Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Now means now

I once took a class that focused on the social construction of time, basically discussing how open ended time really was depending on cultural interpretation. While interesting, I never really connected with its ideas until I experienced them on a tangible, emotional level. I say emotional because when someone is late--or god forbid when I am running late--the response is visceral. Being late is bad.

We say that we are on Mozambican time here. We are finally getting used to it, or at least expecting it, after a few months in the country. Yesterday I was told we'd play basketball at 2:00, and we didn't start until 3:15. A part of me wanted to be livid, but the rules just aren't the same here, and patience as they say is a virtue.

The most telling difference is the word "agora." Agora means 'now.' No bones about it, look it up in the dictionary, the word means 'now.' So when I ask my host brother if he's ready to leave and he says "sim, agora" and I wait for him as he chases Caozinho around I am in disbelief. How rude! How inconsiderate! 'Now' is one of the most unambiguous words in the history of words.

I've discussed this with my fellow PCVs (that's Peace Corps Volunteers to you citizens) and we've all experienced frustration with the word "now". There's even variations on "agora." We have "agora mesma", loosely 'right now.' We have "de aqui a nada" or "de aqui a poco", which can mean anything from 'right away' to 'right this very second' to some other vaguely nowish time.

Despite these words I remained confused. I was leaving for the local hang out spot to catch up with some friends, I ran into my host mom along the way and told her I'd be back soon. She said, "No, we say I'll be back agora, or de aqui a nada." But I wasn't coming back now, I was coming back soon. Aha! Agora really doesn't mean now! I'd been lied to. This means war.

Surprise, surprise, it turns out to be a little more complicated than that. The concept of "now", as evidenced by the very words in their lexicon (the ones that express ideas, thoughts, feelings…) are wishy-washy on this whole "now" thing. It's not because they are all a bunch of lazy scallywags, its because they experience time a little differently.

In the states we feel time as a precise and pressurized thing. I absolutely despise being late. More metaphorically, time Is constantly chasing us down. Here it is less confining. That isn't to say that the way we (United States) view time is necessarily negative, it allows us to fit more into our day and maintain a tighter order on things. But equally it doesn't mean that Mozambicans are a bunch of lazies that never get anything done--on the contrary what a Mozambican mother can do in a day is at times staggering. It's just a little different.

I manage to convey "now" by leaping up and down, pointing at my feet and shouting "THIS SECOND, THIS EXACT MOMENT" in Portuguese.

Anyways a week and a half at site, and things are going pretty good. I've cleaned out my house and am planning to paint it. I've been meeting people everywhere, playing volleyball, getting to know my town. In moments of boredom or loneliness I walk outside and look at the ocean, and that pretty much solves it right there.

Three days until Christmas, I have been attending the nightly masses, and heard "Silent Night" in Portuguese. But myboy Bing Crosby does it better. I've been blasting it on my computer all day.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Holidays in Mozambique

I wake up and brush away my mosquito net. I walk outside feeling refreshed after a full night's sleep. It's seven am, I've woken up late by Mozambican standards. The Indian Ocean is just a block away. I look out over the endless bluegreen water. I feel the soft white sand under my feet. As the warm breeze passes over me I feel a stirring deep inside me…

Diarrhea, I tell myself, is normal.

I walk resignedly back to the bathroom to give my daily offering. The food, the transition, is doing a number on my intestines. But by this time the number is a familiar one, however that sounds. A wasp flies into my bathroom and I leap up from the toilet in a panic with my shorts still around my ankles. Unfortunately that's normal too.

My house is concrete with a metal roof, I have a sink, and outside a bathroom. I have running cold water and a little electricity. The walls are hideously painted by the former volunteer who lived here, but I can fix that. I live on a Catholic mission. My neighbors are two priests, a couple of seminarians, a few nuns…sounds like high school.

I have to remind myself constantly that what I am going through is normal. I'm in a brand new place on the other side of the world. My Portuguese gradually improves, but much to my dismay in the streets here they speak Shi-tswa, the local Bantu language. In some moments I feel like I can speak great, and others I feel discouraged and worried that I'll never really catch up. But that's normal.

I take a barefoot run along the beach. The sand is soft and perfect for jogging. As I run down the beach I hit the point where I feel invincible and pick up the pace. A gaggle of Mozambican boys stares at me as I run past. I give them a big thumbs up and a smile, and I am happy to see them laugh and wave. Taking my eyes off the beach causes me to trip on a mound of sand and I fall flat on my face with a WUMP. I stand up dazed, trying to figure out what the hell just happened, covered in sand. The boys are laughing to tears. Seeing no alternative I give them another thumbs up and keep going. Two years, I remind myself, I have two years to get this right.

