Saturday, November 7, 2009
There are several components to self-governance. Firstly, no one is going to buy the groceries, pack the lunches, cook the dinners, clean the clothes except you. These things should come before school. Without hearty meals and non-grimy clothing, you will surely wither into a greasy, malnourished loser. These necessities form a foundation. If they crumble, then the whole building crumbles. So, health comes first.
If it appears that you have a free afternoon, then you are mistaken. There is always something that needs to be done, whether it is for school, a potential job opportunity, or just a nagging errand. Every minute matters. Simultaneously, one must consider their sanity. No one can just work and run errands every waking moment. But if you want a break to enjoy the outdoors, exercise, nap, or socialize, then you must plan it in to your schedule. Simultaneously, again, one must accept that the schedule never unfolds as initially planned. Every day morphs, and you have to adapt.
Thus, the goal is a kind of flexible rigidity--a kind of balance.
That's a glimpse of the overarching picture of self-governance. On the psychological side, I think the goal is also a kind of balance. I see it as two parts: Confidence and Substance. By Confidence, I am referring to the courage and belief that one can and will succeed (Whether you think you can or you can't, you're usually right. -Henry Ford). By Substance, I am referring to the base of knowledge accrued through earnest study habits.
Since the apparent goal of professors is to assign more work than is possible to finish and to challenge grad students beyond their capabilities, the mean level of student Confidence is often below the detection limit. Some colleagues think they can build Confidence through hard work and long periods of study, through Substance. This is true, but the resulting Confidence boost is small and temporary, only until the next big hard assignment. Other colleagues think they can build Substance through unjustified levels of Confidence. Remarkably, this is also true, but tenuous. The best balance is to develop a strong belief in yourself, even if there is not much backing to hold that strong belief, and then to study like mad to justify that strong belief, accepting the fact it will never be completely justified.
Substance builds Confidence, Confidence builds Substance. You need both.
Revisiting how professors assign more work than is possible to finish, new grad students are forced to make a mental transition. They must switch from their self-imposed standard of work quality (which is probably what got them admitted to grad school) to a new standard of quantity. Yes, this is terrible for those of us who would rather turn one perfect assignment than twenty good assignments. But when you think about it, the latter achievement is more impressive, and more efficient.
The best way for me to explain is to reflect about a ceramics course I took as an undergrad. Our assignment was, given a fixed amount of clay and twenty minutes, to build the tallest sculpture we could using the coiling technique. Everyone worked with haste, and everyone made a respectable piece. Critiquing our accomplishments afterwards, the consensus was that imperfect-yet-perfectly-adequate work could be achieved in a short time. It's a lesson that's reinforced in graduate school.
One last point about self-governance. Planning ahead takes time and energy. So if you happen to have time, energy, and a completeable task in front of you, then do it right away instead of using that time and energy to make a plan to do it later.
To sum up:
-Health comes first
-Every minute matters
-Keep a structured schedule but be willing to deviate from it
-Plan in time for fun stuff
-Be confident, build substance
-Realize that good work can be completed in a short time
-If you have something to get done, do it right away
To govern oneself, to employ these lessons, that's what you learn in grad school.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Bloomington has poor stormwater drainage, but it is still a good city. Most days are sunny. There are lots of happy families--spouse, child, & dog--everywhere all the time. There's a farmer's market each Saturday with local everything for sale, and I haven't missed one yet. There are competitive pick up soccer games daily. The downtown area is chock full of little shoppes and eclectic restaurants. A number of sports bars show the Bears and Colts games. The town is bike and pedestrian friendly. There are several nice parks in town and nice hiking/camping places just outside of town. This part of Indiana has trees, hills, and lakes.
From my apartment I hear the tweet of birds, the chug of cargo trains, the whiz of cars going down College Avenue, and the rev of pickup trucks pulling out of the porn shop. I live next to a porn shop.
Because I cook with it a lot, my apartment often smells like garlic. I've been cooking for myself a few times each week. It's therapeutic and delicious. I do not like washing dishes, though.
I bought a cheap dirty pink couch at a yardsale for my living room. I've covered it with a navy blue down blanket. My NY Giants pillow rests in the corner. I have a National Geographic World Map from 1988 on one wall and a road map of New Jersey from 2007 on another wall, next to a picture of The Boss posing on Sunset Strip in 1975.
This semester I'm taking Environmental Chemistry, Statistics, Public Management Economics, and Limnology. I also work 10 hours a week as a graduate assistant for an aquatic chemistry professor. And I'm the campus-wide environmental science masters student representative for the Graduate and Professional Student Organization (GPSO). I go to a meeting once a month.
The other students in my program are kind, interesting, and intelligent. It is a privilege to be here learning with them. If you fall down, they pick you up.
At this point, four weeks in, the simple introductory material is ending, and the great workpile is rising. It's time to work hard or, at least, work harder than I have been. Whatever work comes, surely it won't suck as bad as walking a lonely wet mile in the Indiana rain.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
"What's the matter with his ears? I don't see nothin' wrong with 'em. I think they're cute."
"Hot diggety! You're flying! You're flying!"
-Timothy Q. Mouse in Dumbo
A shuttle van met us in front of Jollyboys at 6 AM. I was drowsy from aggregate sleep deprivation and mild deet intoxication. As we left Livingstone, the roads quickly became narrow and bumpy. My head bobbled between the seat and the window as the sun rose, and my Pixar "Cars" kids sunglasses shaded my eyes to aid rest. A few middle-aged American women shared the shuttle with us. They were on some kind of business trip, and rather chatty. The driver braked, let us out, while the chatty women continued onto something called "Lion Encounter." I had an underlying hope that the result of their encounter would somehow mute them permanently.
Rob, Karen, Nick and I walked over to some chairs and a table set in dewy green grass beside the Zambezi river. We signed in, sat, sipped coffee as the main guide went through the safety protocols. After a quick bathroom call, it was time. In a shady dirt clearing beside a 15 ft high wooden staircase, we waited for a long quiet minute. Then, mounted by men, out from the Zambian wilds, ten beasts came forth-- African Elephants, grey and mighty, pressing the earth with heavy steps. The lead guide halted the parade. The elephants formed a semi-circle around us, then the guide asked us to point to which one we wanted to ride. Rob and I, of course, picked out the largest in the herd. His name was Danny. Danny was comparatively reddish in color, and kind of tatty. Examining his rough skin I observed sporadic patches of hair and some wedges removed from his floppy ears. He had a few warts on his skin that looked like cantaloupe halves. Rob and I climbed the staircase to mount Danny. My legs spread across the padded saddle stretching my groin beyond its comfort zone. A kind Zimbabwean man joined us atop Danny, helped us find some balance and get our feet in the metal stirrups. Soon Nick and Karen were perched on their elephant, Matinda, and the beasts walked single file into the wild.
We led the way since Danny was the biggest. He stood about eleven feet tall. Add my three foot torso and we were 14 feet above the ground, cruising right through the treetops. Overall, Danny's stride was quite smooth, but since I was sitting in a split position, even the slightest jerk was magnified. It was easy to ignore the discomfort though, because goddam we were riding the grandest land animal on the planet! The whole time I found it difficult to fathom the fact we were riding a living creature with an independent brain. The best reminder that Danny was an animal just like us was his insatiable appetite. Danny was always hungry. Without breaking stride, his trunk would, without warning, shoot out to the side, curl around a thick branch, snap, rip it, bring it to his mouth. Then he would chew for the next 50 meters, or until he'd swallowed all his piece of tree. Trees and vegetation are mostly fiber, which goes right through the elephant digestive system, so they must compensate by eating an obscene amount each day--300 to 600 lbs! This also means that elephants probably poop about 300 to 600 lbs each day. Yes, we saw some big droppings.
As we rode, I touched Danny's skin. It felt like there was a one-inch callous all over. When I pushed with my finger, the whole section around my finger went inward instead of just where my finger was. Sometimes Danny would rest his moistened trunk on top of his head, probably with the hope the Zimbabwean man would feed him. When Danny did this, the opening of his trunk pointed right at me, so I received periodic blasts of stinky air in the face. I didn't mind it too much. Danny was easy to forgive since we was a well-behaved, smart, and peaceful elephant. His personality reminded me of the tall weirdo on the playground in middle school that no one got too close to, but everyone respected, whether they cared to admit it or not. Danny was an easy-going, independent thinker--kind of like Napolean Dynamite.
In a sunny clearing Danny cast a massive shadow with three humps on his back (the Zimbabwean, me, and Rob). Ahead we saw a herd of Springbok. They scrammed into the brush when our parade came through. Soon the path went alongside the muddy Zambezi riverbanks, leaving behind frisbee-sized footprints with toe contours. Rob and I watched Nick and Karen's elephant go in for a drink followed by a few baby elephants. Across the river we could see Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean riding Danny with us mentioned how he comes over to Zambia to work, and then goes back home to Zimbabwe where his family lives. The line of elephants tore through the woods toward the wooden staircase from whence we came, Rob and I ducking tree branches along the way.
