Monday, April 18, 2011

Plumbing in Rwanda

I'm nearing the point where I can start getting sentimental about things I will miss in Rwanda. One of this things will most definitely be the hilarious plumbing. My thought is that indoor plumbing is still too new an idea in Rwanda for it to be fully developed. And I really don't mean this in a derogatory way...even when I visit wealthy Rwandan's homes, they have outdoor squat toilets. Indoor toilets and showers seem to be only a strange muzungu obsession. 

As a result, most showers aren't too developed, and consist of a hose and a drain. But even with this simplicity, some aspects still manage to be entertaining. For one, the hose is usually connected to the wall to most inconveniently spray water throughout the entire bathroom...often a stark 90 degrees directly away from the wall. Which also means that you usually must be either 3 feet or 6 feet (depending on the shower) tall to benefit from the shower. 

And then there are the efforts to fix the plumbing...which are mostly entertaining because it seems that the plumbers never know what the final product should look like. 

At my friend's house, for example, they had a perfectly good system of shower-spout-at-90-degrees-spraying-across-the-room-with-a-floor-squeegee-to-push-water-back-to-the-shower-drain...when their plumper came in and built a rim around the shower drain. Presumably because normal showers have rims around the drains....but without realizing that normal showers also normally have doors, or curtains, or at least spouts that point downwards. Let me spell out the result for you: the floor of his bathroom is now perpetually covered in 1 inch of soapy standing water because it is now impossible for the squeegee to get the water over the ridge back into the shower drain. Thank you for that new addition, plumber.

Thankfully my bathroom has 2 in the shower, and one elsewhere in the floor. But even with this new-fangled invention, we have plumbing problems of our own. We seem to pay our plumber on an hourly/weekly basis...not by project...and not by need. As a result, ever since I've been here, one of the bathrooms in the house has been out of order. Each for weeks at a time, seemingly because the plumber shows up, unasked, with a sledgehammer, takes out a pipe, comes down with amnesia, and does not return for 2 weeks. When he does return, he fixes the "problem" (which wasn't a problem until he knocked a pipe out with a sledgehammer) in a day, and then returns the next day to create a new problem. All the while, not fixing any of the actual plumbing problems that exist in the house, such as lack of hot water in some showers but not others, leaking pipes, leaking pipes creating mold in my room that require me to hang my clothes outside of my closet, sinks that break during Thanksgiving dinner, and sinks the are frightening to turn on because they spray in every direction possible. 

Just in case you don't believe me...2 weeks ago, my perfectly functioning shower was taken out of commission by the plumber who, as of the pictures that I took this evening, has yet to return to do anything about it:
Doesn't come out so lovely in the sideways picture...but that's a big hole in the wall of our shower, for no particular reason.
And just as a comparison, 3 feet away is our sink, which leaks 4.5 liters of water each day. I know this because we use a 1.5 liter bottle to capture the water. This is apparently not worth fixing. The working shower, however, was worth sledghammering.
Oh Rwanda, how I'll miss you...

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Unplanned Weekend

In general, I don’t like to plan my adventures. Most successfully, this has resulted in me hanging out with Cory Hoeferlin on an island off the coast of Malaysia. Most unsuccessfully, I missed a NASCAR race last summer because we didn’t know what time it started…so we ended up touring Harpoon brewery and I ended up drunkenly breaking my vegetarian vows. Essentially, not planning always leads to success and happy stories. If you take the time to plan, you are only setting yourself up for failure…something will inevitably go wrong and botch all your plans…especially if your plans consist of making hotel reservations in a cash-based not-planning country like Rwanda.

Which is why I’ve had difficulty recently, spending my weekends travelling with the planner of all planners. If it was possible to reserve moto drivers ahead of time for a 10 minute ride, this kid would do it. Our core difference in beliefs has led to friction and some unhappiness in travels. So when a group of us was thinking about going to Nyungwe National Forest last weekend, and I got an email from him detailing the times that we would arrive places on public transportation (refer to last post for why this is so funny) and exactly how long each hike would take, I decided that all the planning was making the weekend too stressful and, therefore, not worth it to go.

I changed my mind around 11pm on Friday night. Along with another partner-in-spontaneity.

We learned that Alex and Jared were taking the 6:30am bus.


“Because it’s a five and a half hour bus ride.”


“It’s in the Western Province. Two hours past Butare. It’s practically on the border of Congo and Goma and the roads to get to it go through the mountains. We have to be there by noon if we want to go on the Waterfall Hike which costs $70 for non-residents but $60 for residents and is reviewed to be the most beautiful of all the hikes available in the park. It will take 2.5 hours to reach the falls but only 1 hour to return because the return comes out at a different trailhead, which is where the Nyungwe Lodge is. We will then order drinks at the Lodge, which will cost $3 each, and enjoy the relaxing sunset from there before returning back to our guest house using the public transportation provided at the Lodge. How have you not read up on this? How have you not prepared? How do you not know where we’re going? How can you enjoy your life without always knowing what exactly you’re going to be doing in ten minutes, ten days, ten years?!?!” This rant actually went on to the point where I was told that the only reason I’ve ever had successful “unplanned” trips is because I have always relied on somebody else to do the planning and then tagged along, pretending that I was being adventurous.

Although I was offended, disgusted and annoyed, I decided the philosophical discussion was not worth the drunken effort. But I did resolve to make no use of all the preparation that had gone into the planning of the Nyungwe weekend. It would simply be a coincidence that the one weekend I felt I could go just happened to fall on the same weekend as everybody else.

So the next morning I pulled myself out of bed two hours after I got into it to get on the 6:30am bus, along with Alex, Jared, and my new friend/partner-in-spontaneity. There was only one ticket left by the time me and my new friend arrived. (Alex and Jared had reserved/paid for theirs days in advance.) We bought the remaining ticket and one for the next bus (9:30…too late for the waterfall hike), and then my new friend got on the 6:30am bus, made a big speech about how I was his wife and he needed to travel with me, and offered to exchange tickets with somebody. People cheered…and then suggested that I get on the 9:30 bus. The bus started to pull away with him running along it. Then a lot of Kinyrwanda happened and suddenly, he had a seat! Success!

I didn’t go on the waterfall hike. Not only did a $60 waterfall not appeal to me after a $200 active volcano, but I was hung over and needed to sleep. So, begrudgingly, I took advantage of the guest house reservation and napped. Then I decided that I just really wanted to prove how little I needed to plan in advance, and decided to spend the night in the big city, Cyangugu. I called up a Peace Corps friend I knew the area and informed her that I’d be in the city that night and we should hang out. I texted Alex telling him I was leaving, and then I went about trying to figure out how to get to the big city…apparently another 2 hours away. Some hitchhiking and public transportation later, I arrived.

Just to clarify by “called up” a friend…I really meant “texted.” This proved to be an important difference when I arrived in Cyangugu and still had not heard back from her. Which might not have been such a problem if I had had more than 15,000 francs (~$25)…and if my phone was not beeping low battery. I refused to panic and, as I waited almost patiently for my friend to call me – hoping it would happen before my phone completely died, I decided that maybe this was a test. A test to see if, after 8 months in Rwanda, I could handle myself in an unknown place with only 15,000 francs for the evening. (It was already past dark when I arrived.) I found a cheap hotel and decided that I could handle myself…to the point that I was a little disappointed when the street children who had been making bar suggestions to me informed me that in some other part of town, a muzungu had arrived. I was impressed and gave them 100 francs of my preciously depleting stash. But it was worth it…when I met up with AJ I already had bar suggestions in mind.