I sit down after my run and enjoy the endorphin high. I take deep breaths and let my mind wander. I smile to myself remembering a joke my little brother made (one of those ridiculously innappropriate ones that I will take to my grave). I tell everyone I meet that he's the funniest person I know.

I worry a little about Christmas. I know that I won't be opening presents in my living room surrounded by my family, anxiously awaiting my turn to tear the wrapping to shreds in anticipation. It won't be cold, there will be no lights and no ornamented trees--but I do have a solid collection of Bing Crosby's Christmas on my ipod (Hawain Christmas!). It might be a lonely night, but hey, that's normal. And I'll be fine.

The beans are almost done. I decide to take a shower before I take them off the heat. I remind myself that living on the beach, thousands of miles from home, amongst total strangers, for two years, is not normal. I feel good about what I am doing, though I am confused as to how exactly I should do it at this point. While I was an orientation counselor one of my freshman described me as one of the most "adventurous men she had ever known". Say that in my eulogy, baby, and my family will laugh you out of the building.

I look over the Indian Ocean and remember how far away I am. I miss my father's voice, I miss my mom. I look around and try to think about what my brother would think about all this. My longing for my family and for my home is too normal to wax poetic. Thinking of them every day is too predictable to be interesting. But I miss them just the same.

Normal? HA!

PS I have a mailing address now! I can't post it online due to Peace Corps regulations, but email me and I'll send it no problem. And then you'll send me candy!

PPS I saw Courtney today! I'll post her guest appearance...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Stardate 2301: Carry your Papers

I've haven't updated my blog in a while because the one available internet connection in my village went down. TIA etc.

This morning I woke up to screaming. Adrenaline crashed into my sleepy haize, is that a person?! I quickly realized it wasn't. But what else could be making that noise...Caozinho!

I leapt out of bed and ran into the backyard in my bozers and sandals. There was caozinho, my family's three month old, completely adorable watery eyed puppy surrounded by the same roosters that wake me up at three every morning. Caozinho was in trouble. And I hate those damn roosters.

LEAVE HIM ALONE!! Was my mighty battle cry as I sprinted across the yard. A few swift kicks and insults and the roosters were gone. Caozinho graciously licked my feet with his tiny tongue, and I remembered why I joined the Peace Corps: to be a hero. God Bless America.

Then I looked up to find my mozambican mother staring bewildered at me. She laughed about this the rest of the day. Caozinho follows me everywhere now.

Yes, Moz life as they say is almost in full swing. I say almost because next week I am leaving for my site after three months of intensive training. I'll be working at a Dominican Mission two hundreds yards from the beach. It means I'll have a house of my own, a mailing address for people to send me letters and candy (HINT SEND ME CANDY HINT). It means I'll finally be out on my own surrounded by people who don't speak english, expected to improve their lives in some way. But seriously send me candy.

Ok, a quick story. We'll call it "The Scariest Thing that has Ever Happened to Colin" or "Why Colin Recommends Carrying a Spare pair of Underpants At All Times".

So a group of us Peace Corps Trainees went to the capital city, Maputo, to buy things and enjoy th bustle of city life. It's the holidays here too, so there are more tourists, more street vendors etc. After a two hour ride crammed in a chapa I was eager to see what the city had for me. Ice cream? Dare I wish for a milkshake?

About half an hour in I am walking down the street when a police officer stops me on the street. He's asking for my papers. He has an AK-47 (it's literally on the Mozambican flag). I'm only to happy to oblige.

Except that much to my dismay I do not have my papers. I had taken them out the day before because they had gotten wet.

Right about then, me wishing I had a spare pair of boxers, the officer informed me that I would be placed under arrest, taken to the jailhouse, and that I would be turned over to immigration in two days. I pulled out my phone and called my boss, she picked up thank God, and I explained my situation. "Oh shit" she helpfully advised. And then, "Ok, give him the phone."

Not about my boss. She's a six foot, extremely fashionable, well educated Mozambican badass. The cop, as smug as he was when he knew he had me, handed me the phone back eyes downcast. My boss simply said, "Walk away now, get on a Chapa and get out of Maputo." Ten four, captain! I made a beeline for the chapas without hesitation

One hundred yards later I was stopped by another police officer. Need I say that having a spare SPARE pair of boxers would have been nice. But this one seemed a little more interested in me "helping him buy something for his boss." Hmmmm...I called my boss again. She sent a car that picked me up and wisked me away.

