Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Exit Strategy

T-minus 36 hours until I leave Tanzania.  Tomorrow, I'll be wrapping up the last of the loose ends, signing out of the Peace Corps system, and officially receiving my "R" (as in "RPCV", or "returned peace corps volunteer").  The dream is finally over.

Well, mostly over.  Just because I'm leaving TZ doesn't mean I have to go straight home to America.

And, naturally, I won't be: over the next two months, I'll be teaming up with a few friends and taking the circuitous route home... that is, I'll be taking the really, really circuitous route home, across two continents and six countries.  It's a blatant attempt to temporarily postpone the inexorable (and rapidly forthcoming) ass-whooping that will come with going back to America, going back to school, and applying to graduate institutions.  If I can spend eight weeks in a land of make-believe where I don't have any real-life obligations and can just gallivant around the globe pretending that nothing I do has any consequences, then I'll take it.

Thus, I present to you the itinerary for the months-in-planning, soon-to-be-epic "Paul and Ezra's Manly Trip for Attractive People (But You Can Come, Too!)":

1. Fly into Istanbul in mid-March 2013.

2. ~1 week spent in Turkey: see Turkish stuff. Get fat on baklava and participate in a Turkish oil wrestling tournament.

3. Flight from Istanbul to Odessa, across the Black Sea. Start looking at Ukrainian stuff.

4. ~1 week in Ukraine: Odessa, Kiev, Pripyat (Chernobyl). Shoot AKs wildly into the air while getting radiation poisoning.

5. Flight to Moscow, Russia. Purchase Trans-Siberian Express tickets to Ulaanbataar, Mongolia. Drink heavily to celebrate.

6. ~1 week on the train, via Irkutsk. See Siberia, freeze our asses off.  Lose one of our members to a KGB hit squad.

7. ~1 week in Mongolia. Stay in a ger, get lost in the Gobi Desert. Subsist on nothing but dessicated mutton strips, fermented mare's milk, and yak's blood for the duration.

8. Flight from Mongolia to Hong Kong. See Chinese stuff. Invest in an ultra-capitalist, quasi-legal get-rich-quick scheme. Also wash off 6 weeks of accumulated filth. Buy kickass suits.

9. Flight from Hong Kong to Thailand.  Enter a back-alley Muay Thai competition and get our asses beat.  Observe the Bangkok nightlife and come back scarred for life.

10. Return to America in mid-May.  Not as boys, but men.

Of course, all of this is subject to change, seeing as we don't really know what we're doing. Regardless, I'll be doing my best to keep posting updates of all our shenanigans/tomfoolery in the upcoming weeks.

Stay tuned!

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Twilight of Service

So this is it.  My 30th and final month in country.  Time flies.

For those of you who’ve read the earlier posts, you know that I’ve extended my standard two-year contract to finish up with my Form VI curriculum, and this still holds true: I’ll technically be officially closing my service in mid-March, and, as I write this, my Form VI kids have already begun leaving school (my Form V students, however, will be finishing their term in May due to a last-minute change by the Ministry… oops).  Regardless, most of my March time will be spent traveling with family and going through all the standard check-out procedures, and so I wouldn’t really count it as service.  This month, February, will be my last month at site, and I will be leaving Songea forever (or at least for the foreseeable future) in less than a week.  It’s kind of crazy to think about.

So, as with the end of all two-years-of-my-life-down-the-drain experiences, I am now faced with the obligatory existential quandaries that often haunt the COS-ing Peace Corps volunteer: Where am I in my life now?  Have two years in service changed me as a person?  Have I been faithfully upholding the three goals of Peace Corps?  Have I been particularly helpful or useful to my coworkers or students?  Did I empower my students to succeed in life and become productive members of society?  Have I actually made a difference here?

My succinct, holistic, and entirely unsatisfying answer to these questions: Eh… maybe.

I dunno… It’s tough to really put a finger on what you do here in Peace Corps Tanzania.  You show up to work, you teach people, you make connections, you forge friendships, you set up projects, you try to be helpful wherever you can, you try to embrace the local culture while subtly injecting some of your own, you try to make everything you’ve created in the past two years somewhat sustainable after you’re finished… but, in the end, the effects and rewards of your work are all kind of a toss-up.  I know one volunteer who was all about starting new projects in her village (and I have the crumbly bars of soap to prove it), and while I’m sure her villagers appreciated her efforts at the time, they still largely remember her as the mzungu who once carried her dog in her arms like a baby.  I know another guy who was a good volunteer in his village, but he’s now much more remembered as the “guy who could drink a lot” than the “guy who introduced reforestry and irrigation as viable means of income generation.”  What you do here and what you’re remembered for (and, by extension, how long your legacy lasts after you leave) are often different things, and it’s something that you just have to deal with at the end of service.