The next morning, I found myself on another bus (for free this time – thanks to AJ’s bargaining!), headed back to the guest house where I had left a few things to lighten my load for hitchhiking. My room was locked, and whoever locked it did not think ahead to leave the key at reception. (This is a classic move in Rwanda because there is often only one copy of each key for hotel rooms…so whenever you’re sharing a room, you have to leave the key at reception.) I cursed my new friend/partner-in-spontaneity for his lack of foresight and went about figuring out how to do the Canopy Walk, essentially the only Nyungwe tourist attraction that attracted me.

“Oh, you should have stayed on your bus,” the guide told me.

Given that there was no benefit for me to stop by the guest house (could not access my room), this was an unfortunate realization. It turned out the next bus wouldn’t be there for 2 hours and I was headed to a place 20km away. Given the success of my hitching the night before, I started walking. After about an hour with no cars passing in either direction, I heard a moto behind me. At this point, I would have been willing to pay for the moto ride. But…alas! It turned out to be Max, the crazy Frenchman from Musanze, driving his BMW moto without a helmet and smoking a cigarette…of course. He appeared to be a French saint to my weary legs and blistered feet.

I flagged him down and hopped on, without saying much. After ten glorious minutes of going SO FAST, he stopped and asked me where I was going. I told him…and he asked if Lyndsey was there.

“Of course” I said.

He pulled out his phone to call her. I wondered where he was going before he saw me. It started to rain. I put on my raincoat. Lyndsey was in the opposite direction. He said sorry and asked me to get off his moto. I cursed Lyndsey for not being where it would be convenient for her to be and started walking away in the rain, waiting for a bus to arrive and take me the rest of the way for a grossly inflated price.

I crossed paths with the rest of the group at the trailhead. This gave me an opportunity to both curse out my new friend for locking the room and impress everybody with stories of my independence. I was happy. And then I rented a pair of hiking boots (3 sizes too big) – to make up for my lack of sneakers – and reserved a guide for the Canopy Walk. Another reason that I had originally not been interested in the Nyungwe weekend was because nobody else wanted to do the Canopy Walk. Actually, oddly, they were all more interested in seeing colobus monkeys than anything else. My mom and I stayed in a colobus monkey colony while in Kenya, so I really didn’t understand the attraction of paying money to hike somewhere and see them. I wanted to go high up in the trees! (In confusion about my excitement for the Canopy Walk, somebody asked me why I didn’t just go to South America to do one…varying levels of disposable incomes really makes you see the world differently.)

So, because nobody else understood how a canopy walk in Rwanda could excite me, I went off to do it by myself, in my rented hiking boots. And I enjoyed it!
Enjoying the Nyungwe Canopy Walk BY MYSELF and in rented mountain boots!
Then I hitched a ride back, learned that the boys had already reserved bus tickets for the next morning. I appreciated that they didn’t think to reserve a ticket for me (my phone was dead at this point…maybe they had tried to call me…who knows) because it further supported my attempts to not make use of their planning. The next morning, I slept in, ate breakfast, read my book, got on a bus…and met up with the boys in Butare, just in time to miss their visit to the museum (I am not yet mature enough to appreciate museums), but before they indulged in the best cheeseburgers and ice cream in Rwanda. Perfect.

At this point, me and my new friend decided that we’d prefer to head back to Musanze that night...a real shower and bed would be nice. I called Elie, who was in Kigali, and asked if he could reserve us bus tickets at 7pm so we would be able to get back to Musanze. He called me back to say that no tickets were available. This was not a good sign from a Rwandan and our team’s “Logistical Coordinator”…I didn’t have much faith in any bus tickets being available. I sighed and figured that we would figure it out when we got there.

As we were pulling into Kigali at 6:30pm, I made a plan with my new friend: he would run straight to Belvedere bus and I would run to Virunga bus to see if we could still get on the 6:30 or if there were any later buses. Five minutes and two texts later it looked like we were stuck in Kigali for the evening. I then remembered a flicker of a “Kigali Safaris” bus sign that I had once seen in Musanze…”they must go there!” I thought. I ran, actually ran, down the hill to the Kigali Safaris bus stop. This time I successfully elbowed my way to the front of the line and explained my need in a mixture of English, French and Kinyrwanda. There were tickets! I didn’t have any money to pay for them! Oh wait – I had the emergency 5,000 francs in my secret money belt! I frantically pulled my belt out of the bottom of my backpack and worked to get the zipper open and money out without tearing it all while elbowing all other bills out of the way for fear of somebody reserving the 2 remaining seats on the last bus out of Kigali that evening. And I did it!

Tickets in hand, I went prancing up the road to my new friend. I actually was so excited that I did a little dance in the middle of the road. I felt that I had successfully passed a test to prove how fabulously one can enjoy oneself on an unplanned weekend. This is when I got side-swiped by a car. 
Because a lot of place names were thrown around in this blog entry, I decided it would be useful to have a little reference map. Forget about scale...these distances are looong drives.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Most Exciting Bus Ride Yet

This last weekend started with me being pathetically helpless: not only could I not identify my bus to Kigali (a bus that I take twice a month), but I needed Elie’s help to get onto the bus. This is partially because Rwandans are vehemently opposed to lines and waiting in them, and I had not yet adapted to the culture of elbowing nuns and small children out of the way in order to get a seat on the bus…for which I have a ticket. Usually, I stand right at the bus doors as they open, and then timidly inch forward…at a rate that secures me the last, broken, legroom-less seat on the bus.

The added difficulty with Friday night was that it was the first day of school holidays. Classically, in Rwanda, this provided *opportunity for profit* without consideration of the added expenses. The bus company just kept on selling tickets, because so many people wanted them. Woo! More money! That they sold twice as many tickets as seats available on the buses was apparently a problem for the ticket holders. Without Elie, I certainly would have never gotten on the bus. With Elie’s help clearing a path to the front of the mob, I enjoyed the best seat on the bus (although I had a bit of a panic because Elie could not actually go onto the bus with me…he could only get me to the door) – right next to the door for easy exit, with the most leg room, and a window. (Rwandans are allergic to fresh air, especially on buses. I spend most bus rides drenched in my own sweat and alternatively pinching my nose from the smell and trying to take in as much air with oxygen as possible.)

I relished my good fortune (especially the open window), until the bus suddenly stopped, seemingly stuck in traffic…except that traffic does not exist in Rwanda. We were about 15 minutes from Kigali. The driver got off. My cell phone rang. It was Jared, who was on the bus 15 minutes after mine. He was now stuck in the same line of traffic. It was decision time…a few people were getting off the bus and walking towards Kigali. It would be a long walk, but it was all downhill. So we started walking. I frantically texted the birthday girl and told her what was happening and that we might be late to dinner.

Thank God we decided to walk…the holdup was caused by a 2-trailer Mutzig truck that had fallen off the side of the road. There was a crane out, trying to get it back on the road. I am unsure what happened to those who waited in line, but I do know that within half an hour we were well on our way into town, feeling like some of the smartest kids around. (Few others walked as far as we did; most people just got off their buses to observe the entertainment of the crane. Time is also insignificant to most Rwandans.)

At one point, Jared suggested that we get motos. In all the disgust that I could muster of somebody who’s lived here for 8 months I informed him that a moto from there would be unnecessarily expensive, and that it would just be best to get a local public bus. He had never taken one before and was worried. I acted like I knew what I was doing and used one of the twenty Kinyrwanda words I knew (plus a little bit of directional sense…there are only 2 roads in Rwanda) to find a bus that was headed into town (“mumugi”). It was only 100 francs…a moto would have probably been 1000. Success.

