Monday, August 16, 2010

The end of vacation

My last weekend of vacation was exactly what I needed. On Thursday I went into Kigali to talk to the psychologist who was sent from Washington. In the process of doing so, I had the opportunity to get know Laurent (our new PCMO) who is nothing short of incredible. After only five minutes of conversation it was clear that this guy had his ducks in a row.
I was coming in to get advice on how to deal with trauma victims and individuals who suffer from severe post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He told me he was planning to put together a peer support group for volunteers who dealt with people suffering from PTSD, and asked me if I would be available for a training session before the next stage began.
“I’d like to get a small group to present the topic of PTSD in Rwanda, but I would need you guys to attend a training first.” He said.
A training? What? You mean… Someone is actually going to organize, prepare and present pertinent information for the new trainees? Via the current volunteers who deal with the subject matter everyday? It seemed so logical, I forgot I was talking to someone who worked for Peace Corps, but then again I’ve become horribly jaded to our administrative process. The idea of having someone who truly intended to assist in the lives of and facilitate the purpose of the volunteer was tragically foreign to me. My only thought after our interaction was: “He. Is. So. Cool. I hope to god he doesn’t bail like the last two PCMOs.”
Talking to the psychologist helped me recollect myself in regards to my ongoing struggles with Jo. We came up with several good activities to try to pull Jo out of her head, and discussed the prospect of introducing her to some PTSD literature in French. We also focused on my need to be able to let go of things and accept that just because I see something as a problem, it does not mean it’s my problem to fix. I can’t be Jo’s counselor, babysitter, or mother. Anything I try to do to fix her will be like putting a band-aid on a gaping flesh wound. In the long run, she’s the only one who can change her mental state.

A group of us stayed a day at St. Pauls and the moved over to the Procure because it’s about 2000 francs less expensive. After we bought the rooms in the morning, ran some errands and came back, the man working the front desk informed us that there was a slight problem and he needed our help.

Procure Attendant: There is a man coming who is sick and he needs a room with a double bed.
Me: Okay?
PA: There aren’t anymore rooms with double beds.
Me: If he’s one guy why does he need two beds?
PA: Because he’s sick.
Me: So what?
PA: He has someone coming with him to attend to him. I need one of you two move into a single room.
Me: … Well, if you’re going to move one of the pairs of us into a single room for this guy, I want an upgrade. So, you should give me one of the singles with a private bathroom.
PA: … What? No.
Charissa: Whatever, I’ll just sleep on the floor. Let’s just exchange.

A few hours later an R1 Health Volunteer showed up asking for a room. ‘Elle immediately jumped on the chance to split a room with her if there were doubles available.
“There aren’t.” I said. “We had to move because they’re sold out.” But they went to verify in any event.
Five minutes later the health volunteer was in the process of buying a double room. I got up to see what was going on.

Me: What are you vacancies?
PA: What vacancies? There are none.
Me: You’re joking right? You just sold this girl a double room. Why did my friends have to move into a single room, where someone is going to sleep on the floor, if you still have double rooms available? Just give us on of those.
PA: There are no double rooms.
Me: You JUST sold one to her.
PA: Well… The sick man…
Me: Whatever! Where even is this guy?!
PA: Well, he’s left now. He is not staying.
Me: So you have rooms.
PA: No.
Me: But you’re selling her one.
PA: No. We haven’t exchanged money.
Me: That’s totally beside the point!
PA: There are no rooms here. All of you can just go to St. Paul.

He got up to leave and I walked away from the room to stop exacerbating the situation. It was clear to me that there was never any “sick man” and that the reception clerk was just trying to con us from the start. It’s not as easy to sell single rooms, so if he was able to push two people into single rooms he could fill them all and still sell all his doubles to different clients. He’d be making more money overall. I was about ready to break something when all was said and done. Given my karmatic history (R.I.P MS Sea Diamond), maybe his office will legitimately get hit by a meteor or something. Moral of the story? If you’re traveling in Rwanda, your money is probably better spent at a hostel that ISN’T the St. Famille Procure in Kigali. Because those guys are ready, willing, and prepared to screw you over with a smile.

