29 August 2012


On the list of Things I'm Going to Miss About Uganda, taken on a recent game drive in Murchison Falls National Park.

On Ending

Things are winding down, and quickly.

I only have twenty-one days until I close my service. I only have seventeen days until I take what I hope will be whittled down to two backpack's worth of stuff and leave Ngora. I'm going to be gone for five days next week to travel to Kampala to take the GRE (and try to make a plan for the rest of my life) and attended our All-Vol conference in Masaka, where I'll see most everyone here for the last time, so when you take those days out of the equation, I only have twelve days left in Ngora.

I was wondering, ever since early July when I got my official COS date, when it was going to hit me that 1: I've been here for two years, a long time, it seems, and 2: I'm leaving the place I've lived and the people I've gotten to know for the last two years, possibly forever, and 3: I'm going to have to grow up now, be a real adult, pay bills (a couple weeks ago I had to pay a credit card bill for the first time in two years, a good reminder that I'm leaving Africa), buy furniture, rent an apartment (or secure a couch to sleep on for a while), and get a job (or go back to school and put everything off for another two years, until I'm --yikes-- thirty).

I don't know if it has fully hit me yet, but the hitting has certainly started. If it's possible to feel nostalgic for something that hasn't faded into the past yet, then I'm becoming nostalgic for my Peace Corps experience, Ngora, and Uganda. I'll be doing something in town or traveling with friends or whatever, and I'll realize that I won't be able to do any of those things in a few weeks, and it's kind of sad, certainly bittersweet. But then, one or more of the same old annoying and frustrating things that have been around for the last two years will happen again, or I'll be sitting at my organization with no work to do, having wound down basically all of my projects, and just be crushingly bored (I can only study for the GRE for so many hours in a day, and I think I've realized my limit is five), and I find that I can't wait to get out of this country. Even with those annoying and frustrating things still happening on as regular a basis as they ever have, though, everything's started to have that hazy glow that good memories always seem to be tinged with, all soft lighting and a gauzy white border around it all, like a flashback in a made-for-TV movie. I am going to miss this. At the same time, I think it's a good time for me to end my service and leave Uganda. A surprising number of PCVs grow increasingly cynical and jaded over the course of two years in a developing country (assuming this happens to volunteers in countries other than just Uganda, and sometimes it doesn't even take two years). I understand that: I have my moments of cynicism and frustration that borders on bitterness. The inefficiencies of daily life here --the transportation difficulties, the potholes, the empty hours spent waiting for things to happen-- combine with the often-unmet enthusiasm for doing work, the desire to make a difference, and the desire to have a good experience, and the frustration of all of those quotidian difficulties and often-outlet-less enthusiasm is compounded by the constant, unsolicited attention --the stares, the "Muzungu!"s, the requests for money or plane tickets to America or whatever else-- and it gets to you. It gets to some people more than others, but it gets to everyone at least a little bit. I haven't yet reached that stage of jadedness where I hate Uganda, hate living here, and --like some people-- hate Ugandans. That's why it's probably a good time for me to go. I can leave having done some good work, having made some amazing friends, and still liking the fact that I live in a tiny town barely on the map of Uganda. I can leave and have good memories already shrouded in the warm glow of nostalgia that far outweigh any negative experiences I have had, and that will grow to further outweigh the negative experiences as time passes and I get further and further away (temporally) from Uganda. I'm happy to be leaving while I'm still happy to be here. If that makes sense.