And finally, thanks to everybody except me embracing the tardiness inherent in Rwandan culture…I was actually the first to arrive at the birthday dinner. Complete success.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Dumbest Thing I’ve Ever Done

…and told my mom about in advance.

I am happy to report that I have safely returned from my adventurous weekend in the Congo, hiking and sleeping on top of an active volcano. Andd…that’s about all I have to say about that.

Unfortunately, the hike and the camping were disappointingly uneventful: we 5 muzungus (me, Alex, German Girl, French Guy #1 and French Guy #2 – we actually forgot French Guy #1’s name, and then it turned out to be Pierre, of course) hiked up with our 4 porters, 6 armed guards, and guide. We packed all the necessities needed to celebrate spending the night on top of an active volcano: goat cheese, brie, wine, champagne, and a disposable camera.

Pause: All these things are available in Congo, apparently the land of the plenty. Rwanda, despite being obsessively proud of its milk (the story goes that President Kagame and his wife met over sharing a glass of milk) and goats, cannot produce more than one type of cheese. (I’m so over you, gouda.) And it certainly cannot import anything. Congo, on the other hand, despite not having a functional government had Presidente brie in its supermarket. And Mini-Wheats. And Prego spaghetti sauce. And Sauza tequila for $12 (bought it). And Axe body spray. …yet, walking through the grocery store, I had the sense of being in post-WWI Germany (potentially associated with the fact that I had just finished “reading” Ken Follet’s Fall of Giants) – the shelves were empty. I mean, where there were groceries, they were amazing and unheard of right across the border in Rwanda, but they also just didn’t have so many basic groceries. No bread for example. We asked for it. There was just no bread that day. They were out and weren’t getting more. Throughout the store, an amazing selection of cheeses and salamis and frozen pizzas would be on display next to a completely empty refrigerator…I guess no milk either. It was a creepy display of how the country has imported products readily available, but almost nothing local.

2nd Pause: Yup, didn’t trust myself enough to bring the digital camera so I only have disposable shots of the volcano. Thankfully, Pierre sent some…enjoy!

Yes -- that is molten boiling lava behind me. I'm so nervous about falling off the cliff as this picture is being taken that I just can't smile properly.

Molten boiling lava.

How many Congolese does it take to get 5 muzungus up a volcano? (Answer: more than pictured here.)
Perhaps the safest thing about the weekend was that I was able to avoid going on any moto rides in Congo.

Friday, March 25, 2011

It was inevitable…

First, the obligatory apologies and excuses since my last update: apparently all those times that I was complaining about the rainy season, it was actually the dry season. I know this because it is now, definitely, (hopefully,) the rainy season. During the dry season, it rained every day for about an hour. It now pours every day for hours on end. Usually starting around 4:30pm, which coincidentally tends to coincide with when I usually scamper the 50 feet from the office to the house for an afternoon snack. And then, without fail, as I stretch the minutes of my snack break…for however long is needed…the skies open up, the laundry on the line is soaked, and I am confined to the house until the next morning. Although this has proven to be a sneaky (potentially incredibly obvious) way to end my work day early (did I just say that? NO! I mean…to spend my last half hour every day working from the comfort of my room of course) does tend to leave me without a computer for the rest of the evening, as I’m not willing to brave even 50 feet in Forrest Gump rains just to write a measly update for you (or even to be able to watch a TV show for myself…lots of reading recently). After a few weeks of this, I’ve smartened up and now I just work from the dry comfort of the house all day long. You’re welcome.

Second, the admission of the slightly inevitable event: last weekend I threw sense to the wind and hopped across the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo (note how it’s dropped its previous antecedent) to enjoy a night partying and the post-apocalyptic charm of the city of Goma. I know, I know. I’m an idiot.

In truth, every time I heard a story about how unbelievably ridiculous the Congo is (starting with the mass rapes right outside the UN headquarters, ending with the line “we’ve had 13 park rangers killed in the last month”), only part of me properly reacted in horror. The other part went into ADVENTURE!!! overdrive. Let’s be serious, this blog would not be called “Adventures in Rwanda” if I was one to shy away from the incredible adventure of the Congo; the simple fact that I chose to live in rural Rwanda for a year suggests that I am the sort of person who would be inclined to an adventure in the Congo; potentially, I am turned on by danger.

My rationale for this evening of mayhem (honestly/disappointingly, it was fairly calm…but we did go to “Mirror Bar” where every surface is covered in mirrors) was because this upcoming weekend I was planning on doing something much more stupid: camp on the rim of a live volcano in the Congo. By comparison, a night out in Goma felt like a good stepping block.

Oh…and I just wanted to be able to say that I did it.

Some observations:

1. Goma was once described to me as having “post-apocalyptic charm”…this couldn’t be more accurate. Imagine London circa 1945: all the infrastructure is there as evidence of a has-been country, yet the city appears bombed out. I would have preferred dirt roads to the paved-50-years-ago-pot-holed-back-to-dirt-making-the-strips-of-tarmac-the-most-dangerous-part-because-they-launch-you-5-feet-every-time-you-hit-it. (I chose to say 5 feet there so it doesn’t look like I’m exaggerating.) And, somehow I missed this part of town, but apparently nothing has been done to the section of town that was covered by volcanic lava a few years ago: people just moved into the second floor of their houses and have been living their ever since.

2. I missed laws. Especially ones requiring moto drivers to provide helmets (and to be certified – this is the case in Rwanda). Perhaps the nearest-to-death experience that I’ve had so far was on a moto in Goma. Probably top 3 were my 3 different moto rides there. (On the note of laws, hotel signs advertised “Security” before other amenities like “Electricity.”)

3. After going through immigration, there was this long road full of UN trucks and armored cars. Assuming that this was because we were still at the border and that another check point was coming up, I kept my passport out. Apparently not. It meant we were in the Congo, where tourist shops sell replicas of UN cars made out of trash and where more than half the cars I saw were UN.

4. The largest bill in Congolese currency is equivalent to 50 cents. Which would be sweet, if that suggested what prices were like. In fact, shit was pretty expensive: our dinky hotel room was 65 USD (potentially because they received good reviews for being secure). As a result, they eagerly accept US dolla dolla bills…so that they don’t have to count out 130 ripped/torn/shredded bills for one hotel room. Which would be fine, if they kept their currency pegged to the US dollar…which they (obviously) don’t. The Economist in me just could not imagine the nightmare of a society where all prices are in one currency, all bills are in another currency, and where the two are not interchangeable at the same rate. Ah!!!!!!!!!!

5. My mom asked me if I had any pictures. I might be idiot enough to go to the Congo, but not to take a camera with me…or to take it out!!

I go back from more in about 24 hours…wish me luck/life!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy International Women’s Day!

(Bet chya didn’t know it was…) In its never-ending effort to appear rich, developed, and equal, Rwanda recognizes International Women’s Day as an official holiday. And then, perhaps after realizing that real developed countries do not feel a similar need to cover up the fact that 39% of men surveyed in the country admit to using physical violence against a female partner, it reversed this decision at 6am on the morning of the no longer holiday. But since we at CCHIPs had already declared it a holiday (and because our Project Director and Project Manager are both female), we got a day off from work!

(Please note: this is the second holiday we’ve had in the three weeks since I’ve been back at work. I will certainly miss the Rwandan holiday culture.)

In celebration, we had the boys make us breakfast this morning.