Later on that day the Ed PCVs plus Liz made a mass exodus to Hot Racks. It’s a pretty stylish restaurant which serves cocktails, a full roast pig, and has a solid menu. On Saturday they have a dating show for locals and ex pats. Contestants get to eat for free. It’s the old 90s dating show type, where you can’t see the bachelor or bachelorette who is quizzing three potential dates. I was a contestant and decided in advance I didn’t want to win, so I tried to come up with the worst answers possible.
“Contestant number 2—I might kiss you tonight. If I tried, where would it be?”
“… Um, probably the side of my head as I turn it away from you, creepshow.”

“Contestant number 2—If I were to take you on a long romantic get-away, where would you want me to take you?”
“The Seychelles.”
“… The… Sea Shells?”
“Dear god man, get map.”

“Contestant number 2—If you could have any super power, what would it be?”
“Because then I could spy on you when you inevitably try to cheat on me.”

I was one up’ed an hour later when ‘Elle was interviewing her potential bachelors as “Maria, the Mexican in Rwanda looking for her mother”. Most of the bachelors (being PCVs) also adopted personas like “The Situation”—the ‘roid raged Guido from Jersey Shore.

After a few drinks and a few dances, I left Hot Racks with my friend Steve to attempt the now failed: Operation Kitten Rescue. I had mentioned earlier that I was interested in getting a kitten, and he said he had a lead for me via a friend. However, when we got to her house and I saw the kitten, I wasn’t entirely convinced the poor thing would last the night even if I had the money to rush it to an animal hospital at that instant. I decided to leave the kitten, but before I had a chance to give directions back to Hot Racks, Charissa called me to inform me she was going to hang out with the Marines at Top Tower Casino.
“Sweet! I was going to go there after I dropped you off! You can just save me the trip.” Said Steve.
So I went to my first Rwandan Casino. It was like a teeny tiny Vegas that didn’t have slots and didn’t provide free drinks to gamblers. We sat at the Black Jack table for about an hour and Steve fronted me five dollars so I could play too. After the hour was up I had gone from five to thirty five dollars (not including the chips I spent on drinks), but there was still no sign of Charissa. We ended up going back to the hostel because Janelle needed the room key and it was about 1:30am. Charissa was still missing. She reappeared at the Procure the next morning, however, porting an unusually sunny disposition. I’d speculate on the events of her evening, but I’m afraid she might try to “refocus me” if she ever reads this.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

July Update Pt. 2

When my family got off the plane it was relatively late. The flight had been delayed about 40 minutes and they had to fight their way though about 300 other Muzungus before they could exit the baggage claim. We stayed at the hotel for a day and let them recover from then time change and excruciatingly long flight, which they tell me, was exacerbated by a screaming Rwandan child the entire 8 hour leg from Brussels to Kigali.
“I thought I was going to kill that kid. Like seriously. I really considered it.” Tam told me.
“Don’t kill the kid; just strangle the mother. You’re automatically eliminating all the other mistakes she would have inevitably made, and promoting an end to bad parenting.” I replied.
My mother stared at me in horror for about thirty seconds before I assured her I was joking. Mostly.

I started their tour of Rwanda by taking them to my site. Many of the locals kept asking how long I would be staying, and the answer of “Oh, we are only going to be here for the afternoon,” seemed nothing short of shocking. My housemate threw a minor tantrum when she supposedly discovered that I wasn’t going to be there with my family for the entire week, despite the fact that we had repeatedly discussed my schedule for my family vacation. On the part of my family, they seemed to handle my site fairly well. I was very impressed to see them make it up and down my mountain with very little trouble. They saw the campus, met some of my students, took some photos and then walked back to the house without as much as a comment on the temperature. I guess the months of hiking preparation paid off.

