Monday, July 26, 2010

Little Pockets of Oddity

So I just returned to Dar es Salaam after a week offline and roaming around the country for the final pilot tests before my fieldwork training starts next week. It was one of those throwback to Peace Corps weeks, with little villages, dusty roads, flat tires, dirty hair, and bucket baths. But successful – project is progressing and we haven’t missed a single deadline (which in African statistical equivalent of drawing an inside straight).

One of the villages we worked in is a former sisal (a jute-like plant used to make sacks that was Tanzania’s number one export earner at independence before collapsing after the removal of government subsidies to the industry) plantation that the government nationalized a few decades back. I immediately noticed something was a little off about this place… The houses had chimneys. African homes don’t have chimneys. Ever. People cook outside. They were also made of “colonial stone” (a chalky yellow-white cement mixture that was very much the de rigeur of late colonial construction). The sisal plants still grew in the fields, but were now inter planted with maize and cassava, the main local food crops. The houses were still in their neat rows, but mud brick extensions and patchwork came off at crazy angles. The multi-story processing plant is quietly rusting into the ground. It was a weird place.

And then there were the fuchsia chicks. They were like hatched Easter eggs. The family had set up shop on the crumbling porch off the town’s main square – next to a family of ducklings. We drove by them multiple times during the day shuttling between the different field teams and each time I would ask what the hell was up with the bright pink chickens. Oh mzungu, you don’t understand anything, that is so no one steals them. Chicks all look the same, so some people dye their colors to identify them. I shudder to think about what the original purpose of the dye was that ended up on those chicks. (I am thinking car enamel.) In any case the chicks themselves seemed happy enough – pecking around with their mother at an old corn cob. And they are very liberal minded little chicks because the ducklings also were tinged slightly pink from fraternizing with their neighbors.

That night I stayed at a gas station hotel at the midpoint between two of our work sites. It was a very modern hotel for a gas station. Electricity, running water, restaurant, the works… It was even modern enough to have one of those “insert key card for power” gizmos on the wall by the door. Which would have been more impressive had the actual door locks not been key based. I looked all over that room for a light switch. I asked my colleague staying across the hall – his room had regular lights. Eventually we solved the problem by sticking my driver’s license into the slot. Lights came on. I am not sure I get it.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Expat Growing Pains

So adapting to any new situation can have its movements of transition and I have had a few of those getting used to ex-pat life here in Tanzania. Whereas previously I have lived in hotels, now I have an apartment. Where I previously took taxis, now I have a car. And where I previously could always depend on the staff or one of the societal misfits at the hotel bar to talk to me, I now have to try to make “friends.” These last few weeks have been a whirlwind of trying to do all of these things, plus get this project off the ground.  Hence the lack of blogging.  I will do my best to remedy that.

The car has been a particular transition moment. Those of you who know me know that I am a notoriously terrible driver. Seriously bad. And traffic laws here are mere suggestions. (For example, as far as I can tell, red lights do not apply on weekends. People behind you will lean on their horns if you stop at one.) That coupled with the fact that I have to drive on the opposite side of the road here – with all manner of children, bikes, carts, animals, etc, running all over the place – means that I drive fairly slowly – at a pace that I consider reasonable but that most of my fellow motorists apparently consider actual stasis. In addition, the town is littered with huge nasty speed bumps. But while there is sufficient enough left over pavement to build a speed bump, there does not appear to have been enough funding to paint said speed bumps. As a result, there are times when you hit them going mach 1 (particularly if you are driving at night along Carjack Beach). All four tires of my Rav4 airborne probably looks cool from the outside, but from the driver’s seat it is a bit nerve wrecking.

Yes, I have a Rav4. It is considerably newer than my bucket of bolts back in DC (but the unpaved streets and speed bumps have been taking a toll). And it is white. This led to a movement of sheer personal hilarity when I came out of the expat grocery store on a Saturday morning, lugging a 12 L bottle of water and a week’s food, only to find a sea of white Rav4s and Range Rovers. Since it is a rental and I am not one to ever mentally log where I park, I had to wander a bit before tracking it down. I stopped on the way home to order a Tinga Tinga spare tire cover. Maybe a bit tacky, but at least I can find my ride…

Other than that, Dar is about traffic. Rush hour traffic here is as bad as anywhere in New York. It takes me 45-90 minutes to get the 5 miles from my office to the apartment in the evenings. All sorts of interesting things are going on around you though. People are selling fruits and vegetables, carvings, etc. There was a new one yesterday though. I was stuck in dead stop traffic next to a gas tanker. Two enterprising young men with custom wrenches ran up and opened the valves on the underside of the truck, filling plastic bags with contraband gas. When the bags were full, they closed up the valves, climbed down a drainage ditch and back up the other side, and then sold the gas at the taxi park. Then they sprinted back across to fill the bags again at the tanker still stuck in traffic. (This amazed me so much that I took a picture - which drove one of the gas stealers into a rage. Was he made that I took a picture of him engaged in a criminal act? No – just that I wouldn’t give him 1000 TSH for the privilege. I shook my head, he told God to curse my progeny, and then traffic started moving…)

To combat the traffic crisis, I joined the gym next to the office. That way I can just look out at the traffic and, it is still backed up to the turn off, just go spend another 20 on the treadmill. (At this rate I am going to be *cut* when I get out of here.) But because my workout strategy is built completely on traffic avoidance, I don’t go to the gym where all the other expats go. I am in fact the only white female I have ever seen in there, and I am usually unique in both of those respects. But the gym is okay, it has working elliptical machines and treadmills, plus weights and a couple classes. I was particularly excited about the 30 minute “intensive core workout” class. I am such a slacker about doing my abs, but with a class, I am sure that I would be better. Then I met the instructor. This guy apparently learned to speak English watching Full Metal Jacket. And as the only whitey, there was no way that I was going to make America look bad. So there I was, tank top and running shorts, pouring sweat, while these beautiful South Asia women, in their long flowing “gym burka,” effortlessly cranked out another set. They looked like elegant jellyfish on the mats. I looked like a farm animal.

Other than that, things have just been moving along.  Been out in the field mostly, doing pilot testing and training, taking the occasional break to shell some corn...  There was a bit of a break in the action last week when I spent three days in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, working with their Central Statistical Agency.  I like Addis.  It has a bit more hustle and flow than sleepy little Dar, good traditional food and some excellent pizza, nice silverwork, and a fleet of blue Ladas that serve as the city's taxi fleet (a leftover from their flirtation with communism).  If it weren't for the truly amazing food poisoning that I got from the Hilton Hotel's room service, it would have all and all be a great interlude.

I am back off into the hinterlands today for another week in the field.  Sorry there isn't anything in the way of pictures this time...