When we returned, we dismounted via the staircase, then had a few minutes to take pictures, interact with, and feed our respective elephants. Danny sat down and put out his trunk, a lot like a kid holds out their trick-or-treat bag. Rob and I took turns grabbing handfuls of wheatmeal pellets from a burlap bag and put them in Danny's trunk. When I did this, I looked at Danny in the eye. He seemed old, wise, and thankful. If Danny wanted to, he could've mauled us with his hard white tusks or squashed us like watermelons, but he did not. The guide told us they rarely have to resort to rifles, just one or two times per year, to tame the grey giants. After the feeding, we waved goodbye to Danny and the others and watched them march, tails swinging freely, back into the jungle. They had earned some "wild time" after a good hard hour of porting humans around.
We sat at a long table for a nice hearty breakfast: Eggs, bacon, and toast, with a choice of juice. The tourists we sat with were mostly Americans on business or vacation. I spoke with a man from Colorado working in the mining industry. Said he loved how his job allowed him to travel. After breakfast, we watched the video of our elephant ride with Toto's "Africa" as the music. The video was nice, but we had already captured the moment just as well with our own cameras, so we did not make the purchase. We waited for the shuttle van to come pick us up. Meantime, Nick and I chased a little white monkey into a slanted tree along the river bank. In the distance, just above the treeline, we watched a rising cloud-swirl ascend to the heavens. The holy torrents of Victoria Falls were stirring a mere eight kilometers away.
The shuttle van, void of those chatty women (maybe a lion was fed?), pulled up. The driver agreed to drop us off at Victoria Falls instead of Jollyboys, sparing us valuable time. He let us out at a paved lot full of vendors. A wild "marimba man" provided a clangy soundtrack while we roamed the premises. Decorative cloths and jewelry hung from the makeshift roofs while an assortment of carved statues rose up from the ground. It was like entering a cave with stalactites and stalagmites. A second, more sedate marimba man called out to us as he played, asking us to buy a marimba. We walked over, Nick gestured, and the man handed him the mallets. He played a wicked smooth rain dance tune that won the ears of many. When we continued on our way, the man called out to us, "Hey, you come back soon, you remember my name is Stephen!"
We went to a small booth to pay an entry cost to see the all-powerful falls. When we saw a rack of shoddy ponchos for rent along the stone walkway we decided to take a moment to shift around our H2O-vulnerable items. We also went to a restroom to change into swimsuits before moving on. At the edge of a stone cliffside stairwell, there was a gap in the canopy. Behold! Mighty Victoria! A dangerous, unrestrained, uncontained, raging ocean of fury. We peered over the iron bannister and posed for pictures which were conveniently cropped by some hanging branches. Then we carefully bagged our cameras and started down the stairwell, into the vapor hurricane. Since it was the wet season, the total water accumulation was to the max--Vic falls flowed full force. And this hydroforce would spray gallons upon gallons of water back up into the air, creating some crazy acute weather changes. One minute it would be calm and pleasant. The next minute you'd get slapped in the mouth with a bucket of water. In no time we were drenched. I plodded along the puddly path, hunched over my bag of belongings trying keep them dry, but it was futile. Soon we came to small bridge, positioned in the thick of the storm, connecting two bare cliffs. We breathed deep, then walked the plank. The cold hard splashes, swimmer's ear, and bouts of perceived drowning were small sacrifices; we were getting closer to God.
Suddenly, standing soaked in the center of the bridge, came a fleeting moment of peace. The roar of the falls seemed to fade to the background. I lifted my head out of my hunch to see white cream pouring over black chocolate in a jungle of green lettuce. Looking down off the bridge glowing color stripes appeared, and my eyes followed it until I had spun in a full pirouette. This wasn't a rainbow. This was a rainhalo. And just as my lips bent into a cheshire smile, a gust of chubby water pellets brought me back to awareness. But, man, no amount of wind or water could wash off this grin. It was like I had just looked up Victoria's dress.
We retreated from the bridge to the next cliff and then ducked into the forest for some cover. The paths were mostly vacant, but occasionally we saw other folks. For example, we saw a pair of pale, male, shirtless, beer-gutted (you guessed it) Americans. We saw a few retired European couples, moving all slow and casual, checking off one of the "one thousand places to see before you die." We also saw some native Zambians visiting their backyard natural wonder of the world. One Zambian teenager asked to have his picture taken with us. Having a picture with four young white tourists was way cool. It undoubtedly made his day, perhaps his week.
We stopped at a lookout point a good distance from Victoria's vapor. We recuperated there. I removed my supersaturated shirt to get warm, and wrung it out. Meanwhile, we watched people jump from the great Victoria Falls bridge, the third highest jump in the world. From afar, it looked terrifying. I thought those bungee stunt people were insane. I wanted nothing to do with it. But Nick, Karen, and Rob thought it looked fun. They wanted the adventure, they wanted the rush. So, without further delay, we gathered our bags, and retraced our steps along the forest path, over the rainhalo bridge, back up the stone stairwell. In the vendor lot, a young black man approached us. He said he was from Zimbabwe. He wanted to sell us some hand-carved hippo and rhino statues. When we told him we weren't interested, he still lingered, so we mentioned the bungee jump to him, and he was delighted (just like the boy who led us to Jollyboys) to show us the way. We waved to Stephen, the marimba vendor, when we passed him and ambled down a broken road toward Victoria Falls bridge.
It happened so fast. Before I could mull it over, I had already handed over my money (and my life) to the Zambezi Adrenaline Company (ZAC). I blame peer pressure for this. I also blame ZAC's three for the price of one deal. Bungee jump, gorge swing, zip line. All for one irresistable price. The ZAC workers weighed us and scribbled our respective weights in kilos on our inner forearms with a red marker. My nerves hummed from deep within as our stunt quartet neared the bridge platform. The bridge was alive with a crowd of onlookers, pulleys, and dangling ZAC workers supported by ropes, harnesses, and carabiners. ZAC was in a hurry. They wanted to get our jumps in before their lunch break at 1:00pm. It was high noon. 111 meters high, to be exact.
The jump order was chosen arbitrarily by ZAC. Nick was first. He was shirtless. ZAC dressed him with a harness. They wrapped his ankles with towels, for comfort, then tied on a thick rubber cord. Nick stood up. He bunny-hopped to to the edge. Unsympathetically, without pause, the ZAC workers shouted: FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE! BUNGEE! And Nick was gone. Karen was videotaping, watching her beau bounce n' bop like a rag doll beneath the bridge. Meanwhile, ZAC held me captive in a jewel-constricting harness. I was on deck.
On the platform, a young ZAC worker coached me as he wrapped layers of towels around my ankles. He said to just relax, hold my arms out, and most importantly, don't look down. After riding the largest land creature, and skirting the largest water feature, I was feeling quite insignificant. "I'm nothing. I don't matter. See this big animal. See this big waterfall. I don't matter." This realization, along with ZAC's advertised "100% safety!" rating, made it slightly easier for me to toss my body into the gorge. I jumped somewhere between "ONE" and "BUNGEE." I was, in the words of Tom Petty,
"F r e e e e e! . . . f r e e f a a a l l i n!"
Soaring headfirst into the gorge, I did not scream. The closer I got to the rushing water, the wider my grin became. The four full seconds of freefall were windy and long, then I sensed the stretch, which gradually slowed my fall to a halt. At the bottom there was a moment of trememdous tension between Isaac Newton and the Bungee and the discomfort concentrated in the tip of my head. The halt was short-lived. And I was slingshotted back out of the gorge 30 stories into the air. I lost all bearings. My body floppity flopped. Up and down became the same dizzying direction. After a good many bounces, I leveled out and hung. I felt my ankles start to slip through the towels so I flexed my feet and did an inverted sit-up to grab the bungee. I was hanging for so goddam long and I was so goddam disoriented. Then a ZAC worker slid down a rope to the rescue, and clipped me in. Together we maneuvered to the underbelly of the bridge, and he let me off on a steel-clad walkway with a railing. I climbed some stairs, opened a hatch, and was back up on the bridge.
And I was mobbed by a group of sellers. I thought to myself, "these guys know I just jumped, they know I'm disoriented, they know my judgement is out of whack--Andy, you mustn't buy a thing." Though one macho guy in the group impressed me by rhythmically reciting the names of all 44 presidents in order. When he finished, he kept saying "Obama!" over and over. Obama, the first African American president, had been inaugurated 18 days earlier. I ignored the sellers and got to the jumping platform just in time for Karen's jump. I snatched up the digital camera and started a movie. Karen made a mistake. She looked down. She stood on the edge trembling with fear, and I shouted that it would all be OK. When ZAC counted down, she didn't jump. So ZAC counted down again, and Karen, instead of jumping, leaned slowly forward until gravity took her. She screamed the whole way down and all through the first bounce.