Then, Jared, Alex and I went for a hike around two of the lakes in the region. I had attempted this hike earlier this fall, using local buses to guide the way. This time around, we decided to use a car. It went much better. Rwanda’s beauty continues to astound me, especially when I get to see it all from an isolated trail, surrounded by energetic and friendly children. Enjoy:

Unsure why this flipped when I uploaded it. It looks a lot less impressive from this angle, but that big ass mountain/volcano in the background is the one I attempted to hike two weekends ago.
Oh hey...your hut has a better view than anything I'll ever be able to afford.

Yeah, Rwanda's real pretty.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Second Rwandan Wedding

I am highly suspicious/skeptical/scared of most all things Rwandan;
from some reason, the country as a whole just doesn't have my full
trust that every person is not actively trying to rip me off or trick
me into marriage. This fear was exacerbated after reading "The Blue
Sweater" where the author was told that it was traditional in Tanzania
to have sex with a man after writing his name in the sand -- after she
was asked to write her moto driver's name in the sand. As an
embodiment of this fear, I often qualify acceptances to invitations
(say, to dinner) with a "only if by doing so, he won't assume that I
am consenting to marriage." (Yes, I wrote that sentence properly…I
often make my plans through others.)
Needless to say, wedding invitations heighten this fear. I mean, given
my knowledge of Kinyrwanda, how am I to guarantee that it's not a
wedding for me?
Sure enough, the day before Jeanne d'Arc's dauther's wedding, we three
girls were informed that we would be "in" the ceremony…and then not
given much more detail. Jeanne d'Arc's son was sent over to the CCHIPs
house with traditional outfits for all of us. While the opportunity to
wear a beautiful Rwandan dress was very exciting, mine curiously did
not match the other two's. This was potentially Jeanne d'Arc's
acknowledgement that a blue dress would bring out the blue in my eyes
– or it was a way of tricking me into wearing a wedding dress, while
providing the other two girls with simple hostess dresses. I was
unsure, and frightened.
I was calmed when I arrived and was given a "Service" nametag to wear
– so I wasn't the bride! (Of note, others were given "Security" and
"Protocol" nametags. As a humorous cultural language translation, it
appeared that "Protocol" guests were what we'd call ushers.) And then,
in classic Rwandan behavior, to "help us navigate the party," each of
us Americans was promptly paired with a similarly aged, single Rwandan
of the opposite sex. I was lucky: my match spoke English, was a nurse
at a health center, and was actually raised at the orphanage that I
visited last weekend!
My job was to serve drinks to the groom's family. I've since heard
that this is a huge honor; at the time it kind of seemed like free
labor. The benefits of this job were that I didn't actually have much
to do and, when all the guests felt bad about the muzungu girl serving
them (and after I lost my bottle opener), they just started serving
So, I was at ease to enjoy most of the ceremony, which started with
the traditional "bartering of cow" – the number of cows that the
groom's family will give to the bride's family for the marriage.
(Although cows were traditionally used, now money is given. I'm a huge
fan of reverse dowries.) Apparently, in the bartering, the groom's
family will play down the groom's interest, or pretend that the bride
has been a dishonest woman – to decrease her "worth" – while the
bride's family will boast about the woman's accomplishments, to
increase her "worth" – all in a very joking manner. This is all
apparently very entertaining, if you know Kinyrwanda well – as in, if
you know Kinyrwanda better than Consolate. (The families actually hire
professionals to do this bartering.)
As Consolate was whispering very simplified translations into my ear,
which included conversations about how well the theoretical were cared
for, Celestin suddenly whipped around and stared at the two of us. "Oh
that's us!" Consolate exclaimed.
"Umm…what do you mean?"
"Step forward! Step forward" Celestin pushed.
I timidly followed Consolate's step to the front of the group. We were
apparently being offered as replacements for the bride. I clutched
BOTTLED UP INTO ONE! Not only was I being offered up as a bride at a
Rwandan wedding, but I was at a wedding and hadn't yet had a sip of
beer, and it looked like they might run out of food before I got
served. So many fears!
"CONSO…WHAT DO I DO!?!" I hissed.
I knew that the whole bartering thing was mostly just for show: a fun
custom that is done more for entertainment than for serious…but I was
more than a little worried that all decorum would be thrown out the
window when it was suddenly a muzungu girl and access to a Green Card
that were up for bidding.
"I don't know. Just smile." Consolate was not helpful. She also
appeared to be very comfortable being offered for marriage.
As we stood, a cadre of cameramen, including a videographer, appeared
in front of us, flashing away. (Paparazzi much?) For all y'all's
benefit, I will try to get my hands at least on one of the pictures…I
can only imagine how awkward and frightened I look.
The two men continued arguing and pointing at us. The guests continued
I tried to catch Jeanne d'Arc's eye to let her know that I did not
consent to marriage. Not today. Not to her daughter's fiancé.
And then, finally, miraculously, Consolate whispered to me, "they are
saying that we are too young. The groom does not want somebody so
"So…what do we do?"
But before Consolate had a chance to answer, I was being grabbed and
pulled back to the safe insignificance of the large group of servers.
I happily picked up my bottle-opener, very content to serve if it
ensured that I made it through another day in Rwanda without becoming
a bride.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rwanda Overheards

Most of the time my interactions with Rwandans consist of something
along the lines of: "Good morning teacher, give me
job/money/shoes/watch/[fill in the blank]." But every once in a while,
I come across one that knows English pretty well, which obviously just
lends itself to some fabulous entertainment, especially for somebody
missing the Mirror's Overheards column (cough*cough*suggestion to
editors of 2010 Class Newsletter). ...
~20 Year Old Male: Excuse me, mother, mother, I have no parents…will
you be my mother?
Eli: Mother!?! WHAT!? How old do you think I am?
~20 Year Old Male: Ehh…30?
Eli: Haha…no…I'm 22.
~20 Year Old Male: Ah well, will you be my girlfriend?
(Later in this conversation he made a reference to a 27 year old girl
living in Musanze calling her "the very young one.")
Male: Are you married?
Eli: No. Are you married?
Male: No. Do you have a boyfriend?
Eli: No. Do you have a girlfriend?
Male: No. This is because I am poor. One day I will be very rich and
then many girls will love me.
(I then tried to explain to him why he did not want to marry a girl
that only loved him for his money. His confusion seemed to be about
why he would marry only one girl once he was rich.)
Lyndsey (looking at 2 twin dogs): How do you tell them apart?
Boy: Well this one is the female because she is fat and this one is
the male because he is skinny.
Male: Are you married?
Eli: No. I am only 22.
Male: So you will be married in 2 years.
Eli: When did I say that?
Male: Well you must marry by 24. Otherwise you cannot marry at all.
Phone conversation (with unknown number):
Eli: Hello?
Male: Hello…this is Robert, I am calling to greet you.
Eli: Okay.
Male: Okay. Well I hope you are safe. Good bye.
Eli: Good bye.
(Followed by 7 calls from same number over 2 day period; all ignored.)
From a particularly aware Rwandan: "A muzungu is somebody who keeps time."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How to Make a Friend in Rwanda

…if the potential friend is a Rwandan male…
Step 1: Exist.
…if the potential friend is an American female…
Step 1: Find her…mostly likely at 'The Lounge.'
Step 2: Exchange NGO information and determine the mutual benefit of
your exchange.
Step 3: Exchange phone numbers. (If you ever want to call me, mine is
+250-78-246-8532. Fun fact that my (technologically inept) mother
recently learned: you actually have to dial the '+' part of the
number, otherwise everything else just doesn't work, no matter how
many times you try.)
Step 4: Show up at her house. No worries…given Steps 1-3, you're
already friends, so this is okay.
…so it's really not too hard either way.

