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.)