Thing I'm Going to Miss About Uganda #43:
I was in a private hire taxi with a couple friends last weekend when we stopped in a small freeway town between Jinja and Iganga. We were dropping someone off so she could go back to her site, and our driver was buying some gonja (roasted bananas, not to be confused with ganja). There were food and drink vendors clustered around the car -- kids selling bottles of soda and water from cardboard boxes, women selling plastic bags of g-nuts. A few younger men were selling roasted chicken, wings and breasts skewered on eighteen-inch-long sticks. I had a weird thought, and laughed to myself, and then asked everyone what I'd just started wondering: "Do you think one of these guys would sell me some chicken if I told him that he had to hold the stick while I ate it, hands-free?" We laughed: "Probably." I realized, then, that I'm going to miss this about Uganda: Possibilities are sort of endless. The possibility that something will go wrong, like when traveling for example, breakdowns or delays or whatever; and the flip-side, the possibility of weirdly hilarious things happening. Both of these possibilities are infinitely higher here than they are in the States, but it's the latter that I think I'm going to miss. I'm going to miss being able to make those weird jokes and have them actually be funny because they're actually possible. I'm about 70% sure that I could have bought chicken and eaten it while the guy held the stick. If I tried that in the States, like, say I was at a Mariners' game and wanted some Shish-ka-berries --the insanely priced chocolate-covered strawberries on a stick-- but asked the vendor to hold the stick while I ate them, no one would laugh, and the vendor would probably just say, #$%^& you, freak, and walk away. Maybe my sense of humor has just adapted to Uganda, but I'm kind of worried that things will be a little less funny, little more boring, in the States, simply because those bizarre and potentially (awkwardly) hilarious things just aren't nearly as possible there. (Then again, maybe I've just gotten so weird after two years in the bush that I, and my friends who've also spent two years in the bush, don't know what's funny to normal people anymore. That's also a possibility.)

Thing I'm Going to Miss About Uganda #12:
Riding my bike and having to swerve and weave my way through herds of cattle, seven or eight up to forty or forty-five strong, humps on their backs like fatty shark fins, horns just a foot or two away from gouging my thigh or getting stuck in the spokes of my bike. This will not happen in the States.

Thing I'm Going to Miss About Uganda #183:
The bus I was on today was delayed by fifteen minutes, at least, so that a group of seven grown men could chase down a fleeing chicken that wanting nothing less than to be caught, leading them on a wild chicken chase around in circles until they finally corralled it, tied its legs together, and tossed it in the storage area underneath the bus. This will also not happen in the States.

That's all for now. Just trying to reflect on ending and leaving. If I come up with anything more profound, I'll be sure to try to articulate it. But I might not. Actually leaving and going back and being in the States for some time will surely affect how I feel about this whole experience, so who knows?

01 August 2012

Just Another Day at the Saloon

I was in Jinja the other day to meet some friends and important people in their lives that I'd not met yet. I wanted to look my best, naturally. Since I'd been out of water for several days and had literally no clean clothes, I decided the only way to look somewhat presentable was with a haircut and, since my beard trimmer broke several months ago and my beard was reaching near-Amish lengths, a shave.

I got the 4:30am bus that comes through town, hoping that the work that had been done on the Mbale-Soroti highway over the past few weeks – filling in potholes, flattening, paving: it's now more or less filled in and flattened all the way up to Kumi and paved about halfway up, which made the worst highway in Uganda, by far, slightly less worst – would make for a smoother ride and more sleep. It didn't. But at least they weren't blasting traditional Ugandan music, like last time I'd taken the early bus. I was able to catch a few minutes of sleep once we got out of Mbale and hit solid tarmac, and the bus got me to Jinja around 8:45, plenty of day left to clean myself up. So I checked into a hotel – The Crystal Palace, which sounds like it's named after a David Bowie movie, and is not as fancy as it sounds – and headed out to find a barber.

I walked past a few signs for, as they call them here, saloons, but they all pointed down alleys off the street, and I thought I could do better. After about ten minutes of walking, I realized that no, I probably couldn't. I passed another sign pointing down another alleyway and decided that was the one: A large mural of a barber giving a haircut was on the outside wall; they'd at least put that much effort into their shop, so they must be at least that much committed to their craft.

They didn't seem surprised to see a muzungu walk into their shop at nine in the morning, which I took to be a good sign, and both barbers were hard at work on haircuts already, which I took to be another good sign. The fact that they were both hard at work on Ugandan guys was beside the point.

When one of the barbers finished and his barbee – what's the word for the one getting a haircut? – paid, he went to slap me on the knee, sort of missed and slapped my inner thigh instead, was unfazed by the contact his hand had just made with my inner leg – “Yes, big man! How are you?” – gave me an enthusiastic high-five/handshake and told me I was next.