Never, never, NEVER walk around in a foreign country without your passport. To say that it was my fault is an understatement. It was like SUPER my fault, a mistake I will never make again. When I got back to my host village the relief I felt was palpable. The feeling of refuge reminded me how much I love my village, and am sad to leave it.

Onwards and upwards.

PS I can read emails but often can't respond, and I've been told that I'll have more available internet at site!

PPS Write me! Send me candy! I'd give one of my kidneys for a twix bar...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Chapter one million: Just another manic monday.

And training marches on. Ten weeks of intensive Portuguese lessons, teacher training, and Moz culture. Currently active volunteers are here a week at a time to assist in the training process and give us a picture of what being a volunteer is really like. My day begins...

At 5:30 when I wake up. For the most part I get plenty of sleep here. I wake up under my mosquito net, slip on my sandles and take my bucket shower. I have an indoor bathroom and my host mom heats up the water over the fire for me, so I have it pretty good. Breakfast is bread and tea for the most part, but go me I've convinced them to let me make eggs and I even get milk sometimes. I'm awesome. I get my semi-formal clothes on for training, knock my shoe on the ground (occasionally a scorpion falls out, at which point I scream like a school girl as I smash it with my shoe). And I'm out the door as my mother calls after me to iron my clothes.

On my way to training another volunteer jogs by and flashes a peace sign as two little boys in their school uniforms chase him laughing. When greeted by my good morning they either stare at me in terror or burst out laughing.

The day begins and ends with language training. My language teacher is an absolutely absurd 20 something named Vanilza, whose graphic depictions of diarrhea, sex, and other rarities along with her ludicrously excited responses when we get something right make it a blast. The other day while demonstrating a game akin to dodgeball (don't ask) she pegged me and laughed wickedly. She is slowly getting used to my sarcasm.

From ten to two we have "tech" sessions, wherein we learn the nitty gritty about being a teacher in Mozambique. We've had sessions on how to teach english, certainly, but others on cheating and corruption. The picture we've gotten of the situation looks tough. Cheating is rampant, corruption is too, and we all have to brace ourselves for corporal punishment which is still accepted among some circles.

We learn too about the AIDs situation in the country. We learn about literacy (about 30% among women). We learn about the NGO network in country. Another session was a brief history of the country. Lately we've been giving practice lessons. The biology and chemistry volunteers occassionally skip out on their sessions to see my lessons, which one volunteer described to me as being a "cracked out Mr. Rogers." Which I think oddly suits me.

For the most part at the end of the day I'm exhausted, but that won't save me from my six year old host brother Lay (pronounced "lie") who pesters me until we play his games. He cheats constantly, the little devil, and is wary of explaining too much to me for fear I might beat him. Mostly I just chase him around threatening to devour him until he gets too tired and I tickle him until he can't breathe. "OH GOD IT HURTS" he scream in Portuguese until I stop, when he harangs me "didn't hurt! didn't hurt!" By the end he is wiped out. The other day he fell asleep in his rice at the table.

As dinner is being made I often hold the eight month old baby (else Lay might get his insane little mits on him), whose only desires seems to be to jam his fingers into my mouth or pull the table cloth off the table. I fend off the cat who eyes the baby hungrily. My family laughs at my inability to understand them, but I still manage to get my strange humor across.

I smash as many cockroaches as I can on my way from my second bath to bed (there's no skipping that second bath, god knows i've tried). There is nothing in the entire world like the sound of a cockroach being stepped on.

I read two or three lines in the Omnivores Dilemma before the book falls on my face and I'm out by 9:30.

Life is good.

Tomorrow I leave for a beach town on the coast to see, you guessed it, Courtney Alev. A five day vacation on what is proported to be the most beautiful beach on the Indian Ocean. Despite the ten hour bus ride, I am psyched. The volunteer I'm staying with even has hot running water, and has offered to feed us and hold us up for free. And again, life is good.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Chapter 4: Garbage cans much?

In the US everyone wants somewhere to put their garbage, but no one wants a landfill in their backyard. Understandable. Stagnant trash and waste smells awful and renders the soil inert to new growth.

In Mozambique there are no landfills, so everyone has one in their backyard. It's either buried in holes as far from the house as one can manage, or it is burned. We can all imagine the acrid smell of burning plastic from when we threw a little piece onto the campfire. Now magnify that 30x.