It was time for my gorge swing. I put on a new harness and walked onto the small metal gorge swinging platform. The gorge swing is the same height as the bungee jump. The main difference is that you fall feet first, not head first, and enter an arcing swing, not a chaotic bouncing frenzy. On the platform, a ZAC worker told me to grab the rope and NOT to jump out or I would snap my neck. Instead of jumping out, he said I should "step off," and while he was saying this, shit shit shit! It was too late. I had looked down. After a lot of hesitation, the ZAC worker, while lending me a steady nudge, told me to "STEP OFF". The first half of the fall my feet were doing some kind of manic air pedal, then my groin straps tightened. The pain was bearable, and the pleasure of flying through Victoria Falls gorge, a sweet sweet miracle. Being right-side-up, I could see it all. Letting out a joyous "whoop!" I pumped my right arm above my head like twirling a lasso. ZAC retrieved me in time to see Rob's gorge swing. Rob let out a loud chesty howl, his legs flailing searching for solid ground. Rob may have had a tad too much hop in his "step off." When ZAC pulled him out of the gorge, he had two purple spots on his neck. Some blood vessels had burst. Rob was OK. When we convened on the bridge afterwards we saw that Karen, too, had some red spots on her cheeks from ruptured capillaries. We done some extreme shit, man.
Meanwhile the sellers on the bridge persisted. We were Americans with money of value. They were Zimbabweans with money of no value. But, for souvenirsake, we made the trade. I bought a set of $100 million, $10 billion, $20 billion, and $50 billion dollar bills. Only after the transaction did I realize my seller had omitted the grand $50 trillion dollar bill. But no matter since Karen, Nick, and Rob got a few. (Zimbabwe's currency was featured on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart shortly after we got back. He joked how Zimbabwe's economy was so bad that the conversion rate was $50 trillion ZIM dollars for about 33 US cents.) Nick also picked up four necklaces each with a pointy black spirally medallion. The medallion represents the spirit and God of Victoria Falls. We walked back to the Zambian side of the bridge to the ZAC headquarters escaping the sellers and the hot afternoon sun. We drank bottled water and sat at a wooden table. The ZAC men enjoyed lunch.
During the break I found a couch positioned in front of a movie screen. ZAC had filmed our jumps! The main camera angle was from the edge of the gorge, zoomed all the way in on the bridge. When they played the footage of our jumps in sequence, we were sold. While they edited the videos for us, we got ready for part three of the ZAC trifecta: the zipline. The zip from Zam to Zim. I went first. I dangled from the line in my harness for a minute, was given a go, shouted "I'M GOIN TO ZIMBABWE!!" My voice trailed and I was off like a shot. Hanging halfway, high above the green gorge with the brown river running below, the wind cooling my face, time and the zipline seemed to slow down. I was in love with the world.
A ZAC worker caught me, brought me to the bridge, then I had no choice but to step briefly into Zimbabwe. After the others made their peace with the world along the zipline, we took some pictures with the "You Are Now Entering Zimbabwe" sign. Back at the ZAC headquarters, we bought our completed bungee videos. Our original friend who had first led us to ZAC lingered still. Rob bought his hand-carved hippos and rhinos. As we tried to leave, a Zim boy approached me attempting to sell some carved wooden masks. Earlier, I accidentally broke my plastic Pixar "Cars" kids sunglasses, so I offered them to him, perhaps in exchange for a mask. The boy put the sunglasses in his breast pocket. When I said I'd buy a mask he explained that they must be bought in a set of two. I didn't want a set of two. I didn't even want the one mask. When I moved to put my money away, he threw me the one mask and snatched the paper bills from my hand. He didn't take all that much. I see it as a donation to his destitute village. Today I honestly can't look at the wooden mask without thinking of the desperation on that poor kid's face.
We haggled for a cheap taxi back to Jollyboys. Tired and high from the morning adventures, we immediately put in orders at the bar. I ordered an eggs & toast budget breakfast with my beer and we sat around the pool. Another beer. Soon Karen brought an important point to our attention. How are we gonna get out of here tomorrow? When's the next bus leave? Where do we catch it? Soon the four of us were out roaming the crowded streets of Livingstone searching for some kind of bus stop. Old women were selling fresh (and rotten) fruit along the sidewalks. We came upon a dirt field crowded with busy people and blue vans. I was damn nervous and made it my duty to adhere to my friends. Nick and Karen talked to people, gradually piecing together some information. After an hour or so, we arrived at a family-run bus kiosk. There we learned that buses left something like once every 12 hours. The next departure was at 3 AM. Waiting for a bus in the middle of the night in the middle of the city is dangerous. We really had no other options. That would be our bus.
We lounged at Jollyboys until dinnertime when we opted to go out and find a joint called "Fezbar". We had a hell of a time finding it. The creeping darkness of the night didn't help either. The tiny, misproportioned Jollyboys map we were using led us into an eerily quiet neighborhood, so we backtracked, made some more wrong turns and asked a couple schoolkids for directions. They never said a word. Just nodded and led the way. We trusted them. In the dark they took us between buildings, through yards, around fences. After a long minute or two, we stood in the lights of the Fezbar restaurant. Nick tipped the schoolkids kindly and they scurried off into the darkness. The Fezbar was empty. There were cushioned benches all around the edge of the high ceiling room. It had some party potential, but no party tonight. The four of us sat alone at a bar table in the middle of the floor. We ordered Sprites, Cokes, and Fantas to drink. To eat, Rob, Karen, and Nick all ordered cranberry, brie, and bacon sandwiches. I ordered a ham & cheese. From our table we sat patiently, tracking the progress of the two clowns in the kitchen. When the sandwiches finally came, we were disappointed. The sandwich bread was stale. And the four sandwiches were all the same. Four ham & cheeses.
Back at Jollyboys Nick and Karen reminded Rob and I to set our alarms to catch the 3 AM bus. Nick announced that he wasn't going to bother sleeping and invited Rob and I for a swim. We respectfully declined. Rob and I shared our eight person dorm room with two very attractive blond Swedish girls and a merry man who called himself "Broo". Against the wall next to Broo was a little old guitar. I asked if he played. He said he didn't know how, just liked having one, and asked if I played. When I said yes, he extended the instrument across the room to me. It was out of tune. While I was tuning it Broo asked me if I knew any Bob Dylan. So I played "Blowin' in the Wind." Then I played Springsteen's "Growin' Up." Then my own song, "Alice Lenanyokie." Broo and the girls loved it! Finally I played my most popular original, "The Coffee Song". Turns out Broo owns a coffeeshop in Zanzibar. Afterwards, we exchanged emails and he asked if I could send him a recording. I put the guitar down and asked the girls what they were doing in Zambia. They each said they've completed their Master's Degrees in Ecology and were spending some time in Zanzibar with Broo doing a ton of scuba diving. Now they were travelling around the continent. Rob and I told them we were from New Jersey in the United States and that we both graduated from college majoring in Biology. We talked a little about the Green Movement and agreed that we would each do our part to rescue the planet. We wished them well, said goodnight, shut out the light. Our bus was scheduled to leave Livingstone in just three hours.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
I want to rewind a bit. After returning from Namibia in mid-February, I spent a week recalibrating to New Jersey, USA. Then, before April, I made grad school visits to both the University of Illinois and Indiana University (in two long separate drives). I also visited friends in East Berlin, PA and Durham, CT. The time in between these visits was mostly squandered, but notable hours were put towards the open mic nights at my town's coffeeshop, Grover's Mill Coffee. My friend, Sam, accompanied me in March, for a cover of the Beatles's "I've Just Seen A Face." In April, a violinist, also named Sam, joined Sam and I for a few numbers including Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and the traditional tune "Goodnight Irene." We rocked 'em good. Also in April, I played a short set at something called "Singers in the Round" where a half dozen local artists were summoned to entertain, bring a crowd in on a Thursday night. I played some of my songs: "The Coffee Song", "I'm So Glad to Know", "I Won't Let You Down", and "Part Time Life." I also played Springsteen's "Badlands," but it was Dylan's "Blowin in the Wind" that made the performance. The song was dedicated to the late Gettysburg College student and Roosevelt, New Jersey resident: Emily Silverstein.
I didn't know Emily, but her friends had told reporters she listened to Bob Dylan. The song segued into a simple two-chord finger-picked strum over which I recited the following words:
Loved to dance, smiled all the time
She wore a crown of flowers in her hair
She took her camera everywhere
She never judged anyone
She hugged everyone
She had a messy room
She ate healthy food
She was a writer
She was a swimmer
She was a daughter
She was a sister
After the performance, the shop was somber. Franc, the owner, came up to me red-eyed and said, "Hey Andy, that song you wrote for that girl, that's good stuff." I thanked him for the compliment and then he thanked me for giving his business a shout before ripping into The Coffee Song. Then we started chatting about an apparent shared interest: Bruce Springsteen. I discovered soon that Franc and I could talk for days about Springsteen.
Once the other Singers in the Round had played their sets, I went over to chat with them and Franc, too. I was telling someone I was having trouble landing summer employment, but finally got an interview with the store manager at Lowe's scheduled for tomorrow morning. Franc overheard this and said, "Really? I'm the store manager at Lowe's."