After visiting my site, our Rwandan tour began. We met our driver, Bizimana, right after our return from Mulindi. Our first stop was to the Akagera game park which was fabulous. The lodge itself was beautiful and relatively vacant so we had a lot of space to move around. There were also animals that would just walk onto the lodge grounds. Baboons would hop down from the roof and hang out on the dinning room balcony, which was nicely juxtaposed with sunsets over the Lake Ihema. Driving through the National Park, we were assigned a personal park ranger who could explain just about any fact about any animal we saw. Akagera has several families of zebra and giraffes, and the ranger insisted that we drive off road on multiple occasions in order to get the closest (and therefore best) photos possible. It was a perfect introduction for my family to Rwandan hospitality.
“Wait, are we allowed to do this?” My family asked as the ranger encouraged them to exit the Range Rover for a better view of the wildlife.
“I dunno. But, they want you to have the best experience possible, so I’d just roll with it.” I replied.

After Akagera we returned to Kigali for an exceptionally short night, due to our 3am wake up call. If you want to see the rare Rwandan Mountain Gorillas and you plan on staying in Kigali, don’t stay up late the night before. However, since the Larrs never listen to rational advice like that, that night we went out for a fabulous dinner and drinks with several of my best PCV friends at Heaven. Heaven is the only restaurant in Rwanda where one can get a cocktail. Even at the nicest hotels, when you order the most basic drink (say, a screw driver) the bar tender will bring out a glass or orange juice and a shot of vodka and allow you to do the honors of mixing the drink yourself. So this was a rare treat for all of us.
I smiled at our waiter and ordered a Vodka Martini--extra dry, with extra olives. And ten minutes later I had one! I may or may not have gotten a little misty eyed after the first sip. So, what? Shut up.

In any event, the outing brought us back to the hotel around midnight. I slept most of the way to Ruhengeri in the car, which worked out better than I could have hoped because for the majority of the drive the sun was still down. We stayed at a lodge next to the trekking center, grabbed a bite of breakfast, and then rushed over to the briefing—which really wasn’t much of a briefing at all. The walk to the Gorillas site was only about 35 minutes so our guide, Papa Francois, gave us tid-bits of information while we hiked. The group only had about 9 tourists, but including porters, and armed guards (which I inaccurately thought were meant to protect us from wild animal attacks) we had about 15 people hiking towards the site. The guards and the porters stopped just outside the glen where the Gorillas were hanging out and Papa Francois gave us a few last bits of advice for dealing with gorillas.
“So, if a gorilla comes up to you and grabs you and pulls you somewhere, just go with him. Sometimes they like to play.” He said.
My mother and sister laughed until it became clear that Papa Francois was being perfectly serious.
“…But I don’t want to get grabbed by a gorilla.” My mom stated with deep concern.
“… Well, it’ll be a unique life experience!” I encouraged.
To my disappointment, no one was kidnapped by gorillas. For the most part they seemed perfectly happy to peacefully co-exist with us sitting a few feet away and snapping no-flash photos. The experience was relatively reminiscent of my daily life with Rwandans villagers. We would stand a few feet away and gawk at the gigantic furry creatures as if they were from another planet, and they would occasionally send us an exasperated glance or grunt in return.
“Don’t worry Mr. Gorilla.” I thought. “I know exactly how you feel.”
A few of the younger ones approached us on a few occasions, but the guides helped diffuse the situation before anyone came within touching distance. Kwita Izina (the baby gorilla naming ceremony) happened just about a month earlier, so there were baby Gorillas on the site as well. I got video of one playing with his older brother and doing somersaults in the grass. So. Cute.
We rejoined the porters and guards about an hour after meeting the gorillas. Papa Francois began telling anecdotes about the dangerous geographic make up of the Virguna area. It was at about this moment it occurred to me that the armed escorts weren’t for protecting us from potential animal threats, but rather to shoot any straying, foreign militants. Ouch.