In this case, I met my new friend at 'The Lounge'…not surprising given
that me and every other white girl in Musanze goes there about 4
nights a week, so there's a guaranteed overlap in there somewhere. In
this particular story, I met Devin at The Lounge while my mom was
visiting (we went there twice in the 24 hours that I was in Musanze –
I swear, even when I'm living in NYC next year, I'm going to crave
this pizza) – Devin works at an orphanage and I work at health
centers. The mutual benefit of our interaction was that my mom's
dedication to Selamta in Ethiopia means that she is interested in
visiting/touring orphanages in other developing countries…and then
Devin was interested in how I could help her get vaccines for her
children. Obviously, this was good enough to exchange phone numbers.
My mom and I did end up going to the orphanage 2 days later, but Devin
wasn't there. We got a tour from the one other American that lives
there. The tour was nice, but was overly concentrated on the
gardens…which were absolutely gorgeous…but I was a little disappointed
at the lack of interaction with the children.
…so I jumped at the 'opportunity' a week later when Lyndsey mentioned that she
was going to go up to the orphanage.
It wasn't so much an opportunity as her asking for a ride, but I
offered before she even got around to the asking, because I was hoping
to actually be able to hang out with the kids this time.
(Even as I'm writing this, I'm starting to question my own sanity. It
looks like 7 months in Africa, with no interactions with children has
made me think of them as more tolerable, and potentially cute.)
Not really knowing Lyndsey's plans, I jumped in the driver's seat for
the 45 minute drive on smooth paved road, followed by the 30 minute
drive through glorified ditches. When we got to the orphanage, it
appeared that Lyndsey had planned an all-girls' slumber party. She'd
packed a change of clothes and a bottle of wine…and there were 3 other
girls there. (Okay, so we gave one of them a ride too, but I figured
that she was also just coming up for a tour.)
Devin (who I would not have recognized had she not been coming out of
a house that I knew was hers and only hers) and I hugged, asked how
the other was doing, and generally acted like we were old friends
meeting up.

So that's the first story…the second story is just about this
orphanage, which is AMAZING. There's a book about it, called Land of a
Thousand Hills, which I tried to read. But I accidentally bought the
book called A Thousand Hills and read that one instead…I kept on
wondering when the part about the orphanage would come up, and then I
finished it. A Thousand Hills, though, was actually a pretty good book
that gave me a great understanding of recent Rwandan history and
values. So, I recommended it to Lyndsey for background reading before
coming. She picked up the correct book, and passed the recommendation
on to Jared, who bought Land of a Thousand Hills. My lesson from all
of this is that one day, when I write my own book, I should name it
something very similar to a very popular one, and just let my sales
run wild from there.
Land of a Thousand Hills is about Rosalie Carr, the longest ex-pat
resident in Rwanda's history. "Roz" started her African adventures
when she married a British explorer in the 50s, they bought a
pyrethrum plantation 20 kilometers north of Ruhengeri, divorced her
husband, and bought his share of the plantation. She then became good
ole pals with Dian Fossey (she's pretty famous in the gorilla world)
and many diplomats (such was life in Africa in the 50s and 60s). She
was forced to evacuate a few days into the genocide and returned in a
cargo plane a few months later, where she rescued groups of orphaned
children and set up a home for them in the barn of the pyrethrum
plantation. Over the years, she continued to rescue children whose
parents died in refugee camps or during other various (not officially
recognized) insurgencies…eventually building actual housing for an
orphanage of about 100 children.
And I got to spend the night in her house.
Which essentially looks like an English cottage, and gardens,
transplanted to Africa. I actually thought I was in the Secret Garden
(remember that movie?) when I first saw it with my mom…and was not
disappointed when my friendship with Devin allowed me to enter the
house. It was so classically little old lady homey and cozy that I
wanted to curl up and never leave. We had tea at 4pm in mismatched
china teacups. (Devin poured the water from the electric boiler into a
china tea kettle.) And we used silver silverware (hehe) to eat dinner.
I slept on a bed of (name of random/potentially extinct or endangered
African mammal) fur. When Molly opened up a random book, a picture of
the man who discovered mountain gorillas, standing next to the first
gorilla he ever discovered, fluttered out of the book and fell to the
floor (and almost into the fire --- eek!), behind that was a picture
of 2 (apparently very famous) National Geographic photographers,
standing outside that very house, with the easily recognizable garden
in the background. On the walls, were pictures of Roz with the pope,
Dian Fossey, and Romeo Dallaire's replacement (given that I didn't
know his name, I would never expect you to – but you should know
Dallaire, Google him if you don't). I essentially stumbled upon the
opportunity to sleep in a museum, and was constantly torn between
wanting to touch everything, and not wanting to touch anything.

…And yet again, this was an experience/weekend that just would not
have been possible in the US.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Turning Around

I complained enough during my first 7 months here about my
housemates'/friends' unwillingness to go on hikes with me that I
essentially forced myself to accept the offer to hike Mount Muhabura
(actually a volcano) with Max (the crazily in shape & crazy
Frenchman), Jared, Alex and Lyndsey (the newbies at CCHIPs). Even
though I was a little intimidated by its elevation (4127m, on par with
Mt. Rainier) and my physical fitness (marathon training isn't going
too well), I had to accept. For fear of being a hypocrite otherwise.
My fears heightened during the ride to the base, when our guide told
us that he's hiked Muhabura with 20 groups, and that only 10 of them
made it to the top. I hid my shock: this was perhaps the first time I
was hiking a mountain where it wasn't guaranteed you would summit; it
wasn't even guaranteed that you would summit half the time! I felt
very under/un-prepared in my Reebok sneakers and leggings.
And then it started pouring rain. A hard Rwandan torrential downpour.
We had to start then though; if we started any later than we wouldn't
reach the summit before the "turn around point" of 2pm. Starting a
hike in the rain is never fun, but I was comforted by the pattern of
Rwandan weather: the rain never lasts more than an hour. With visions
of a bright, sunny, and warm summit, I jumped out of the warm, dry car
into the freezing rain.
(At this point in the story, it's worth mentioning that Max and
Lyndsey did not accompany us on the journey. Not intimidated by the
trek ahead, they went to Kigali on Saturday night, with plans to moto
back by 7am on Sunday morning. Needless to say, they did not make it
back in time. (This is actually due to more unfortunate circumstances
including the second theft I've heard of in Rwanda, but all the
same…they can't have been expected to return in time, in any shape to
hike the equivalent of Mt. Rainier.))
The first 3.5 hours of the hike were simply obnoxious: The rain did
not let up. Neither did the thunder and lightning. ("I've never heard
thunder in Rwanda," I said. "Oh I hear it – it's always coming from
this mountain," Alex responded.)
Alex's "little cough" started progressing into full blown pneumonia.
("I can tasted blood," he told us at was break.) The trail was
practically vertical. At many point, I gave up and just started
scrambling up. It was also muddy – making the vertical part (and the
decent) all the more obnoxious. The rain got harder. The trail was
overgrown: at points I felt completely lost in the jungle, removed
from the trail, before one of the soldiers pointed at the "trail" that
I was actually still on. Jared started telling stories about how his
legs are 20 degrees out of alignment, causing long-term joint
injuries. I told the story of my frequently dislocating shoulders, and
how one dislocated that Monday on my gorilla trek. Then, miraculously,
the trail opened up and we were above the tree-line: no longer
"hiking" (read: slipping and sliding) on mud, but exposed to the wind
that just went straight through my leggings and Reeboks.
Alex told us he was turning around. Jared and I uncomfortably stared
at each other, and up the mountain. (In reality, we could only see 10
yards ahead, so we had no sense of how far we had gone and how much we
had left.) Jared said that he could not, with good conscience, let
Alex walk down alone. (Even though he wouldn't be alone, some soldiers
and a porter would accompany him.) The guide looked at me: was I
tough-guy enough to summit alone. I continued to clap together my
hands that were frozen in place, doing exercises that I usually
reserve for long chairlift rides, wondering if it was possible to get
frostbite 2 degrees from the equator. No, I realized, I'm not tough
guy enough.
Alex started down. Jared requested that we wait where we were for 15
minutes to see if it cleared up for a view. I waited two before saying
that I just had to go because I was most definitely not warm. …and I
had just seen my food and water disappear with the porter and Alex.
(The rain didn't let up until 2pm – we would have been waiting a real
long time to see a nice view.)
So maybe I did turn around. And most likely, given the $75 pass, I
won't be trying it again before I leave…but according to our guide, we
did break 10,000 feet of elevation – and perhaps even reached 10,500.
So, maybe this was the first time I didn't summit a mountain, but I'm
pretty sure that I did make some personal record in the meantime – in
my Reeboks and leggings.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Someday I Will Learn…