I sat down in the chair and explained what I wanted him to do – don't cut the top at all, just buzz the back and the sides – feeling confident because how hard could that be?

Very hard, apparently, and what followed was the strangest haircut experience I've ever had.

(Despite the fact that I once got an accidental and terrible buzzcut at a random barber shop, they usually do a pretty good job, and so I keep going back, rather than waiting til I'm in Kampala and paying 10x the price for someone who I know knows how to cut my hair.)

He began with fire. That's not a metaphor for his enthusiasm. He actually lit a small fire on the wood counter. “Some people don't do this,” he told me, as he held the clippers over the fire to sanitize them. “You don't say,” I said, my confidence going up in flames. After that, it quickly became obvious I was his first muzungu haircut.

He started to go at my head with the newly sanitized clippers, and with difficulty. He was going down, with the direction of my hair, and the effect was not what he seemed to hope it would be: In that direction, he literally wasn't cutting any of my hair. Discouraged, he grabbed a pair of scissors instead. My confidence came back a little bit: Usually these places don't even have scissors, let alone know how to use them.

He sized up the back of my head for a minute and then went at it with the scissors. However, instead of, as barbers do when they know how to cut white hair, holding a bit of hair between his fingers on one hand to measure it out while cutting with the scissors in the other hand, he just went for it – free-style, free-hand.

After two sizable cuts, I decided that was not going to end well – a couple weeks ago, we had given Nick a haircut and had quickly found out how hard it is to give good haircuts with scissors – and told him so before he could do any serious damage. “I think maybe the clippers will be better,” I said. He didn't miss a beat – how many chunks had he already taken out of my head? – before readily agreeing, “Yes, I think so,” and putting the scissors away.

The next thirty minutes: he figured out that going up with the clippers was better than going down; he still went down with them the majority of the time; he marveled at the fact – “So you will see a white man cutting hair??” – that we had barbers in America; he told me that, since I was from the United States, I was a son of Obama, and that since I was living in Uganda, I was also a son of Museveni; he marveled at the texture of my hair – “Eh! Your hair is smoooooth!” – and I decided not to tell him that it was because I'd been out of water for a few days and it was just greasy; at one point, he spent a good thirty seconds going over my face with the clippers, underneath my eyes, where there isn't any hair; a large Muslim man walked into the shop, removed his shirt, and left again (Ramadan fasting going to his head, possibly); and it became rather clear that, in his admirable attempt not to do a really terrible job on my hair, he just wasn't going to cut very much off so I told him that it looked fine and we gave up and moved on to the beard; this presented him with an even greater level of difficulty; there was a lot of baby powder involved; I spent a good two minutes trying to convince him to literally just shave it all off; then I just took the clippers and did it myself; finished, there were then four different types of lotion rubbed all over my face, and a good five minutes of face-massaging; then he asked me if I knew Nick, and I briefly wondered if this whole thing wasn't some kind of payback for the hack-job we'd done on his hair the week before, impressed with his planning and how he knew that I'd go into that particular shop at that time (giving him more credit than he was due: You just can't plan these sorts of experiences; he had no idea who I was talking about... allegedly).

Finally, I was able to extricate myself from the chair and his lotion-covered hands, paid and thanked him for his time, realized that we'd had an audience of four women and two men for the entire experience, waved at them, and left, my hair looking almost exactly the same as it had when I'd walked in an hour earlier. At least I got my beard trimmed.

All of that brings me to this: We had our Close of Service Conference a few weeks ago, and I officially end my Peace Corps service on September 20. Two years has flown by – “Someone was playing with the clocks, and not only with the electric clocks, but with the wind-up kind, too. The second hand on my watch would twitch once, and a year would pass, and then it would twitch again.” Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five – and now with only seven weeks left, I've started to realize some of the random little things that I'll miss about living in Uganda.

Thing I'll Miss About Living In Uganda #134: The kinds of experiences you only get when you get your hair cut in a random back-alley saloon.