There are no social services for these people, so what other option do they have? Even in the places where there are public garbage programs they often simply will not come at all. They have to get rid of it, they certainly can't bury it in their neighbor's yard, or haul it a mile into the wilderness every week. It leaves only one reluctant alternative.

Their predicament is assuaged by the fact that Mozambicans generate a fraction of the waste that we do. But a little burning plastic goes a long way.

It's a huge problem on the continent that merits serious consideration. And undoubtedly there are at least a few NGOs targeting the problem. But like a former volunteer said, "I went to Nepal to work on woman's rights. But all the women wanted to talk about was their crops. They didn't want to talk about women's rights, they wanted to make sure they had enough food to eat." And I don't blame them.

I find out about my site on Thanksgiving day. Lord knows where I'll end up. Next week we travel throughout the country to visit the sites of current volunteers. It's a reminder of how very temporary this training is.

My old friend Jamie talked about seeing a For Sale sign on my house's front lawn in Sacramento. Whoa.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Chapter 3: Milungu

I have no idea how you spell it, but "Milungu" is what the locals call it. It's the word for "white foreigner" in the local language, Changane. It sounds like a racial slur when they shout it at you on the street, but I have been assured by several Mozambicans that it isn't. And we are the Milungus, the talk of the town.

Or just the travelling freak show. Oh, how they stare. You get used to having every single Mozambican you pass stare at you (which in the village is a lot). What I am not getting used to is the random, ridiculously juvenile outbursts spewed at us by groups of young dudes. Their banal comments and foolishness only serve to remind me that yes, young dudes are stupid here just like they are in the states.

The thing is: Mozambicans are really just nice. Almost everyone you pass gives you a "goodafternoon" or at least a friendly nod. Young men my age most often give me the thumbs up and say only "It's all good" in Portuguese as they pass. If you look lost for even a moment they stop to help. And even the comments that may seem rude you quickly learn are just mishandled attempts to reach out. We are weird and new here, after all. And if you play along and turn their weird interjection into a friendly joke they almost always respond well.

The kids love me. Little boys here, just as in the states, just want you to chase them. And I do. I threaten to devour them as I chase them screaming down the streets. My six year old brother and I have become fast friends. He even let me cut his hair (which I might add went disastrously for the little bugger, but I gave him Nerds and he was appeased).

My portuguese is bad. But the thing is so is the Portuguese of a lot of the residents, who prefer the local language to the national one. It can make for some awkward moments. I tried to say that I forgot something, but as I tapped myself on the forehead to demonstrate they thought I was saying that I had burned my face. The words are really close ok give me a break.

I even went to a mass, conducted in Changane (and translated into Portuguese for the four Milungus present). Though for the most part a little slow, the singing is powerful. As I stood there listening to the words I couldn't understand I was overcome. I was embarassed by my reaction but one of the Mozambicans saw me and forced me to join a dance. And I did not represent America well. I think I stepped on an old lady.

I miss Mexican food, microwaves, my brother, being able to pet dogs, flushing toilets, not dealing with giant spiders, and being able to talk to people. But all in all, things are pretty damn good right now.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Chapter 2: I doubt it was something I DIDN'T eat

My great aunt has always said that the two worst things in the world are nausea and loneliness.

Yesterday I woke up at 2 am and couldn't get back to sleep before my wake up time of 5:30. It was just one of those things, no reason for it that I could see. But it was all it took for me to get sick. A few hours later I was sharing my lunch with the toilet, the greedy bastard. My host mother mentioned that it was probably because I didn't eat enough for dinner. I refrained from blaming her cooking for the rock concert in my intestines.

As far as illness goes, it has been fairly mild. I've had much worse back in the states. But there's nothing like being ill to make you homesick. I called my mom, and felt my first real pangs of being away.

But my family here has been great. They made me soup (which the greedy toilet also stole from me), and they are currently making me my favorite dish. Their concern lead them to knock on my door at 5am, and again at 6, and again at 6:30. When I tried to explain that I should probably sleep, they explained that I should probably eat, and my mom sat next to me and watched me (grinning sweetly) until I ate what she thought was an appropriate amount of soup. Two ibuprofens later I was sleeping again, and feeling better already.

And I'm mostly over it now, only a day of feeling under the weather is not bad at all. My friend stopped by with candy and a hard drive full of movies, which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I watched American History X. I probably should have just watched Family Guy like all the normal kids.

A word on food: carbs. Carbs carbs carbs. White rice, fried potato, xima (pronounced sheema) which is essentially corn mash. This has the effect of making all the guys skinnier and all the women fatter, or so we've been told by all the Volunteers we have spoken to so far. It is a slow quest to explain to my family that I want more vegetables, fruit and meats. My family has been receptive, however.