This blog might be belated. Oh well. Because I figured it was still relevant to share about how, after 6 months in Rwanda, I have still not picked up on some key cultural intricacies. The most key of these being going to a Rwandan’s house. Someday soon I will learn that being invited to a Rwandan’s house for a “party” actually means that you, as the muzungu, make up the “party” and that if you are late, the whole party is delayed. Because without you there, nothing would actually be happening. And because you, as the muzungu, are the guest of honor, you will be served the “best” pieces of meat and the most food. It also means that a family that doesn’t normally drink alcohol will go out of its way to have all types of alcohol available because you, as a muzungu, most definitely need your alcohol. And finally it means that you will probably find yourself sitting awkwardly and alone in the main room of the house for an hour as the parents hurry to hide the children and prepare your meal. Someday soon I will learn…but I still had not learned by New Year’s Day, when Elie invited me over to his house for a New Year’s “party.”

He said the party started at 3, so I planned on begin fashionably late by leaving my house at 3. This was also necessary because I didn’t pull myself out of bed until 2, and I felt the need to eat a full meal before going, just in case there wasn’t enough food or so I didn’t portray myself as the fat, gluttonous, under-appreciative American in the likely case of a buffet being available. (I soon regretted this choice.) Although being “fashionably late” does not exist in Rwanda, I wasn’t too worried because being “late” doesn’t exist either – you show up when you show up, nothing late about it. I was therefore surprised when Elie called me at 3pm on the dot to ask where I was. I lied, said on my way, and jumped in the car.

The simple process of getting to Elie’s house was a classic adventure of Rwandans being very helpful, but then expecting money in return. “Umm…you just jumped in my car without my permission, and then didn’t actually point me in the direction of Elie’s house…sorry you don’t actually get money for that.”

And then it was only after I arrived – and seeing that nobody else had been invited to the “party” – that I had flashbacks of parties at Jeanne d’Arc’s house and Nathalie’s house…that, of course, I (capitalized) was the party. There were 3 beer varieties to choose from and no sodas. You might remember from my resolutions that I had stopped drinking on New Year’s Day. Awkward. I asked for a Fanta. This was obviously not expected, and the delay between asking for the Fanta (which I rationaled was the beverage most likely to be on hand) and receiving the Fanta suggested that somebody was sent off to the nearby store to fulfill my request.

After 30 minutes of sitting by myself in the living room, intermittently waving at the little girl who peeked her head around the corner before being shoed away by her mother as to not disturb the guest, lunch/dinner was served. Unfortunately not in buffet style – if it had been buffet style, I would have had a lot less to eat. Elie’s wife just came out with plates piled high for each of us. Piled high with…pasta, potatoes and meat.

The meat, it turned out, was turkey. Elie had so liked our Thanksgiving turkey that he went out and bought 2 for his family to raise to have for their New Year’s Day feast. I did not, however, realize it was turkey until this story was shared because it had been boiled. I didn’t taste much except for the texture – I’ll spare you the details – suffice to say that I eat everything, and this was a bit rough for me. Elie commented that it didn’t quite taste the same as at CCHIPs Thanksgiving.

“Maybe that’s because we roasted our turkey in an oven? Maybe the cooking method makes it taste different?”

“What’s an oven?”

“Umm…the thing that’s under the stove…at the CCHIPs house…Gabby cooks his bread in it?”

“Ahh! Un feu (rough translation: fire)! I didn’t know that you actually used that!”

And so the meal continued with boiled turkey, potatoes and pasta. At first, I futilely tried to use a knife and fork – perhaps struggling to get your knife through your meat isn’t quite the same insult in Rwanda as it is stateside – but to cover the embarrassment I soon gave up and dug in with my hands, taking on the attitude that I should just “chug” it all down in 5 or 10 mouthfuls. This seemed the best way to just make it end. Bad idea. Because obviously if the muzungu doesn’t have food on her plate, you must feed her more. Elie actually reached onto his son’s plate, grabbed a large chunk of some part of the turkey body that I’m not accustomed to eating, and placed it on my plate…TWICE. I’m having bad flashback nightmares just remembering this.

It’s obviously incredibly rude in a country plagued by poverty and malnutrition to not finish one’s food, especially in front of Rwandans, at a Rwandan’s house, when the food was taken off one of the son’s plates and then given to you. I couldn’t even take breaks because I didn’t really have anybody to talk to (in English); and the mother seemed to think I was not enjoying my food if I just stopped eating. So I switched my strategy to taking very very small bites, to look satisfied. These proved harder to swallow, requiring a lot more Fanta – which was, of course, diligently re-filled even as everybody else at the table sat with no drinks. It was actually the last half of my Fanta – not the alternately dry and undercooked meat – that really made me feel the need to hold back any puking.

After I was sufficiently stuffed and regretting my pre-party meal, the “party” finally came to an end. At this point Elie announced that he was going to take me to a nearby bar to watch a football game and drink some…more Fanta. Again, a hospitable, yet inconvenient invitation that was impossible for me to turn down. For all of you who have never had Fanta, it’s necessary that you understand: Fanta is essentially Mountain Dew with sugar added. It’s suicidal to drink more than one – and certainly to drink more than four, which is where I was at this point. This Fanta binge rings clearer in my memory than the actual food/food binge. Because…of course…during the course of the 90 minute soccer game, I was served no less than THREE more Fantas, all opened and served before I even collected myself to protest.

So…someday soon, perhaps, I will learn what to expect from a Rwandan party.

*As a follow-up, 2 weeks after this nightmarish New Year’s Day, I was invited to another Rwandan’s house at 4pm on a Sunday. In acknowledgement of the lessons learned on New Year’s Day (and because, at that point, I had already started writing this blog chronicling it), I did not eat or drink anything (all day) before going on the visit. In perfect irony, no food was served and I was left in cranky hunger mood. Although, I did get to drink another 2 Fantas in an hour. Woooo.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Miss Me?