And, so, now I have a job. I sell lawn mowers.
I feel better with a job. There's a constant rhythm to my life, less room for unruliness. I'm busy, I'm useful, I'm making money. But, I will tell you, after the first day of work, there were some amazing stress chemicals coursing through my arms, and I was not at peace. It's taken a week to adjust back to a normal level of stress. Now I am OK, and I welcome the prospect of work.
Before I go on, I want to revisit Studs Terkel's "WORKING" which I cited in my last post. Yeah, like I said, he sure does run the gamut with insightful interviews within the broad spectrum of professions. But I think Terkel overlooked a very important interview. He did not interview someone without a job. If "WORKING" is a science experiment, then Terkel conducted studies on plenty of experimental groups (each different occupation) and omitted the control group (no occupation). Surely my streak of joblessness (now broken!) helped me make this observation. To act as a former representative of the unemployed, I'll share some answers. What did I do all day? I did whatever I wanted, but options were limited because I had no money to spend. How did I feel about it? Initially, fantastic, but that wore off after consecutive weeks of stagnation in the same place. Also, over time my self esteem went down and my sloth/boredom went up. Perhaps the most ideal situation would be to work hard for a few months, then take a few months off, work, take off, and so on.
Each morning, I drive to Lowe's in a red '95 Honda Civic. It has a manual transmission. At first I hated shifting gears, but now it comes naturally, automatically. But the joy of shifting gears to accelerate ("ya haven't really driven till you've driven stick!") is balanced by the anguish of stalling the engine in rush hour traffic (I did it on Tuesday). So there's upside and downside. Additionally, there are a few things about this vehicle that set it apart from other vehicles. First, there is no functioning clock; I never know the time. Second, the spedometer is out of service; I never know my speed. Third, the radio is broken; I never play music. Fourth, it is very difficult to lock; I rarely lock it. As a result, I am not troubled about being on time, obeying a speed limit, changing the radio station, or worrying whether the car will get stolen. When I drive this car, I do nothing but DRIVE, man. It's a spiritual thing. Lately I've taken a liking to Buddhism, but I'll save that for another time.
I promise the Chronicles of Namibia-Parts 5-7 will be posted before I leave for Indiana in August.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
A few things have been distracting me since posting Part 4. Foremostly, I visited Indiana University around the time when March became April, and it was nice! I got the vibe that Indiana knows who it is, knows it's identity, isn't trying to appear more macho than it really is. It's got pretty limestone buildings (the state of Indiana is known for it's limestone), plenty of trees and blossoms (the town is called Bloomington), and a hip city center with a melange of international cuisine ranging from Tibetan to Ethiopian. Otherwise, it's a midwest college town with 35,000 fun-loving drunken undergrads. I do not plan to partake in the boozing, but I do think spectating the boozing could prove to be a good source of entertainment. Indiana is a Big Ten school and supposedly has a thriving basketball program. I mean, Indiana is the state that produced Larry Bird and inspired the great movie "Hoosiers." The famous Indy 500 race takes place not too far north in Indianapolis, and Bloomington holds it's own "Little 500" bike race about which a movie was made, titled "Breaking Away." Anyway, the people I met within the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) all seemed genuine and good-willed. I did not get a sense of intense competition but rather a sense of camaraderie. Many are alumni from Teach for America, AmeriCorps, or the Peace Corps, which might say a little about the type of students the program attracts. Last week, I mailed my enrollment deposit and committed to the two-year Environmental Science Master's program. I believe it'll be a good fit for me, and I'll be moving to Indiana in August.
Meantime, I need a summer job. No one hires you unless you have experience, and you can't have experience unless you've been hired before. Thus I fear my only options fall under the umbrella of something called "general labor." Yeah, I'll either be painting houses, doing construction, or landscaping yards. Either that or lifting, opening, stocking boxes. I look forward to getting sweaty, messy, sore, and rich.
I'll confess that the reason work seems attractive now is that I haven't done it for a while. If all I did was work, it would surely inflict some violence on my soul. That very concept of working and what it does to people has a certain draw to it. The late great man named Studs Terkel conducted a number of revealing interviews about what people do all day and how they feel about what they do. Earning some daily bread, seeking some daily meaning. The compilation is titled "WORKING," and it is fascinating. It's got contributions from janitors, hookers, farmers, stockbrokers, teachers, gravediggers--it runs the gamut. Based on the interviews, Studs alludes that perhaps the best, most fulfilling thing someone can be is, golly gee, a firefighter! They rescue people, save lives, they're in the public spotlight. They get to be a hero, like, every day. And they're necessary, because things do burn. They also get a mandatory adrenaline rush each time they surge into billowing orange flames. Firefighter: the real dream job. Too bad my town's fire department has volunteer-based recruitment. All I can afford to do right now, in order to pay for grad school, is to make money. I hate money.
Stay tuned for Chronicles of Namibia--Part 5.
Monday, March 16, 2009
In the blackness before dawn we each packed a small bag for our 2-day excursion into Zambia. Overnight, a band of sophisticated goats had claimed Chris's backyard, forming some kind of a "squattocracy." We shuffled past these suave goats, hopped in the Hilux, tossed Chris the keys. He turned the ignition and simultaneously triggered a sound with a Mario Brothers device on the keychain, like we had just begun level one. After the jumbo mushroom in Tsumeb, I think we all experienced a fair amount of personal growth, and now we were nothing less than super. Chris drove along the dimly lit road past some darkened buildings and rolled up to the gate, which was shut. And the gatekeeper was gone too, so Chris went on a search. He rang up a few numbers and rapped on a few doors until he found the "on duty" gatekeeper snoozing on a bench in the corner of a room in a nearby building. The gatekeeper opened the gate and we rumbled onward in the pink predawn light until we reached the dirt lot by the petrol station. This was the bus stop. The delay at the gate was minor. We were on time.
The bus was not on time. We waited at the stop for over an hour before it came. Chris, who had caught the Intercape (Africa's Greyhound) at this stop before, had warned us to expect considerable tardiness, but we kept on with our determined punctuality. The others rested in the car for a bit to pass the time while I took a look around. Cows and goats dotted the lot. A guard in uniform watched over the petrol pumps. Across the road there was a swarm of walking children. Each child wore a brightly colored t-shirt, each t-shirt much too large for its wearer. I knew the children weren't in school because it was the weekend, but at this early hour I really had no clue what they were up to. It sure was neat the way they stuck together.
Chris came out to join me. We found a crushed aluminum can, tried to play hacky-sack with it, then I got talking about Botswana.
"I've heard it's very expensive, but like they say, you get what you pay for. These guys staying at our hostel in Windhoek had just come back from Chobe National Park; they said they went on a three-hour safari and saw everything. They loved it. But one of the guys was all whiny about how a giant fly bit off a chunk of his face. He said it hurt real bad," I said.
"Hmm...that's interesting," Chris replied coolly, "Well, the only thing I've really heard about Botswana is how men in certain tribes have been known to come over here and abduct Namibian children. You see, a lot of these kids don't have a certificate or any official record of their birth so the Botswanans come take them away, kill them, and use their body parts to make voodoo dolls, and no one ever finds out about it. It's really fucked up," Chris said.
I was horrified, speechless for a full ten seconds before I talked again.
"You know, we were thinking about going to Botswana, but Nick would've had to notify the Peace Corps way in advance. And besides, we're only here for a couple weeks, and Botswana would be too much to fit in. Plus, I don't think we're allowed to take our rental car over into other countries. That's why we're leaving it with you. Thanks for looking after it, by the way."
"Yeah, no problem. Oh, I was meaning to ask you guys, when you're gone you don't mind if I drive into town to get groceries, do you?"
"Of course not, go ahead, do what ya gotta."
"Cool, I'll be careful with it."
The others were awake now. Nick and Karen stayed with the car and chatted with Chris. Rob wandered off with his camera to get a good angle for the imminent sunrise. I, too, observed the colorful progression of the new morning sky: Neon pink bloomed into tangerine, blonded, and blasted white light into the top of the tallest tree. And my eyes followed the edge of the light as it crept down, down, down until the whole tree was lit. The sun was done with its introduction; it was day.
And our bus was here. We checked in, tossed our bags into the little luggage caboose, and boarded. The people on the bus were mostly white with a few nicely dressed blacks. I suppose the cost of Intercape travel is considerably higher than the cost of hitch-hiking which explains the lack of native Africans opting to ride the bus. It was a double decker, and we sat on the top floor towards the rear. There was enough space for each of us have our own seat, so we closed the window curtains and sprawled out for some bus sleep. With the exception of a few stops and jostles, we slept all through the AIDS-stricken Caprivi strip, all the way to Katima.