Now I get eggs in the morning sometimes (bathed, soaked, lathered in oil), more fish, and the fruits that are in season, which these days are apples, bananas, and papaya. The bananas are small and appear overripe, but are delicious--a sharp contrast to the ginormous, yellow mutant bananas in the Westwood Ralph's. Papaya does a number on your gag reflex until you get used to it.

My most recent campaign has been my most important: peanut butter, of which there is only one brand, "Black Cat," which my family thought the substance was actually called. I now get it almost every meal. God bless America.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Chapter one: If you don't know something, you can't just google it, you have to just not know it

Where could I possibly begin?

I have a toilet. I'm lucky too, most of the Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) with me poo in holes in the ground in dark outhouses (imagine doing this at night). It doesn't flush, but it's pearly shine is something to be appreciated in Mozambique, and rest assured I do.

I shower out of a bucket, pouring water over my head with a cup. I sleep under a mosquito net. We have running water one day a week, and if it doesn't rain not even that much. I live with a Mozambican woman and her family who shares the property with the husband's second wife, and the husband died years ago.

My family? Elisa is the matriarch. She is a big, boisterous, happy lady. She is wonderful with me, but doesn't cut me too much slack. At 5:30 am last week she knocks on my door. I open it bleary eyed and confused. She hands me a broom and says "clean your room" and walks off. The next day I return from class. "You are smelly," she says, "you should take a bath before dinner." Aah, mothers. They're all the same really. It's comforting.

The eldest daughter in the house Melita is 26 and has a 6 year old son. Lotina is the next and she has an eight month old, add to that the kids from the second wife, and the various other children whom I don't know at all running in and out of our house. The kids spent the first week squealing and running away every time they saw me, and now they won't leave me alone unless I pick them and flip them over and over and over and over. "Mais! Uma mais!" they scream. But I'm a sucker for kids.

My portuguese? Terrible. It's a lot of dumbfounded looks and drooling. It has improved hugely in this first week, but I still can't really speak in the past tense, which as it turns out is kind of a big deal.

Am I happy? It's a crazy time for me. The jet lag was epic. The food did its predictable tap dance through my digestive system. I don't really speak the language. The days are busy. From what I can tell my task is daunting, to teach a class of between 60-100 students who speak a language that I don't yet know.

I had a dream that I was about to leave for the Peace Corps, and I was afraid and in tears, full of fear and regret. But when I woke up and looked around my room (well, mostly just my mosquito net) I realized that I want this more than I have wanted anything in my life up to this point.

I'm still adjusting, I miss a lot of things. I miss being able to google stuff. I miss my friends, sure, I miss my family. But I'm learning the guitar, I am learning a new language, and hey I even have a toilet.

Damn, this has been the longest two weeks of my life.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


So many goodbyes. It was a numbing week. It's true that most of these goodbyes are people I wouldn't see anyway, even if I had been living and working in LA. The goodbyes drown me in memory. They remind me of all the things I've done, and the so many mistakes I've made. If I could say just one thing to the sea of faces that have compromised my life up to this point, I'd say...

Big gulps huh? Welp, see ya later!

I'm sitting in a nice hotel in Philly (beautiful city, pity I can't see more of her) pretending to listen as my roommate brags about memorizing everyone's name already. I am thinking to myself: whose bright idea was this anyway? What is Mozambique going to do to my bowels? Are hippos really that fast?

The answer to all these questions is yes. And it's with that realization that I go boldly forth to the next great adventure. It is a funny idea, to absolutely know you are on the cusp of something momentous and challenging and not being able to do anything other than wait. So like any good college student...er...like any good starving recent grad, I went out with a few of the other volunteers for beers. I had a beef burger with blue cheese, caramelized onions, and bacon. I crammed my face with french fries and microbrewed IPA and thought as little as possible. So far so good.

Tomorrow I get on a bus to JFK then a plane to Johannesburg and another to Maputo, for the longest trip of my life. But they gave me an allowance, paid for by American tax dollars, and I am going to blow it all on lottery tickets and japanese candy. And that's all right for now.

They gave us as much information as they could today, and still I fell that I know almost nothing. Tomorrow will be a different story.

The Peace Corps will be monitoring my blog, as will my grandparents, so I am going to have to keep it clean unfortunately. But rest assured, if you send me a message and want to know what the bathrooms are really like, you know I'll be only too happy to oblige.