Oh hello…so it seems (by Mommy’s order) that I’m back from my little “leave of absence” from the blogging world. My break could be explained away with a variety of excuses (“I was studying for the GMAT”, “I was busy writing the CCHIPs Annual Report”, “I was trying to learn to use a Dvorak keyboard so typing was really slow”, “I was travelling”, “I had no internet”, etc.) but in reality, we all know that I stopped my posting for one reason only: self-gratification.

That’s right. I kept a list of each and every person who emailed/facebooked/texted me about my lack of updates, all of whom will receive their proper thanks in time. And once that list reached a sufficient length for me to feel cared about and missed, I figured it was time to come back to you. (The obvious corollary to this is that I also noted those who did NOT realize I haven’t updated my blog for a month and a half. For no other reason than to be able to rank my friends and family.) So, to those of you who do check my blog more frequently than once a month: hello, I’m back, I’m sorry, I promise to continue to provide you with a tool for productive procrastination in the future. And to the others: I know who you are.

Now, in the self-centered attitude of anybody conceited enough to keep a blog (and a private one at that!), I assume that you are just oh-so-curious about what I’ve been up to for the past month and a half. To make these adventures, which spanned 2 continents and 4 countries a little more manageable, I figured I’d present it in a list of Lessons Learned by Eli Mitchell Between January 30 and February 17, 2011: (and you can just fill in the imaginary rest)

1. Marines do not appreciate being asked “Aren’t you like really over-qualified to be a glorified security officer?”…while they are buying your drinks.

2. It is way easier to get into the US Embassy after-hours for drinking purposes (photo ID required, but not checked) than during the day time for legitimate reasons, like getting passport pages (appointment needed, passport required, photo ID taken as collateral, electronics confiscated during visit, bag checked, metal detector used).

3. Germans obnoxiously follow rules. Obnoxiously. Forget about the dilemma of if you would run a red light on an otherwise deserted road in Texas, a German would not cross the street on such a road unless the crossing signal was solidly green. This matter created awkward situations when my Rwandan attitude of roads existing for people – not cars – and 20 degrees being far too cold to allow oneself to stand outside any longer than necessary caused me to *gasp* jaywalk in a few critical situations. At least I was not called a “Murderer!” as a result (this has happened to one of my friends living in Berlin)…but I did receive more stares than in an average minute in Rwanda. Another point on the rule following: they don’t even have turnstiles to use the subway – they just assume everybody honestly buys a ticket because everybody in the country follows rules.

4. But Germans also like drinking. A lot. I was offered a beer before taking my GMAT at 10am. And everybody at my dad’s office cracked open beers at 6pm on the dot. Work was only kind of over at that point…

5. African/European airlines really really care about the weight of carry-on bags. Probably because they like following rules so much.

6. Former British colonies (Kenya) are really nice to visit because everybody speaks English…but it also means that they drive on the wrong/left side of the road. (Okay, I actually knew this…but my mom learned this lesson…the hard way.)

7. Apparently not everybody in the world eats only potatoes and fried food for every meal. Somewhere during my 6 months here, I had come to consider this completely normal.

8. Rwanda is really really clean. I’d always heard this before, but in my classic pessimism/criticism, I would point out some eensy bit of trash on the side of the road as evidence of it not being clean. Now that I’ve seen Nairobi and Addis Ababa, I will no longer be doing this.

9. Despite cultural values that classify a pleasantly plump Rwandan as “attractive” or “healthy”, Rwandans have a double standard and consider pleasantly plump muzungus unhealthy and unfit for gorilla treks. The extension here is that because my mommy is skinny…the obvious assumption is that she is fit for a FIVE HOUR gorilla trek (usually about 2 hours). Damn double standards.

10. The only thing worse than flying drunk (Who in the world schedules flights at 2am?? Oh I know! Ethiopian Air!), is flying hung over. And the only thing worse than flying hung over is starting a 7 hour flight while drunk...and ending it hung over.

11. African airline security checks are actually hilarious. (I say hilarious because I’ve taken on the attitude that I might as well just laugh about every ridiculous thing I come across in Africa…makes life a lot less bitter.) The evidence of this is being told twice about the same bottle of water that I better “drink it before getting on the plane.” Same bottle of water…didn’t fill it up between flights…obviously did not feel the need to just drink it before getting on the plane.*

12. Muzungu nightlife is the same everywhere in Africa and I can’t dance anywhere in Africa.

*Apparently a lot of my lessons are about flying. This is perhaps because my flights over a 2 week period consisted of: Kigali – Addis – Frankfurt – Berlin – Berlin – Frankfurt – Addis – Addis – Nairobi – Mombasa – Nairobi – Addis – Addis – Nairobi – Kigali. (But at least they were cheap? Maybe? No…no they weren’t.)

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Year’s Resolutions

Ah…new year…fresh start. In case you’re still deciding just how you’re going to use the fairly Hallmark excuse to improve your life and become a better person, here are my New Year’s Resolutions:

1. No more cheese. This was brought on because:
     a. Gabby was on vacation all last week
     b. There were 2 1-pound bricks of Vermont cheddar cheese in the fridge
So, for about 9 days straight my meals consisted of: cheese omelet, grilled cheese, mac ‘n cheese. I ate altogether too much cheese to be considered a healthy person in any form. Also, Rwandan cheese is terrible – so there’s no reason for me to add unnecessarily ridiculous forms of fat into my diet if I don’t even enjoy it. I’ll have another avocado per day instead.

2. Tell myself every morning that “I volunteer in Africa” is no reason to live like a slob and to remind myself to “Dress for the job I want, not the job I have.” Okay…so maybe I won’t wear the suits that I’ll be wearing as a Fortune 500 CEO, but I really should stop trying to disguise yoga pants are proper work attire. And I’m aiming to shower at least 4 times a week. In an effort to supercharge this goal, I even shaved my legs today! Potentially for the first time in 3 months.

3. No more alcohol until I take the GMAT. Every hour drunk and every hour hungover in my bed are hours I could have spent studying. I am trying to set reasonable expectations for myself (I gave up on the goal of a perfect score when I found out that nobody at Tuck had received one), but I should really capitalize on the 8am – 5pm work schedule and do well.

4. Run a marathon. I’m an idiot. I know.

5. Thank God a little more in my prayers. Without grace, prayers seem to focus way too much on asking God for things: look after my family, give me strength, give me knowledge, give me guidance – and not enough on thanking Him for what we already have, which is…a lot.

So with that, I cheers (with my non-alcoholic beverage) to 2011 – may it be a good year!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Nerd Fail

My not-so-big confession about living with an MIT alum is that I am always conflicted between teasing him for being such a nerd and fighting feelings of inferiority for not being a nerd on nearly the same level. Example:
Perhaps you remember the story about my iPod blaster breaking ~5 seconds after I plugged it into the 240W outlet. Whoops. After telling Marvin of this sadness, he took it from me and told me that he’d fix it. A few weeks later, I saw parts of it lying on his bed. It looked impressive. I asked him how it was going.

“Oh yeah…I’m not sure I’m going to be able to fix this…I think my ammeter might be broken.”

External response: “You brought an ammeter with you from the US? …

Internal response: “That’s so cool! I can’t believe he has such confidence about fixing this! I can’t believe he thought ahead to bring an ammeter to Rwanda! I totally wish I thought it was fun to play with ammeters – then I might have similarly been heavily recruited by Goldman to work on their electronic trading systems! Marvin’s so cool!”

External response cont’d: … Nerd.”

Sometimes it’s too difficult for me to hide my jealousy or, rather, my competing nerdiness. Such as when Marvin starts discussing Macros and I can’t hold back: I just want to learn how to use them, so I start peppering him with questions while the rest of the staff, who got lost at “open Excel”, put their headphones back on.