As we rolled toward the border, our mammoth two-story beast of a bus did not deter the crowd of rambunctious Zambian hustlers. In fact, the bus had the opposite effect, a magnetic effect, for this was an ideal opportunity to rip off, rob, or harass unassuming travellers crossing into, or getting out of, Zambia. When we stepped off the bus the crowd kicked up a cloud of dust and smothered us. I clutched my subgarment money belt with one hand and deflected wads of Kwacha (Zambia's currency) with the other as I weaved closer to the dilapidated border patrol fence. An officer stood by in drab garb wielding a rifle, but did not make much of a move to quell the turbulence. I suppose, in these parts, this was normal, and intervention would've only made things worse. This was the kind of Africa I knew only because of films like "Blood Diamond" and "Hotel Rwanda." When we found refuge inside the one-room immigration shelter, we were sweaty, dusty, and flustered. "T.I.A." I muttered to myself, "This Is Africa." With jittery hands we fumbled for our passports and some American cash, plopped it down, pushed it across the wide table to the immigration officer. (For entry, American/European/wealthy tourists must pay a handsome surcharge to help stimulate Zambia's economy.) Half-grinning, he counted the cash before stamping us into Zambia. Together, we dashed and jockeyed our way back to the bus without too much trouble or interference, and started into Zambia.
It was still light out, there were four of us, and other Jollyboys patrons were roaming about, so we felt pretty safe walking around town. Olga's was located on a wide dirt sidestreet and, like every establishment in town, it was protected by a tall cement wall topped with coiled barbed wire. Since it was dinner hours, a gate was open, and we walked inside the restaurant. In the back annex, we got a table partially outdoors, under a roof. We immediately ordered tall sodas and two pizzas. Karen pegged us as "ravenous," which was more than accurate. We ordered a third pizza, scarfed it, paid, left. Livingstone was dark. We tripped up and down the crumbly curb, dodged people, minded the shadows in our periphery. Nick had coached us earlier about walking with intimidation, strutting, and we were doing that as best we could. I think my bandanna helped my strut. We got back to Jollyboys, and went straight to the bar. I tried a Mosi, the official beer of Zambia, and it sucked. We decided to call it a night and retired to our rooms. Rob passed out on the top bunk in a cocoon of white mesh. Before the trip, I'd helped him pick out the mesh for 33-cents-per-yard in the fabric section of Walmart. This part of Africa was fraught with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The mesh was Rob's defense. Long sleeves and a bedsheet were mine. Our guard was up, and no mosquitoes would have our blood this night. Before bed, we had each assembled a day pack for the following day. We did not know then that the following day would be, perhaps, the greatest of our lives.
Monday, March 9, 2009
Rob and Karen got up first. Well, technically, everyone else staying in Okahuejo got up first. The large sought-after African mammals are most active at dawn when the sun isn't forcing them into the shade for midday siestas. The four of us understood this, but we were very tired, so we slept in until about 8:30 AM. After the brai, Carl's mom had given us a bag of slender tomatoes. Now most were smushed or spoiled from the turmoil of being in the car (when a bird hits your windshield the natural reflex is to step on the food at your feet), but I managed to salvage a few for breakfast. I rolled up the tent while the others repacked the car and gooped up with sunblock. Rob drove us back through the deep puddles and out of the campground area. At the exit gate, where the paved road became gravel, Rob and I did a Chinese firedrill, and I was the driver. I pushed it into first, gave it some gas, let up the clutch, and we inched forward where the wild things are.
The gravel road was smooth, flat, and straight; I had no problem getting the Hilux up to a nice touring speed. For miles on both sides there was little vegetation to block our visibility. The savanna was wide open for our wandering eyes to see. As we came upon a group of grazing zebras Nick reached over the back of my seat, put headphones over my ears, and played the opening number from Lion King.
"There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round
It's the circle of life
And it moves us all..."
It was cheesy and magical, and it moved me. It really set the tone for the rest of the day. A typical sequence would go like this: see an animal, stop the car near the animal, ogle the animal, photograph the animal, try to identify the animal. Rob bought a comprehensive animal guide at the visitor center which was just a few pages long and therefore, very user-friendly. When we pulled up next to a group of storks, we turned to the bird page. That's when we pinned a name to the dimwitted kamikazi bird-scoundrel that met our car glass the day prior: Guineafowl. But we refrain from uttering their name. They seek to instill fear in others. They are terrorists.
At one point we turned off the main road onto Rhino Drive with the hope of seeing a rhinocerous. It was a skinny bumpy road with a puddle at every trough. Since the bushes were thick and we weren't seeing much wildlife, I decided to drive a little more playfully. Driving near edge of the road thorny branches would scrape the sides of the car and sometimes poke inside the windows. That pissed Nick off a little. When I plunged into puddles the muddy water would douse the cracked windshield and spray inside the car. Karen, specifically, got wet and she was a good sport about it. Sadly, we did not see a rhino. Later, after pulling into a rest area, we got out of the car. It was brown. It used to be white. Huge globs of mud were caked on the flaps behind each tyre. I kicked a flap and a fat mudcake thudded on the pavement. I thought this was awesome so I did it a few more times. We got out the PB & jam for lunch and tapped our bag of oranges before getting back on the road.
On his previous visit to Etosha, Nick recalled having some safari success along dik-dik drive, a small tucked-away road just before the park exit. So that's where we went next. Moments after turning on the drive we saw a pair of warthogs trotting in a rocky field. The warthogs may have been my favorite sighting of the day. Then we entered a green forested stretch populated with countless giraffes and zebras. They were in the road, beside the road, standing up, laying down, eating, watching, natural and candid. We took a zillion pictures. Next we saw a pair of the drive's namesake munching on some already half-eaten plants. Dik-diks are basically dwarved deer, reminiscent of Bambi, very cute and very rare. Thus it is quite appropriate that hunting dik-dik is illegal in Namibia. It was a real privilege to see them. A while back, Nick had the privilege of eating one. His ride accidentally flattened the poor thing and, in general, it's encouraged to retrieve, dress, and eat the roadkill you create so that's what they did. (No, we did not fetch the carcass of our bird-scoundrel)
It was getting late in the afternoon, but instead of leaving the park, we all agreed to make a pass around the Fischer Pan. The pan was far from the car, but with the aid of binoculars we could see scores of game sipping by the edge. I was amused by the lonesome anomaly of the "twee palms"; a handful of palm trees drooping over a small savanna pond. There was a jeep of euro-machomen parked near the palms, hogging all the tranquility, defying the park rule to stay inside your vehicle at all times. I mean, Etosha's a dangerous place for a relatively welterweight homo erectus animal to be strolling about. Hell, for extra safety people in fence-protected Okahuejo erected their tents on their car roofs! Anyway, we didn't care to be associated with the meaty manprey or to witness a wildebeest mauling, so we drove back to the main road and continued right on out of the park towards the town of Tsumeb.
Tsumeb is nestled next to mountains in such a way that all the water in the sky has no choice but to pour down on it. In the wet season, it rains there almost every day. Conveniently, the rainfall en route to Tsumeb provided a free wash for our muddy car. As we neared the town Nick pointed out a cavernous pit carved in the side of a mountain. It was a recently abandoned copper mine. Apparently, a notable portion of Tsumeb's economy relies on it's copper mining industry. In town we met Dave, another Peace Corps volunteer and friend of Nick's, at a supermarket. For dinner, we bought some pasta and some much needed green vegetables to balance out our carnivorous diet from the past few days. We drove out of the town center, into a neighborhood, and through a retractable gate to the home where Dave's host family lives. The driveway was like a swamp made from baseball dirt, but the house was very nice. It had a large back porch and a yard filled with green grass, lemon trees, and guava trees. Inside there was a spacious kitchen which connected to a spacious living room which connected to a spacious TV room. There were at least three extra bedrooms available for us to sleep in. The house was, by Namibian standards, royalty.
In the kitchen, we chatted and prepared dinner. I helped slice veggies, including a humongous fungus of a mushroom I found lounging on the counter. The stalk of this mushroom had the girth of a small tree and a top the size of the upper third of an NBA basketball. Turns out about a quarter of this mushroom was enough to feed 8+ people. Dave handled the meat. At first we could not identify it, but eventually decided it couldn't possibly be goat or donkey, and elected to call it beef, which was fine with us. Nick, in prime Italian fashion, cooked us delicious pasta and garlic bread. While the food was cooking, I went in the backyard barefooted in the rain with Dave. Together we picked ripe guavas (firmness as an indicator) and ripe lemons (color as an indicator) from the trees. For a plump yellow lemon dangling in the high reaches of the tree I jumped, extended, grabbed it, and came crashing splashing down through wet branches. Man, I was soaked.
After some garlic bread appetizers, we had dinner, and again, the meat was fantastic! Not to discredit the tenderness of Nick's pasta or the healthfulness of the mutant mushroom/verdant vegetables, but against this meat they did not stand a chance. It's interesting though because Dave only added seasoning salt, cooked it in a pan on a hot plate and the results were beyond divine. This leads me to believe that it's more about the quality of the cut of beef than the care it takes to prepare it. All hail the beeves of Namibia!
