign is a window into the soul of a culture, no?

Perhaps these will convey a small glimpse of another culture...

Billboard over beauty shop in countryside, Uganda "God is Here"
"It is strictly prohibited to wash cars along roadside" - entering Uganda
"Welcome to Uganda, Keep Left" - entering Uganda
"God is Love" - Forex Bureau in Kigali, Rwanda
"Gain hips and bum, call #..." - Kampala, Uganda
"Find a lover, call #..." - Kampala, Uganda
"Focused, Courageous, Victorious - not even a Sugar Daddy can stop her. Cross-generational sex stops with you." - Billboard in downtown Kampala
"Priorities changing ahead" - traffic sign in Kampala
"Tipsy Wood, Preservation Center" - Eldoret, Kenya (is this a nature reserve or drunk trees?)
"Theme: Strategic Worship for Divine Restoration" - Christian worship center in Eldoret
" 'For' 'Your' 'Electricity Bill' " - Easy Pay Billboard in Nairobi, Kenya (I don't think I'm culturally savvy enough to understand what this is code for...)

And finally... this answer came from one of the participants during a conference as Irene used multiple examples to help participants understand the impact of human dignity. "What prevents us from peeing in the streets? Answer: Shame"

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I should have known better. Returning from Africa I was so excited to get to bed early, catch up on sleep and recover from the trip. I knew the first week likely would be exceedingly busy with catching up on all I'd put on hold while travelling and corresponding with new contacts, following up on new ideas. In preparing to leave I had, for the first time since starting to work for WYA, actually accomplished all I wanted to accomplish before leaving. I thought, consequently, that I could easily catch up upon return.

There have been great things to keep me busy. Lots of projects requiring some attention, speaking with the staff and hearing how they've all been doing over the previous few weeks, and other matters of great importance but little interest to anyone not me... This all means that sleep continues to wait for me. Being an optimist - I think I'll sleep lots this weekend :p

Last night, WYA partnered with IAV to host a photo exhibit showing Oman in a period of transition from traditional culture to modern conveniences. Many of the pictures were quite fascinating - if you live in NY here is a plug that you have 2 weeks more in which you can come and see them :) Afterwards we hosted a little party for Habib Malik, who was one of the guests of honour for the event, to get to know WYA staff and interns.

Best of all? We now have FOOD! Leftover party trays, and leftover food from post-party Trays. Um-mmm we'll all eat well for a few days.

Tonight, Bissy has invited me to attend an opera with her and one of the current interns. We'll go see Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades. A little coffee pre-opera will likely be essential and then the music and story will have to take over!

ps. The picture is just one I love of my little brother and I looking exceedingly cool. No relation whatsoever with anything in this post.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Little Things in Life

It's the small things in life that make a big difference, and also what take a bit of adjustment.

In London, I asked Simon where I could get some water to drink and he looked at me as though I were crazy "in the tap..." It was my first time in 3 weeks in which I could drink unboiled tap water.

Walking in the dark up the deserted hill to the observatory, I kept glancing around and felt as though it were a very unsafe thing to do. I finally confessed to Phil how odd it felt to realise that it was a perfectly safe thing to do.

Blending into a crowd again felt quite nice :)

Last night, as I briefly checked my emails, I commented to Aliah on how fast the internet was. She replied "oh, it got faster?" before realising that I was comparing it to my recent usage. Even the "high speed" internet cafes were a few minutes slower than high speed here in NY.

I have yet to take public transportation, but I will do my best to remember to stretch my legs out and wiggle my toes a bit in appreciation of space.

I ate uncooked greens and vegetables! Oh, how delightful that was... I've already had two salads in less than a day!

The cold is less than pleasant. I think if I had been here for the past month, I would have considered current temperatures to be quite mild for the time of year. Instead, I feel so very, very cold.

And the weirdest thing of all; I am no longer me. I have been waking up at 6:30/7:00am every morning! Last night I didn't go to 2 parties! That is not me... where am I?

Mary Poppins in Londinium

Monday morning, early, I arrived to London. Managed to find my way to Hunt Castle with little difficulty, until I got within 10 meters of the place. At that point the street became a court and the numbers reflected much but not reality. I finally dug deep into my memory and explored the little center court which brought me to the door.

It was good to see Phil again, I also woke up Simon who was much nicer than Phil was hoping for... We chatted for a few hours, Phil made me breakfast, I finally showered and Phil and I ventured out into the ancient city.

We walked through the center of London to the Tower of London. It was the first time either of us had been there. We first walked around to find the entrance (where we started from) and then began our exploration. It was very cool. I'd somehow always thought of the Tower of London as being a really tall tower surrounded by a moat. It's not, it's a castle. It is in fact, many castles built over many centuries, mostly interconnected by castle walls and surrounded by a large moat to prevent invasions. Now the moat is mostly dry and I'm sure much of the dampness and scum has vanished also.

In the towers where they used to keep prisoners, oddly enough it's not the one called Bloody Tower... there is glass over the inscriptions scratched by prisoners which are still somewhat legible. There is a very high number of jesuits and a few from the gunpowder plot - among others. Apparently the only time the Tower of London was ever broken into was by peasants outraged by an increase in taxes who, upon entering, committed the most heinous crimes - they insulted the guards!

I also received a history lesson in jewels, it's also where many of the crown jewels are kept on display alongside thousands of diamonds beside one crown to demonstrate how many diamonds used to be embedded in it. I also saw the Koh-i-noor, and a demonstration of what used to be the largest diamond in the world which is now split into two large, valuable diamonds, and many smaller ones. The "small" ones of course are tiny and would be an embarrassment to anyone getting engaged, being only a centimeter around rather than 7 or 5 centimeters.