Most recently, Marvin made a comment about the keyboard set-up that he uses: it’s designed to be more efficient than the standard QWERTY keyboard.

Here’s my moment of nerdiness: I HATE QWERTY keyboards! …and most other people don’t know what they are… (They’re standard keyboards that have “QWERTY” in the left of the top row…look down.) Talk about stupid inefficiencies and conforming to industry standards – did you know that QWERTY keyboards were PURPOSELY MADE TO BE INEFFICIENT? And yet here we are in the age of technology and efficiency…still using the damned things. Literally, they were designed to slow down typists by placing frequently used letters in awkward locations because typists were typing too quickly and kept on jamming up the type-writers. (On that topic…I also hate using 2 spaces between sentences, because that practice was initiated for the same reason.)

Back to the office…

So when Marvin mentioned his more efficient way of typing, I was quite ecstatic…even though this was obviously another example of how my JV nerdiness (knowledge of how inefficient QWERTY keyboards are) compares with his Varsity nerdiness (installing a more efficient keyboard on his computer to address the inefficiencies of the QWERTY keyboard). While everybody else passed us the judging looks that are usually associated with our conversations about decision trees and HTML script (check out – my newest pride is the “Our Model” section), I scrambled over to Marvin’s workspace (consists of 4 computers) to learn how to download this magical keyboard onto my computer.

Oversight: Despite being designed to be inherently more efficient, my new keyboard (the “Dvorak” – as compared to Marvin’s “Colemak” keyboard, which is designed to be more efficient for programmers who use symbol keys more frequently) forces me to write at about 10wpm because surprise-surprise I haven’t been using it for 10 years and don’t naturally know where the keys are. (Although it is a little fun to guess, based on how frequently the letter is used, where it should be on the keyboard – especially given that I didn’t re-label the keys when I made the switch.) Compare this with trying to pick up a new language, whose grammar rules make more sense than the crazy rules in English, in a day – expecting it to be natural because the language is supposedly easier. Yeah…I’m pretty stupid.

I struggled through one night of typing lessons, a few painful g-chat conversations, and one page of the 25 page Annual Report before giving up, giving in, and making the switch back to QWERTY.

Today, Marvin asked me how my Dvorak was going.

“Yeah…” I told him, “…I’m back to QWERTY…It was just kind of hard to make the switch when I had so much work to do.”

“Oh,” he said, “yeah…well I did do it while working 90+ hours a week at Goldman, but I guess I understand.”

Obviously, there was only one response for me to fall back on at this point: “Nerd.”

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Muzungu Dance

Around December 30th, I convinced Rene – essentially my only friend in Rwanda during the holidays – that he did not actually want to go to the (fucking) Congo for New Year’s Eve…that he actually wanted to spend it in Musanze WITH ME. Not only would New Year’s in the (fucking) Congo have been potentially the stupidest thing that I’ve done in my life (right up there with a few SAS adventures and 90% of my Senior Spring)(I could just see the headlines: “Stupid American Kidnapped in Congo over NYE” with the commentary “What was the girl doing in the Congo in the first place?”), but it would have been pretty difficult for me to get there in the first place. To prove that you’re not some journalist or photographer trying to get into the Congo, you have to prove residency in a neighboring country (including Resident Visa, Working Permit, and bank account records) and show an invitation letter from a Congolese citizen who would take responsibility for all your actions – to apply for the $120 one-month single-entry tourist Visa. In some ways, this does show improvement in the governing of the (fucking) Congo:

1. It actually had standards – 2 years ago when Zack first went to the Congo, he bribed the guy at border with $40.

2. It shows some sort of working bureaucratic system. Heck, these rules aren’t written anywhere on a Congolese website – I got them from the Kigali ex-pat web forum – but it does imply that Congo has some sort of functional embassy in at least some foreign countries.

I’m not sure which government (or mining company) these embassies report to, but that’s beside the point…what I see here is PROGRESS.

Moving on… I’m not sure I can credit my convincing skills as much as Rene’s 2 day hangover from his Christmas weekend in Burundi, but whatever the reason…he did decide to stay in Musanze with me. I was especially happy about this because, 4 months later, Kigali remains a miserable city that I associate with heat, bureaucracy, and nothing else.

9pm on New Year’s Eve, Rene and I cheersed each other with the nips that my mom sent over for Christmas. Rene couldn’t even finish one because it was “shitty girly shit.” I reminded him that he drank Banana Beer; but he did not understand the obvious parallel.

Then we headed to…of course…the local bar that I go to 2+ times a week. Because where else to bring in the New Year but a place where I’m served a Mutzig before I even sit down? (Btw – the “local bar” is actually called “Volcana Lounge” and, in an effort to make my life seem classier, I’ve decided to refer to it exclusively as “The Lounge” from now on.)

At first, we moved on to beer (Liquor before beer – you’re in the clear! I was making good decisions.), but then we decided to spice things up by spiking our beers with the nips that we had brought along.

It wasn’t long before I thought I was good at pool and challenged Rene to a game – which turned into 3 because I kept on insisting that he was winning by a fluke. I think to end my ridiculousness, he won the last game before I had even gotten A ball in. (I am categorically not good at pool – however, I actually have a winning record because of my ability (? boobs?) to get my opponents to scratch on the 8-ball.)

As if playing pool a sign enough of my drunkenness, I then thought I could and should dance.

Which was obviously hilarious to begin with, and just turned amazing when the performers for the evening came on stage.

One of them wanted to show off a new move…it was called the “Muzungu Dance.”(Ironically, on my Weeds binge, I had just finished “the brick dance” episode, where Nance dances for Guillermo.)

I got very excited about this, and informed the people standing around me that I was a muzungu – in case they didn’t already know – because I was so excited that he made a dance for/about ME.

And then…the shining moment of my life came: he asked for a muzungu to come up and demonstrate with him. I was on stage before he finished the request. He asked me to demonstrate the “Muzungu dance” and then they turned on the music. In the back of my mind, I knew that this was somehow making fun of me, so I decided to disappoint by showing off stellar dance moves. Unfortunately (obviously), in the moment, I couldn’t think of anything to do except alternately pump my fists in the air and kind of shake the rest of my body. Stellar. I bet, totally NOT what he was expecting. He then imitated my moves, but actually added some rhythm to it, and introduced the new “Muzungu dance” to the people at “The Lounge.” Still, I knew that this was making fun of me…but I couldn’t quite pinpoint how, so I just beamed with pride and looked for Rene in the audience to celebrate with me.

Rene was nowhere to be seen. All at once, my mind went on overdrive: Rene didn’t see my muzungu dance, Rene abandoned me, Rene had my money, Rene didn’t see my muzungu dance, Rene had my phone, Rene wouldn’t be able to ward off scary men who wanted to dance with me/marry me, Rene didn’t see my muzungu dance.

I went on a mission to find him, checking the kitchen first. They do love me at The Lounge, but not enough to let me act as a sous-chef on a whim. I was kicked out of the kitchen and told that Rene was outside. “Which outside??” I was very concerned. But not for long…because I did pretty quickly find Rene standing right outside the door, where he apparently PURPOSEFULLY went to AVOID watching my muzungu dance.

This put me in a sad mood.

But then it was midnight! Oddly, there was no announcement for this, Rene just showed me his phone. We super-awkwardly hugged, and started making plans for going home. After all, my night could only go downhill after some Rwandan rock-star coined a dance after me…