Dave was kind to wash most of the dishes and get blankets for our beds. When we asked about showers Dave said, "Sure! Go ahead, but make sure you mop up when you're done...I prefer baths." I found out later what he meant. There was no showerhead. Instead, there was a hose with a faulty nozzle on the end of it. It was like a permanent thumb pressed over the end of a garden hose, and, as a result, water sprayed wherever it wanted to. After two minutes, I'd had enough. I spent the next ten mopping up the floor and wringing out the mop in the tub. My shower was not an efficient one, but it was better than none at all.
In the living room, Rob was fading fast on the couch while I talked with Dave. Nick and Karen went to bed. I asked Dave the same kind of tough questions I asked Ginny hoping to strengthen my grasp of what it's like to serve in the Peace Corps. I learned Dave is 30 years old, originally from Arizona (when his plane landed and he saw the dry land of Namibia he said,"Darn, I'm still in Arizona."). He was married for a while, but divorced. He waited tables for 12 years, and aspires to be a counselor like his father some day. Though his work for the Corps can be tedious and disheartening, he plans on serving for an additional third year. He told me, "I'm not here to change the world, I'm here to share my culture and to learn about their culture. But maybe while I'm here I can also have a positive impact on some people." Then Dave told me about his tomato garden project. Volunteers from around town had pitched in and by January (Namibia's summer) some juicy red produce was going to be had. At Christmastime, Dave flew back to Arizona to see his family. But before he left, he asked his faithful volunteers to watch over and water the garden while he was gone. When Dave returned the garden was a wilted mass of desiccated plant matter. Dave asked the volunteers why they hadn't taken care of the garden. But they insisted that they had taken care of the garden and showed not a hint of remorse about letting Dave down, much less each other. I asked how he dealt with it. "I laughed a lot," he said.
We needed a recharge, and we had nice beds, so we slept in. By late morning we went walking around town on a mango search. After no luck at the marketplace vendors on main street, we followed some trails lined with tall plants, crossed a couple footbridges, and made our way to a dirt clearing inhabited by a little community of shacks made from metal scraps. I've never felt so white and like I didn't belong as I did during the five minutes we spent circling the shacks. Because of this feeling I walked with my head down and didn't make any eye contact. Meanwhile, Rob took a few pictures and a few movies, discreetly and not so discreetly. No mangos, so we left, and I was happy. On the way back to the car we bought a bottle of clear nail polish. Supposedly nail polish can prevent glass cracks from creeping, and we thought we'd try it out.
For lunch we ate at Hungry Lion, Namibia's McDonald's. Their reputation is "slow fast food." I recall that Karen's chicken sandwich had too much mayonnaise. Back in the car, Rob and I applied the nail polish to the glass with concise brushstrokes. The polish wasn't entirely transparent, but if it stopped the cracks from getting worse, then we saw it as a valid sacrifice. We pulled up to the diesel pump and, without warning, an attendant slammed his squeegee brush on our windshield. And boy we had a hell of a time getting him to stop. Our windshield was a fragile creature glued together like Frankenstein--we had to defend it.
In an hour or two, we neared the large town of Grootfontein, but turned off instead to see the Hoba meteorite. It was a 50+ km diversion on an unpaved road. But to see the largest known meteorite on earth, hell yes it was worth it! When we arrived, it was just us and the gift shop cashier. On our ticket, meteorite was spelled "meteoriet". As we walked to the space rock we heeded the advice of an important sign: Beware of Falling Meteorites. Then, of course, it began to rain. The Hoba weighs 60 tons and rests at the bottom of a small amphitheater. It is partially submerged in the ground and about the size of a car. It's box-shaped. We did our thing, surfed the meteorite, took pictures, and got back out to the highway. On the way, Nick chugged a carton of some kind of chunky yogurt and cottage cheese hybrid.
We cruised upland a bit before stopping at a road checkpoint. This was called the "red line." It divides south Namibia from the north. My understanding is that it's primary purpose is to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease from the north to the south. They ask all cars to pass over a sterilizing rug. I suppose the assumption is that we've rolled over some cowpies during our haul, and they don't want us to transfer the waste-dwelling germs to the other region. At the checkpoint they also checked Rob's American driver's license. It makes you wonder how they'd ever be able to detect a fake. Even if they could, what would they do about it?
The north was very different from the south. It was more primitive and wild. There were lots of roadside villages comprised mostly of huts made from mud and thatch. Beside the road there were dirt trails frequented by a good many people, and some people would wander in the middle of the road. I suspect they were transporting trade items or visiting friends in the adjacent villages. During the drive we saw a lone teenage boy driving a large herd of brown cattle. The cows looked sleek, muscular and beautiful in the African sun. Some of the bulls had a deadly set of horns. We went through some patches of blue rain and saw rainbows. For fun we would toot the Hilux's pathetic constipated horn, then cease our tooting when we passed civilization as to not disturb anyone. We saw some donkeys porting goods on their backs. We saw naked children bathing and playing in road ditch puddles. We saw goats and stopped to let them cross the road. So, you see, there was a lot to look at along the way.
By late afternoon we came into Divundu, which is no more than a dirt parking lot, supermarket, and petrol station. We turned onto a gravel road and drove 7 km until we reached a gate to some kind of youth center. One of Nick's Peace Corps friends lived there, and he offered to put us up for the night.
"We're here to visit Christopher Kramer," I said to the gatekeeper, who was squinting in the evening sun. She appeared puzzled, and did not respond.
"He's Asian..." I said.
No answer. She peered in the car at the others who had begun to spit out alternate descriptors.
"He teaches in the computer lab."
"His name is: Chris. Kramer."
Still no recognition. Then we said a word she knew.
"Oh, Chris," she said with a smile. She pulled open the gate and let us through.
The Divundu youth center is a sprinkling of small buildings along the Okavango river. The buildings are interconnected by footpaths. It has the look and feel of a summer camp. Chris lives in the last building where the road ends. He has a back porch hammock and his backyard quickly becomes the riverbank. I watched the sun reflect off the water and listened to pretty singing coming from the neighboring building. Chris came out serenely and greeted us with his voice. Among Peace Corps volunteers, he earned the nickname "the voice" because his smooth velvet baritone could make just about anybody's heart skip a beat. He had a deep jagged scar on his forehead. A few months earlier, he went to Windhoek to meet his parents (from New Jersey) who had flown over for a visit. The night before the flight arrived, Chris got in a taxi with a man. After a few blocks, the man stabbed him in the head with a screwdriver. Chris bled all over and was put out on the street. His money was stolen, his head was bleeding. Somehow he got to a hospital where he was stitched up. In the morning he met his jet-lagged parents, with a bandaged head, wearing bloody clothes. What a badass.
Chris took us for a tour around the place. We saw the computer lab (also a home to termites) where he teaches fundamentals to students who, he claims, actually want to learn, and thus his work is fulfilling. He took us upstream to a section of river with a rocky island in the center. Nick, Chris, and I hopped like ninjas from stone to stone out to the island and climbed to the top. The views up and down the flowing river were pleasant, and we waited there for the sun to set. Rob started to come out to meet us but lost his footing and fell in. He hugged a rock to avoid being swept away by the current. When we helped him up, his lower half was all wet, and his phone, waterlogged. Afterwards, Nick and Chris made a point to tell Rob that the Okavango is swarming with alligators. Rob was frazzled. Walking back, we saw a tree with juvenile monkey fruits. These fruits, named for the animal that eats them the most, supposedly taste alright when ripe and the sphere of outer skin can be used to make souvenirs or musical instruments. Then Chris took us to the "bunny farm." A dozen or two rabbits were fenced in a pen, hiding and hopping. I asked Chris what they were for. His reply was: "Probably the same thing most animals in Africa are used for, to eat."
We chilled inside Chris's place for the rest of the night. He had several spare rooms, a futon, and a cot to accommodate us. For dinner, Chris was kind to cook us a stir-fry. It had spiced vegetarian meat (though not real meat it was tasty all the same), green peppers, and Chakalaka (Africa's own delicious blend of sweet chopped veggies and curry). Chris cooked the rice with some tea-colored water he poured from a pre-boiled jug. Here, in Divundu, the tap water wasn't fit to drink. We ate on the futon in front of Chris's laptop, which reeled off six consecutive episodes of Futurama. The simple activity of laughing at cartoons with friends really hit the spot. Especially for Chris, who had long been deprived of people familiar with his favorite shows, the sort who could appreciate the jokes with him; I think he enjoyed our company that night. Soon we called it quits because we had an Intercape bus to catch around 5 AM the next morning. I took the cot next to the back window and fell asleep to the rush of the Okavango.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Note: It may be in your best interest to read the preceding post "Chronicles of Namibia--Part 1" before beginning this one.
"If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territory, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously." -Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park
"Hey, did you guys sleep alright? My stomach is killing me."
It took me a moment to detect where the voice was coming from. When my groggy eyes could finally process an image, I saw Natalie sitting on a mattress, bent over, grimacing, clutching her stomach.
"Do you think it could be the meat from the brai?" I asked.
"I don't know, but I have to hitch out of here and be at work in two hours and I feel like shit."