When we returned to the Lodge Bizimana had arranged a surprise birthday celebration for my mom, complete with cake, songs, and a card from the hotel. It was pretty adorable. The following days were non-stop treks around the Virunga area (where I met a kid I am determined to sponsor), and took part in Golden Monkey trekking. Eventually, the tour ended with a down tempo day in Gisenyi beside Lake Kivu. The proprietor and I had some interesting conversations, not the least strange of which went about like this:
“So, you live in the Mulindi of Heroes?”
“Yes. It is a great honor.” I replied.
“Have you gone to see Kagame’s house yet? I mean, where he stayed during the war?”
“No, but I have seen Kabuga’s house. I drive past it when I go to Rushaki.”
“Ah yes. He is a bad man. He is very old and will probably die soon,” he said with nonchalance I normally don’t hear used when discussing Kabuga.
“I have heard a lot about him. Like he just got mixed up in the wrong affairs.”
“Oh well, all rich people are like that.” He stated.
I raised my eyebrows. “Like what?”
“You know. Sponsors of massacres and things like that.”
“… Are they, really?” I smiled awkwardly. I had no idea how to respond to his statement and luckily Tam arrived at that exact moment and dragged me onto the veranda for a picture of some weird species of lizard. Saved by the sister.
To balance out the crazy, I also met, Betty, who quickly became one of my favorite Rwandans of all time and solidified my desire to work in Gisenyi if I do a third year in Africa.
After Gisenyi we retuned to Kigali for a night and then had another obnoxiously early wake up call so we could make our 7am flight to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. More on that trip later.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

July Update Pt. 1

This month was marked by rediscovering myself. Getting out of country helped me realize how much of me I had recently lost. Somewhere between being burnt out on the long semester, Stockholm syndrome perpetuated by my living situation, and Rwanda’s relative cultural isolation, I forgot who I was. Tanzania has such a wealth of human diversity; it helped me remember that the world continues to move, even when I’m not looking directly at it. Dar-es-Salaam was a particularly intriguing city, being so heavily inundated by Islam, but still peacefully co-existing with Western mentalities. For example, women walk down the street completely covered in a burkah next to their friend who is wearing a spaghetti strap shirt and chatting on a cell phone. They take meals together. They don’t HATE each other. It was as if individuals could readily be themselves without incurring the judgment of anyone else. “Just be yourself,” says Tanzania, and then the people are. It was mind boggling, but it also gave me hope for the future of my own country. If Tanzania can reconcile the vastly different cultures which inhabit its boarders, then at some point in time the world should also be able to grow to live by the same example.

So, as most of you know, my family made the thirty some odd hour trek to visit me in Rwanda. Charissa came with me to the airport and was my designated photographer. I think there are a couple of pictures of me shedding a tear or two, and there are definitely a grip of Mom bawling her eyes out.
"Oh my god," she'd gawk. "You are so skinny. What on earth have THEY done to you?"
"Aw, it's not so bad, Mom. The food situation has actually been really good ever since admin paid me back all that money they owed me."

Yes, they don't tell you this in the brochures, but adventures in Peace Corps are usually things like adventures in eating and not dying from some sort of severe temperature. Because I don't have to suffer from the latter, I suffer from the former. The market in Mulindi is really limited and my calorie intake does not match what I burn walking up and down a mountain twice a day. To make matters worse, for several months money had become extremely tight due to several trips I made to Kigali at the request of either the PCMO or my APCD. On paper, Peace Corps does not make the volunteer pay for these trips, but in practice the volunteer pays out of pocket, fills out a form and then is supposedly "paid back" at a later date. In the case of Peace Corps Rwanda, that means we are all paid back about 5 months later with an accrued debt that could range anywhere from 50,000 francs to 120,000 francs. I could survive two weeks at site on about 50,000 francs, so the fact that I was missing more than that much money for months at a time was a bit detrimental to my eating habits. By the time IST rolled around I was awaiting my stipend and three free prepared meals a day with bated breath. "Well," I would think, "I have 5,000 francs to get me through this last week before training. I should be able to buy enough food if I eat rice and tomato sauce for dinner and peanut butter bread for lunch and breakfast." But life in Peace Corps is never so straight-forward. I'm also essentially funding the life of my Rwandan housemate, which I seem to forget every time I try to plan what funds I will need to set aside for things like food and phone credit. 5,000 for a week for two people doesn’t suffice, even eating the bare minimum at the village. When my PCMO told me one of my blood tests showed that I was anemic I nearly gave into sarcasm and shouted, "Surprise!"
So in short, thank you Peace Corps for your attention to my basic human needs. I appreciate your concerted effort to make sure I don't die. Even if your concern has a tendency to come a few months later than my health would prefer.