We then took a boat down the Thames (correctly pronounced so that it should rhyme with James and the TH should be enunciated rather than shortened to a T sound - Simon was very careful to ensure I knew that...) to Greenwich village. Here, Phil made sure to remind me that it is the original and best - not like the fake, knockoff version in NYC. By the time we arrived it was already dark. Still wandering through the old naval academy and up to the observatory at the top of the hill was quite beautiful. There was a great view of all of London as we stood at General Wolfe's feet.

For any Canadians out there, I was able to impress the Brit with my knowledge of "British" history fought on Canadian soil. Wolfe being the general who defeated the French General Montcalme and sent the French settlers packing - most of whom fled to New Orleans, hence the Cajun population there phonetically somewhat similar to the Acadian population of eastern Canada. The Acadians remaining in Canada fled west and north, mostly into the woods and resettled in harsher climates. I also thought of Peter who refreshed my knowledge of Canadian history recently (hence my impressive knowledge, down to the details of the decisive battle) and wished I had a camera with me to take a picture with the statue.

We then got back on the ferry up to central London where we met up with Simon and Oliver for drinks - yummy, yummy mulled wine, and supper. After which we wandered around, met up with some other folk and continued to drink until my jetlag hit like a brick wall and I was incapable of even polite smalltalk. I also had a cold and was impressed how polite they all were while I was rather less than the most scintillating conversationalist or entertaining guest. London weather was a bit of a shock coming from Africa and, I've since discovered, also colder than NY.

Leaving on a jetplane

Sunday, I spent the morning packing - it was a work of art. My clothes, by then, were all so filthy that I wrapped my purchases in newspaper and then my clothes to cushion them in my suitcase - they couldn't possibly get any dirtier. I figured I was right around the weight limit, and my only concern was that at some point some customs guy would wish to check my luggage and disturb the perfection that was my packing job...

In the afternoon Irene and I visited Winnie and chatted with her. She is teaching at Strathmore university and has incorporated WYA's training materials into her classes - so that her students basically finish with a good introduction to WYA! We then went to visit Caroline, and Agi, who was in Nairobi from Hungary - small world...

Finally, we headed back to Buru Buru for the last time. Oscar Beauttah drove us there so we would have time to eat before I left for the airport. The Ambassador had promised the evening before that he would come for me in the official embassy vehicle. He arrived just as we were beginning to eat. Irene and Noreen ate in one of the bedrooms while Esther joined me with the Ambassador and his wife. They then drove me to the airport. It was so much fun not stopping to be searched and skipping the x-ray and customs line! He then escorted me to the government VIP lounge where I waited for my flight.

We had pineapple juice together before he left. Somehow I could not squeeze the juicebox into the glass given to me. I sprayed all over the table - he then volunteered to help and had the same luck regardless of direction or tilt the juice was determined to spray. Finally he ripped open one of the corner and managed to pour the rest. I'm sure the staff had never had to clean up a table of pineapple juice spray left by an Ambassador and distinguished guest before :)

Masai market

Buses in Eastern Kenya are crafted with maximum utility of space in mind, rather than passenger comfort. I am lucky that I don't bruise easily, and that Irene is so nice. Friday night I slept in what I thought was quite a clever position, and Irene thought looked like a really uncomfortable F shape... Since my knees hit the seat in front of me leaving no room for sleep sprawl, I twisted my right leg sideways and straight in front of me, with my other tucked under my seat in front of me. Due to the bumpy roads, the window was not so comfortable and I managed to tuck my blanket over my head and into a ball so it didn't slip around too much and to angle my back into a position which allowed for minimal movement against the seat. In that position I slept for a few hours until I awoke thinking my knee caps might slide out of position. Irene was then kind enough to stick her legs into the aisle and make room for my legs in front of her...

We arrived early Saturday morning - thankfully no bus hijacking occurred! Went home just on time to say goodbye to Esther and her niece before they took off to her brother's wedding. I then slept for a few hours. I woke up to find Irene asking for me to let her out of the room next door. The handle had fallen off and she hadn't wanted to wake me up so had patiently waited for 30 minutes trapped in the room till I woke up!

We then went into downtown Nairobi to shop for presents at the Masai market. The last time I went there I got majorly ripped off, and I was nervous it would happen again... Somewhere over the last few weeks though I must have acquired some knowledge. I managed to get good deals, and not good deals for a tourist, but genuinely good deals. At one point (I must have been bargaining really well!) the girl said "I'm giving you this price because you're not a rich American, you're one of us" I didn't correct her perception of the American part as the rich was false, but thought it was funny that she figured I must live in Kenya due to my bargaining style. Later on, I'd gone up to the price I wanted to pay and the guy wouldn't come down any further he said "I've already gone down so much, and you've only come up a little..." so I responded that was because he had started with a muzungu price and I wanted to pay the "my sista" price. He laughed and gave me the price I wanted. Everyone around who was selling cracked up also.

Irene was quite patient throughout this, as we spent hours in the hot sun bargaining and she helped me carry my purchases also.

That evening we went to dinner at the residence of the Nigerian High Commissioner to Kenya. The Ambassador was hosting us, a number of interns and the Beauttah family. I was able to eat Nigerian food - we had gari gari which is similar to ugali along with a typical, very spicy, soup. The Ambassador confirmed my suspicions of what Nigerian soups contained by detailing it's ingredients - basically lots of variety of fish and fish extracts, some local herbs, various bits of meat, and lots of spice!

I wore the Kenyan outfit I had purchased that day at the market, and was one of only three of us to be in authentic African garb that evening. I thought I would look like a poser wearing Kenyan clothes and being obviously not Kenyan. Irene said that it would be good for Kenyans to see their traditional clothing being worn and appreciated by foreigners as many don't appreciate it on their own.