Of course, this begs the question: How will I be remembered?  Songea Boys’ is not your run-of-the-mill Tanzanian village---it’s the magnet A-level all-boys school in the Ruvuma region, and I’m part of a long lineage of Peace Corps volunteers dating all the way back to the 1960s (i.e., when Peace Corps was first founded).  What have I achieved in my time here?  How have I distinguished myself from the men and women who’ve served at this school in the past, many of whom were dealing with much greater hardships than I was?  Sure, I teach my physics students about LEDs, but there was an American guy from my organization teaching here before LEDs even existed---and he’s not even remembered here.  Those are some big shoes to fill, and I really can’t say if my service transcends the ordinary, or if it even achieves the distinction of “average Peace Corps service.”  All I can really say was that my service was my service: I can’t impartially and totally assess if it was truly remarkable or decidedly unremarkable; if was life-changing or mundane; or if it was worthwhile or a waste of time.  It just kind of happened, and here I am, at the end of it.

So yeah, exactly how will I be remembered?  I can only speculate.  I can tell you, though, how I want to be remembered:

As that curmudgeonly, standoffish, and somewhat dirty American who nonetheless got up every morning, went to class, and proceeded to systematically jam physics and biology down the throats of 500+ of the nation’s aspiring youth for two years.  And who, though times got rough, found in his work a sense a purpose, and who ultimately wanted nothing but to have his students succeed.

How’s that for a Peace Corps success story blurb?

It’s funny… when I think back to two years ago---when I was deep in the highly-regimented, quasi-suffocating womb of Pre-Service Training in Morogoro---I don’t really recall much of what I theoretically learned there, Kiswahili notwithstanding.  Sure, I remember staying with my awesome homestay family, having fun with hands-on science demonstrations, and scrimping every measly 100/= piece I could find to save for my weekly beer with the other trainees, but I don’t really remember any of the official, PC Washington-mandated lessons that were ostensibly taught to us during that period.  In truth, most of that stuff was just a blur of small-group work and flipchart paper interspersed with the occasional half-hearted skit about cultural differences---none of which appealed to my typical ADD sensibilities---so I usually just tuned out most of it, intentionally or otherwise.  As anyone can tell you, I am not always the best listener.

There was, however, one thing that truly stuck to me during those formative PST days, and it has since played a considerable role in giving my service meaning---the so-called “Three Pillars of Education” concept of Peace Corps-based instruction.  Basically, PC HQ states that a Peace Corps ED volunteer’s service should be a three-pronged attack to improve all facets of public school education in a given community: empowering students to take the initiative and succeed on their national examinations, inspiring teachers to go back to the classroom and employ exciting new teaching techniques, and encouraging parents to play an active role in their children’s future by getting involved in school life.  Only by improving all three pillars of education can one effect lasting, sustainable development in both the school and the community at large, and only through this sort of grassroots, volunteer-driven aid work can one bring about progress and positive change in the country as a whole.

Well, that’s all well and good.  But now it’s two years later, I’ve had time to think about who I am now and what my service has been like, and I’m adding a slightly more fine-tuned corollary to the “Three Pillars of Education” mantra:

Pick one focus, stick with it, and let that be the guiding light of your service---the reason you get up in the morning, the reason you go to bed at night, the sole motivating factor that keeps you working in country and not back home in America.

I chose students.

Again, it’s not as if I hate the teachers here---despite our numerous ideological clashes and fundamental cultural disparities, they’re still nice people who’ve been extremely accepting and accommodating to me during my tenure in Tanzania.  It’s just that, over my two years here, I’ve noticed that I have made virtually zero investment of energy in improving my school in any way, shape, or form.  I haven’t made any attempt to talk to my teachers about their teaching methods (save for occasionally butting heads with our new A-level biology teacher, as I’ve already detailed in this blog), I haven’t tried to modify or introduce new extracurricular activities, and I haven’t once considered getting grant money to, say, improve the school’s facilities, like building a new library or getting some of the classroom/laboratory windows fixed.