Doubled over, Natalie quickly gathered her things, stuffed her sack, bid us farewell, went out the door. Two minutes later, she was back. She needed to use the bathroom. And because there was no toilet paper available, I let her borrow my roll. After a second farewell she stood out on the main drag with her thumb out. Our group was back down to four.
Rob and I heard Nick and Karen stirring in the other room, so we went to check on them and to tell them we were going to pick up some food at the grocery store up the street. They said "Cool beans."
This was the first time Rob and I had walked alone in Africa without the security of Nick, our beloved bodyguard. So we were a bit wary, feeling the eyes on us, checking our money belts and patting our decoy wallets as we walked. We got to the store just fine and grabbed some provisions including a jar of peanut butter, three cans of jam, snack crackers, two large tanks of purified water, a bag of oranges, and two loaves of freshly baked bread in hand-tied plastic bags. Also, Rob bought a tub of powdered, dehydrated milk because his malaria prophylaxis prescription indicated that the medication is most effective when taken with milk. My malaria medication was a little different than Rob's and explicitly warned about the side effect of increased sensitivity to the sun. After we got back to Nick's, Rob and I rummaged through our packs for sunblock. The Namibian sun was up, it would not relent, and we could not run from it's shine.
Us and our stuff got in the car, and we were off! Cruising out of Usakos, the mountains were dry, brown, and all around. Before too long we pulled in at a rest stop in Okahanja, where we each bought a 1.5 liter glass bottle of Coca-Cola (the soda tastes better in glass than leachy plastic, and in Namibia it's made with real cane sugar, not high fructose corn syrup). Then Nick, who always has our best interests in mind, bought fifty NamBucks (approximately five USD) worth of spicy hot beef jerky, locally called "biltong," which we all came to affectionately call "chilli bites." In step with the meat at Carl's brai, the chilli bites were exceptional. In our vehicle we sat chewing on pieces of chilli bite fat as we sped across the open land. We passed through a few towns, some lush, some sparse, but each had its own feel and character. We also passed a slew of private ranches probably owned by rich German outdoorsmen (Namibia was formerly a German colony). Along the way we counted the tall termite hills scattered throughout the savanna landscape. We also enjoyed the company of a gang of baboons having a party in the road.
By lunchtime, we rolled into Otjiwarongo to meet Ginny, a 50-year-old Peace Corps volunteer serving in the town. As our Hilux halted in a Supermarket parking space, we saw maybe a dozen men roaming the lot perimeter, watching. We got out and locked each door manually with the key. When we could not get the back door to lock, indeed we were fretting some, but then Nick simply mimicked a lock-pull-check motion and we were set. Due to crime, it's common in Namibia for security officers to patrol the parking lots, so we sought out the designated officer for this particular lot and asked him to keep an eye on our vehicle. Then we met Ginny and bought some mango/litchi/guava juice cartons for the road before sitting down at a raw-looking wooden table in a pizza shop down the street. We had to speak loudly to overcome the chatter of the wobbly fan spinning above us, but we quickly learned that Ginny is retired and originally from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. While we all enjoyed the nourishment of two greasy, meaty, bacon-y pizzas, I was keen to quiz Ginny on her Peace Corps work: what's wrong with the Peace Corps, what things give her satisfaction, what things could be improved. Her answers were not the clearest, and my questions were not very clear either, but I have deduced what I learned down to a few points: 1) the Peace Corps bureaucracy inhibits progress, 2) satisfaction comes in small doses, helping one person at a time, 3a) to help causes associated with the Peace Corps it's best to send supplies & equipment (i.e. textbooks, pens) 3b) do NOT send money. Ginny was kind to cover the bill. We thanked her, emptied our bladders, and tanked up on diesel fuel before roaring out of town due north headed for Etosha.
"What the fuck was that!"
"I think I hit a bird."
"What do you mean 'you think'?"
"What the fuck was that!"
"Okay, fine, I hit a bird."
"Haha! Did you see that? The carcass fell right out of the sky and flopped behind the car like a baseball mitt!" Nick said.
"Yeah Rob, you killed the shit outta that thing!" I said.
"Fuck! Look at the windshield! We didn't buy insurance!" Karen said with a degree of distress.
Rob had done all he could do to avoid the manic pheasant-like bird flailing about in the road. But he sure hit it, and it sure broke our fucking windshield. The bird crashed into the right side of the glass and left behind a coarse cluster of cracks. Extending from that cluster a long winding crack wrapped around the rest of the windshield in a sort of figure-eight. At least our crack was elegant. After the blow, we had no choice but to cope and keep our course.
Our bird-induced cursing had subsided by the time we arrived at the gate to Etosha National Park. The guard scribbled down our plate number with no acknowledgement of our wounded windshield and let us in. Etosha beckoned us at once. The grasses were emerald and the sun illuminated the land like a film set. Appropriately, as if on cue, Nick began to hum the theme from Jurassic Park. Suddenly, to the left, my eyes fell upon a most grand picture: under an explosion of white clouds in a meadow of yellow flowers a herd of sun-brightened springbok wandered before us with an almost utopian politeness. Like toothless infants, we were agape, wide-eyed, and smiling. We snapped happy photos as members of the herd crossed the road in single file and pranced to the green bushes on the other side. When our attention went back to the road, we saw a big spotty gangly thing up ahead with it's head up in a tree shaking up some leaves--GIRAFFE!! We snuck up stealthily making as quiet as possible the buzz of our diesel engine. The giraffe was so interested in the tree leaves that we rolled within a few feet of it virtually unnoticed. When I watched it, a sense of wonder swept through my body; the awe could escape only in the form of tingles on my skin. Like an ancient messenger from a time before humankind, this animal was a reminder of how old and precious life is. It radiated the age of the earth. And when it's legs eased into a slow gait what we witnessed was sheer prehistoric grace.
Rob parked us in Okahuejo next to the visitor center, and then ran off. He had to shit. He probably got the same thing that plagued Natalie that morning. Meanwhile, Nick was at the visitor's desk wowing the staff by speaking in Damara, a native African "click" language. His clicking eloquence granted him, and the rest of our party, Namibian status and therefore, a small discount. Literally, in the sign-in book, under nationality, we got to write down Namibian. When Rob was feeling better he maneuvered the Hilux past some RV's to the campground. There were no people there, just deep puddles. Without too much hesitation, Rob plowed through the water and carefully backed into our campsite. When we got out of the car we saw a trio of wild jackals skulking about the campground. I had seen warning signs about them inside the visitor center. Jackals seem to fit the same "don't-feed-them" niche as bears in the American northeast, except jackals are a little smaller and a little more rabid. Luckily, as Rob and I jammed our tent stakes into the hard soil, a nearby RV site roasted up some meat which lured the jackals away from us pretty much for good.
It was dusk now with dark clouds and loud thunderclaps booming miles away. Nick and Karen were scouting out the watering hole on the far edge of camp hoping to see some elephants. Since it was the wet season, there were plenty of other water sources elsewhere in the park, and thus no thirsty animals were to be seen. So, we all went to the bar. Nick bought us a round and we chatted and relaxed. Then a cell-phone-sized rhino beetle dive-bombed and crashed into our table. It was thrashing on it's back hissing like a mad windup toy. Before I knew what had really happened, Nick flicked the beetle away like a paper football, and our conversation resumed. Minutes later, SMACK! A rhino beetle had effectively bitched-slapped me in the face. Now these beetles had our full attention. We flicked them, flipped them, played table hockey with them, etc. They were humiliated perhaps, but they were not harmed. On the walk back to our campsite the beetles were everywhere, flying, crawling, hissing in the night. They had numbers on us, and there was nothing we could do about it.
After warm showers in the bathhouse (the only warm showers of the trip), we were all refreshed. At our campsite we opened a can of jam and a jar of peanut butter to make sandwiches before bed. Thankfully the jackals did not catch wind of our late dinner. Nick and Karen slept together on a blanket in the back of the Hilux. Rob crawled in the tent and fell asleep within seconds. He snored like a dump truck. I know Rob is naturally predisposed to excessive sleep, but he had been the sole driver of the trip so far and it was definitely taking its toll on him. Also, for Christmas, Rob received a new camera with superior zoom, but he had had few chances to take pictures with it since his hands were always on the steering wheel. So, even though I did not have much experience driving a stickshift, I decided right then that I would do the driving the next day. The enveloping hiss of insects was pierced by the howl of some far-away animal beyond the sturdy perimeter fence. I sighed, put in my foam ear plugs, and went in the tent beside the dump truck. There, lying horizontal on hard African soil, I did my best to pass out.
Friday, February 20, 2009
"Why do you say that?" I asked.
"He's got a hell of a story to tell...when you have story like his, you have to tell it."
The above exchange took place sitting on a balcony at the Craft Centre restaurant in downtown Windhoek, Namibia. Nick had just introduced Rob, Karen, and I to his friend and former Peace Corps housemate, Ian. Some months earlier Ian had told Peace Corps officials he'd be in Malawi for a couple weeks. Three months later, the Corps sent out a hunt for him. When he was found, he was booted from the Corps and given a flight home, which he instantly turned down. Since then, Ian has been a vagabond, traveling by bicycle, sleeping by tent, self-sentenced to wander until achieving spiritual fulfillment. It was merely chance that allowed us these ten kind minutes with the elusive rambler.