"I'm writing a letter," my sister fumed, "I'm writing a MILLION letters!"
"All right. Maybe your tax-payer rage will get someone to do something about how volunteers are treated in Rwanda. Maybe."

My mom treated the majority of my friends to huge dinners and drinks at some of the more expensive restaurants in Kigali and didn't even blink. "You guys deserve a break," she'd continue to tell me even when I protested about how much she was spending. These events were often later followed by quiet conversations which subtly encouraged me to come home, if I felt like I wanted to even a little bit. "So, should I plan to buy the Christmas tickets separately? I mean, should I wait to buy your return ticket to Rwanda?"
It took me longer than it should have to say, "No". It's probably going to take even longer when she asks me once I'm actually in California for the holidays.

After a few days of eating good meals three times a day, I started to feel like myself again. It's amazing what hot showers and 3,000 calories a day can do to make one feel like a human being. I slept whole nights through. I wasn't tired during the day. I wasn't depressed. I just felt normal again.

"Are you happy?" They'd ask me.
"Sometimes." I'd reply. "You're not really supposed to be happy though. They tell you that up front. During training they show you a chart of your emotional health as a sine curve and a line which represents feeling ‘okay’. Your emotional curve only touches the line twice in two years and passes above like... Once."
"Yeah, but is that okay with you?" They'd reply.
"I don't know..." I'd admit. "Sometimes there's enough good to outweigh the bad. A lot of times there isn't. I'm never too sure about anything I do here. I try to take it one day at a time and hope for the best."
Hearing myself say it made me want to buy a ticket home then and there. If I'm really not doing anything here and I'm so utterly miserable, why am I here?

The tour started and I internalized a lot more. I met a lot of new people during our tour de Rwanda with whom I become absolutely enamored, and also discovered a few side projects I really wanted to take on. I had more conversations with my mom and sister about the problems in Rwanda and it helped me create a clearer picture of the things I really wanted to focus on. I used to get furious about injustice, but life in Rwanda had nubbed me. I never accept anything. That’s not who I am. I see problems and find solutions, but I never just accept things as they are. Rwandan culture is a culture of always accepting things as they are, so my motivational fire inside was slowly dwindling. The vacation allowed me to reignite that fire inside that usually shouted, "Get mad! Get really mad and then do something about it."

There’s a lot to be angry about when it comes to Africa. I thought about women in country and actually felt mad again. I thought about sexism and the way that people had treated my housemate and even to some degree the way I had been treated, and I got mad. Mad and motivated. It’s clear that I can’t achieve the things I want to achieve if I’m going to be Rwandan, so I’ll be American. I need to work harder at the things I start and I need to readopt the attitude of getting the things I want. This means really learning Kinyarwanda so I can properly communicate with people when they tell me, “Ihangane” (be patient) and I want to convey “No. I will not be patient unless you actively show me you want to change this situation, and since you aren’t doing that, I will not sit by with you and allow things to remain as they are”. This means working on my secondary projects with tenacity and the same undivided attention I used to give to Africa before I joined Peace Corps. I am here to work, so I won’t just accept that things will never change. I am never going to accept that things will never be better than they are right now. I am going to do, and build, and create, and be proud of myself at least once this year.