Thursday, June 21, 2007

Kagera, Tanzania

So I have to admit I was a bit worried. The guidebook described the town where I would be spending the coming weeks as filled with lake flies and earnest Christian missionaries, two pests certain to make my personal tormentors list should I ever end up in hell. But it turned out okay. Those swarms of both are sometimes visible in the town below, neither appear in great numbers where I live and work.

Today is the winter solstice here in Kagera, Tanzania – shortest day of the year. Which when you are about one degree south of the equator translates into 11 hours 45 minutes of daylight instead of the usual 12. I am here, living in a big beautiful house high on a bluff overlooking Lake Victoria, to formulate new and better ways to count poor people for the World Bank’s research division. I have had two revelations since I have been here. The first is that as silly as my job sounds, it actually has a purpose – no one has any idea about the statistics of things like poverty or if programs are working to change those statistics. The second, which occurred on my balcony while watching the sky graying at 5:45 last night over the azure blue water, is that there are other people which consciously choose to make a living doing other things. I lifted by pineapple cocktail in toast to all the suckers in cubicles in the world – no offense meant to any suckers in cubicles that may be fans of this blog, I obviously am referring only to the other suckers in the cubes around you.

I landed in Kampala, Uganda on Monday morning. It is the closest major airport to where I am staying, a mere six hour bus trip. My partner in crime (a fellow researcher and former West African Peace Corps volunteer which will be from here on be referred to by his porn alias “Angel Derlon,” as he was christened by the bus company passenger manifest, just in case he wants to have a career someday) and I took the bus down on Tuesday. Uneventful trip. Driver drove recklessly, some kid was always screaming, border crossing took a third of the total trip time… There is always some mystery item that screws up the crossing. We will all be cruising through, and suddenly some bum has to have something weird. Tuesday it was the twin adventures of chainsaw and boat engine. Then the unfortunate exporter of said goods gets to play let’s-make-a-deal with Customs. Similar to the old game show, Monty Customs Guy asks, would you like to give me X number of dollars *or* would you like to play what’s-in-the-tariff-book. The exporter will hem and haw, trying to negotiate down the fees, and, if no agreement is reached, out comes the government book, whereby it all starts again. Is it a new engine or used? Does running it in a water barrel outside count as used because I think I saw one back a couple hundred yards? Is it a large engine or small? Couldn’t you actually interpret this as a large electric paddle? And so it goes, until the final result is something like, okay, the official tariff on one small used engine, plus 15,000 Ugandan shillings, $30 in hard currency, two packs of Chinese cigarettes, and the exporter’s shoes. At which time everyone is all smiles, we load back up into the bus, drive 15 meters across the border, and the poor bastard hops out with his motor to pay Tanzania import taxes.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Putting the Rain in Rain Forest

It has been a really insane last couple weeks with graduation and the new job and moving and everything, so I haven't had a chance to post this. I wrote it the last day I was in Bogata and wanted a chance to edit it and make it, oh, I don't know, funny, but I just haven't had a chance. But I am off to Kagera, Tanzania (middle of holy bloody no where), so I should have some zany adventures there to make up for it. Here you go:

So I am in Bogata, waiting to head back to the United States on the red eye. Unless something really unlikely happens, I will have made it through two weeks in Colombia without any more major calamity besides sunburn and mosquito bites.

The week on the coast was relaxing. My buddies from school and I hung out on the beach, went scuba diving, swam in the pool and drank enough Club Colombia beer to pickle ourselves. Happily for my mother and unhappily for the blog reading audience, nothing too much exciting went down.

In Colombia in the months of May and June, it rains. It rains every day at some point and it rains hard. It doesn't rain at the same time every day, which would be convenient from the planning point of view. The general way it happens is we get up early in the morning, take a minibus then hike out to some beautiful secluded beach, the entire hike out thinking "Man it better not rain" and on the way back it pours. This leaves us trying to cover ourselves in whatever towels, blankets, tee shirts whatever, slipping and sliding over a Colombian hillside, looking like a cross between wet puppies and runaways from Cirque du Soleil. At the Tayrona National Park, what was on the way out a beautiful hike through jungle, carefully stepping around the piles of horse and donkey droppings (the only modes of transportation in the park), down to a protected swimming beach, on the way back was an ankle deep muddy slog through horse shit. Which leads me to ask why it is that I have spent a measurable portion of my adult life slopping through the tropical rain forest in Converse sneakers.

The only other thing of note was the Rumba en Chiva. Since I can't speak Spanish I have spent most of the time signing on to things that I can't really understand and hoping they work out for the best. This definitely did. I found out later that the Chiva is a Colombia tradition where passengers board a vehicle that was in its former life a school bus, but has since been stripped down to open air and painted with wild colorful murals. The bus has a live band in the back seats and everyone gets a bottle of rum. We drive to various points in the city, singing the Colombia national songs, get out onto the sidewalk (with the band), drink and dance. Then load up and keep going. We were accompanied by 40 other Colombian tourists, including the very nice fat lady sitting behind me that (physically) taught me how to shake my tits. We had a little snaffu at first because we had to get the bus from the hotel parking lot on to the main highway, which involved a tight turn and a quick merge into traffic. I don't know if it was just the drum that fell out, or if we actually lost one of the drummers too (I was making amigos with the rum bottle), but we had to stop for a few minutes to sort that out.

There were also a couple of younger people from Miami who could intermittently explain to us what the hell was going on. One of these guys had a bottle of "Colombian moonshine" in one of his back pockets and a near boiling bottle of Canada Dry in the other. You poured the stuff down your throat and chased with the the ginger ale. It had the subtle flavor of super concentrated floor stripper. And it was a total vicious cycle. The more you showed you could handle it, the more that bottle came back around your way. The night ended (hazily) with the guy (who I was old enough to have babysat for), trying to teach me (unsuccessfully) to salsa dance. Next day was not particularly productive, even for vacation.

I spent the last two days here in Bogata. I had enough of the heat and humidity of the coast, and the pteradactyl sized mosquitos, and decided to see what the capital had to offer. Definitely a break from the heat, it doesn't get much out of the 60s here, due to the elevation. The city itself is nice, big and cosmopolitan. I spent my time looking at colonial churches, the gold museum and taking the funicular to the top of the city. All and all, a good trip.