I am no Ian by any means, but I do have a story to tell. It starts...
As the plane descended, I observed the dirt roads etched in the expansive grassland below. We touched down just before dusk. Stepping out onto the runway, I peered at the hollow purple sky. It looked like it was going to burst, but it did not. Inside the airport Rob, Karen, and I met our taxi driver, Ellis, who drove us thirty minutes in the dark to Windhoek. Hyped on adrenaline we bombarded him with many questions along the way, and he answered them calmly and unfazed. He dropped us in front of the Cardboard Box hostel for which we had booked a reservation. We clanged through two metal gates and entered the lobby. I plunked my pack down and raised my head up to see a scruffy, long-haired kid leaning in a doorway on the other side of the room. He must have been standing there for a whole minute before we recognized him, but then we hugged the crap out of him for the next three. With Nick, our quartet was formed.
Karen and Nick shared a "shag pad" while Rob and I each filled a spot in a six-bed dorm room. Nick nonchalantly scooped up a seven-inch millipede from our dorm floor to play with, then we paid a visit to the hostel bar. There we sipped draughts and lagers and listened to Nick tell us about his adventures. Nick is easily the best storyteller I know, and his stories provided a much-needed pep talk to get us in the right mindset for our two-week road trip. Soon bedtime came, but it was impossible to sleep because a gaggle of drunk girls was shouting the question "Are we human, or are we dancer?" until at least 4 AM. At about 7 AM, the Dutch couple sleeping in the bunks below Rob and I got up and so did we. Free coffee and pancakes were served, so we had our share. When we were all up and fed Nick led us out into Windhoek, Namibia's capital. The city is hilly with wide roads. The sidewalks are sort of crumbly and the air is sort of dusty. We approached some street vendors for some fatcakes (balls of dough soaked in a bucket of oil) and bought a few. After some errands and a stroll through city centre, it was time for lunch. That's when we met Ian.
Afterwards, we walked over to Hertz to rent a car, but they made it difficult, so we rented from Budget down the street. Then Rob took the driver's seat, a very tough seat to sit in considering the following information: 1) Namibian's drive on the left side of the road, 2) the steering wheel is on the right side of the car, 3) the stickshift is on the left side of the driver's seat, 4) Windhoek's roads are crowded with seemingly reckless drivers 5) it began to rain. Rob's great escape from Windhoek was not flawless, but then we all agree that he deserves some kind of medal of honor. In the next hour or two, our 4WD Toyota Hilux rumbled into the small town of Usakos, Nick's Peace Corps site.
We swung around and parked in his dirt backyard. A girl was on the porch picking at a raw fish in a pan. Nick tended to his green basil garden thriving in the porch shade, out of the Namibian sun. Inside, there were some empty spacious rooms and then there was Nick's, which was full and cozy. We dumped out the goodies from our suitcases onto Nick's bed and he grinned like mad. And when Rob unloaded the holy PlayStation 3, Nick's face lit up like fireworks and he squeezed Rob real tight. Next we went down the road to a little internet cafe to shoot off some emails to our families to let them know we had arrived safely. Then we were joined by Nick's Peace Corps friend, Natalie, who hitched in from the neighboring town of Arandis, known for its excess of uranium, and we were five. Nick showed us the building where he works and walked us around Usakos, which is really no more than a T-intersection.
By early evening we ventured on out of town, over the Khan River bridge (the Khan is just a dry winding sand channel), and up to Nick's friend Carl's place. Carl's family has long driveway with a nice home at the end of it, and a vast piece of open land behind that. As we strolled up, the sky started spitting big rain loogies on us, so we took cover in chairs under a shelter with two walls and roof. Wearing his trademark smile, Carl provided prompt service and was quick to serve a platter of tall glasses filled with orange Fanta. After some soda and chit-chat, the sky cleared. We gazed out on the land, watched the horses grazing down in the field, and admired a rainbow stretching out from behind a mountain in the distance. Moments later, out on the western horizon, a radiant orange sunburst shot through some purple storm clouds. I was pretty much jumping up and down about the glory of the sunset. Soon the sun was down and we were all huddled around Carl's firepit.
In Namibia, they call a barbecue a "brai", and that's what we were having. Carl is an extraordinary brai chef, and he cooked oodles of kabobs, steak, and chicken for us. What a guy! He had the juices seared in real nice and just the right amount of char on them. That combined with the fact that Namibian beef is untainted and grass-fed, this meat was fantastic. We ate and talked on his porch in the massive African night, then, completely satisfied, we threw the bones to Carl's delightful dogs who crunched them up down at our feet. For dessert Carl's mom prepared a thick white pudding-like concoction in a bowl. Carl tried to fool us that it was curdly milk, but when we swigged it down, it was really just a delicious brandy-enhanced milkshake. Carl walked with us back down the road to the Khan River bridge. Each of us shook his hand and thanked him for his generosity and hospitality.
It's a scary thing to walk on the side of the road at night. It's very dark, the vehicles move fast, and not many of the nighttime drivers would pass a sobriety test. Thankfully, we made it back safely to Nick's place. On his laptop we watched a sweet video of him playing marimba at a joint in Capetown over New Year's. Turns out he shlepped two large authentic marimbas hitching his way back from there. I admired them propped up in the corner of the room. Natalie, Rob, and I laid on mattresses on the floor and stayed up late exchanging stories. Natalie did most of the talking. Her Peace Corps tales had us captivated well past 2 AM. After a 15 hour flight, a big switch in timezones, and a poor first night of sleep, there is only one thing we could have been running on: the mystique of Africa.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
I am listening to a psychedelic jam with a bratty singer. Above is a lyric I snagged out from the jam by mere chance, but it really fits the mold of what I want to talk about. "What will you be when you grow up?" It's nice to have a dream (springsteenian rocker), but if you simply can't play the part well enough or you don't receive the necessary luck to get the part, then you gotta be what you oughta be. But how do you know what you oughta be?
A few days ago, I checked out from the library a career help book called "Do What You Are". The premise is that we can't change who we are (our genetic makeup) and therefore we will be happiest and most fulfilled in a career that allows us to be our natural selves. It first helps the reader to narrow down what their personality type is, and then it suggests career matches.
After 3+ hours in the library vacillating back and forth between personality types, I landed on ESFP, Extroverted Sensing Feeling Perceiving. Granted, the personality type descriptions are written like horoscopes so everyone can connect the dots and form make the relationships in their heads, but I did it enough times from enough angles to make it seem justified. The motto for the ESFP type is "Don't worry--be happy." Careerwise, I know it is just one book's opinion, but it's very reassuring to see Environmental Scientist listed under my type. Check out www.personalitytype.com or www.personalitypage.com for more info.
Reading this "Do What You Are" book not only opened up my eyes about who I am, it broadened my clairvoyance about who other people are, what they value, and what their needs are. As the book says, my type has a certain "play ethic". In college, my play ethic was certainly in action, but for many others with different personality types, the play ethic may have seemed immature or frivolous. I have since gained a new perspective about where the "party poopers" were coming from. Playing just wasn't in their personality code.
This play ethic could pose problems for grad school or a job. I can't sit down and execute a task independently for several consecutive hours very well (the GRE test!). I desire human interaction too much. No matter where I end up, a requirement will be interaction with others or working as a part of a team. But I am motivated to tough out some periods of hard-working isolation in order to broaden my opportunity horizon.
Over New Year's, I was kindly given by Ms. Bellin a copy of a book called "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera. It's a clever European romance/philosophy book that's beautifully written. Here's a sexy thoughtful passage from near the beginning:
"The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar to new heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are significant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?"
So far, only a small portion has been philosophy, the rest being the interesting sad story of a promiscuous man and an unstable woman. It's deep though, deeper than I ever normally think about anyway.
As for "weight or lightness?", I think, like with everything, you need a balance. My personality type lends itself to lightness, but lately I've had too much free time. Free time is something many would envy, but I don't like it right now. Not without some substantial weight, work, and activity to balance it out.
I think the American way of life pushes us all to be more burdened than light. It seems that BURDEN=PRODUCTIVITY=MONEY=HAPPINESS=FULFILLMENT....or something like that. But what if you don't desire money or a lot of the things you can buy with it? I need food, friends, sleep, family, nature, clean water, and shelter. Bob Dylan summed it up in some interview for Rolling Stone a while back:
"Happiness to me is just being able to breathe well."
If any of the seven things I mentioned get tampered with, I might not be able to breathe as easily. Oh, and I guess a slimy mucus cold might also tamper with my breathing. Add health in there to make it eight. Also add helping others to acheive those eight. Now THAT would take a lot of work...damn, have I got a lot of work to do!
I can't wait to shake this unbearable lightness.
(try not to read as big gay)