Much of this is due to the fact that---as much as I bitch about my school---it’s actually still pretty well-off as Tanzanian schools go (it consistently ranks right in the middle of the country’s A-level institutions), and therefore it doesn’t really need a lot of my help, comparatively speaking: much of what makes an A-level school good in this country is the self-selecting process of having naturally good students in the roster so that, when the time comes, the students will self-motivate even without teachers and score passing grades (~20%) on the NECTA final.  Moreover, since I’m working at an A-level school and most of the teachers here are career teachers (and thus make me look some young upstart by comparison), I’ve never really had enough (or any) clout here to effect significant change in the way the school is run.  In other words, there’s a sort of entrenched intransigence at Songea Boys’ that has made it difficult for me to conduct a more project-oriented service (like the health/environment volunteers) over the past two years.  As much as I hate to admit it, in reality, my role here has been more akin to that of a guest professor.  Or a magical physics unicorn.

Thus, it’s always been easier to turn my attention to the students, rather than the institution or the teachers.  Granted, my students don’t always show up on time and they don’t always listen, but when I finally jam all 180 of them in the big lecture hall and they’re all sitting down quietly, they are MINE.  I OWN them.  I can say and do whatever the hell I want and no one can stop me.  I can blather on about physics and biology all day, and I know that, despite their best efforts, my kids can’t block it all out; some of what I say or do inexorably sinks in.  And when it sinks in, it sticks: I imagine it’s hard for a young African man to forget a white guy yelling science at him for two years.  And even if, at the end of all this, he still has no idea what the hell physics is or how the scientific method works, he’ll at least remember that he was taught physics by some over-enthusiastic mzungu with the best intentions, and that, in and of itself, has some merit. 

Again, I don’t know if I’ve truly had any lasting impact in Tanzania, but if I’ve ever effected any positive change in the past two years, THAT is how I’ve done it---not by hanging out in Songea town, not by schmoozing the village, not by starting projects in my school, and not by having quasi-philosophical discussions with my sophist teachers---but rather by giving authentic, informative, and impassioned lectures in the classroom.  And that is something I can take home with me.

Interestingly, this attitude has already yielded some tangible results: on this year’s mock NECTA examinations in October, my Form VI students scored substantially higher in biology than they had in previous years, with a high-D average (~35-40%).  Not only is this pretty good for Songea Boys’, but it’s pretty good for anywhere, especially for Tanzanian public schools.  Granted, I’ve tried about five times as hard to get my kids to learn physics (and, as far as that goes, my students are still languishing in the doldrums of mediocrity), but, goddammit, getting high marks in biology is something.  If I must rationalize (and I must), the lack of improvement in physics could be attributable to a much more deep-seated issue in the TZ educational system---either with respect to the institution itself or Tanzanian attitudes towards education in general---and not just my shitty teaching (although I can’t say I’m entirely blameless).  But, in the end, I guess it just goes to show that the project you’re most passionate about isn’t necessarily the one that makes a difference in country, and you gotta take the small victories when you can get them.

Of course, all this discussion neglects one of the most important COS questions: namely, how Tanzania has affected ME.  Folks always say that the volunteer is the biggest product of his or her service, and given that I’m a young man in his twenties who just spent 30 months of his still-formative years in a foreign country, I’d be surprised if I haven’t changed a bit over my time here.  Unfortunately, given that I haven’t seen any family or home friends (save for one brief surprise/exception) for the duration of my stay in TZ, I don’t have any real basis for comparison aside from how I think I’ve changed.  I mean, I know I’ve changed---you can’t really go through two years of Africa without seeing or doing things you never imagined yourself seeing or doing, and that undoubtedly affects you for better or worse---but exactly how I’ve changed… well, I guess that’s something that the home people will have to find out for themselves.

That being said, there are a few things I’ve been able to pick up on that are a little different about me.  For one, I can finally take care of myself.  I can cook, clean, and garden like never before.  I have been repeatedly educated about the harsh truths of single living: if I don’t plan ahead and bring enough food home before nightfall, then I will starve, QED.  I’ve learned how to do a bunch of grown-up stuff, like be responsible, or not be late to things, or ensure that I consume a modicum of basic nutrition each day.  Shockingly (and definitely a surefire sign that I’m at least maturing a little bit), I have yet to miss a bus in country, and I’ve even done stuff like organize out-of-schedule meetings/classes/labs with groups of both faculty and students (routinely, no less)---something I never really did back home (in my past few jobs, I was always much more of an underling and thus didn’t take much organizational initiative).  As a result, I can consider all these things as signs of positive change in my life: I feel I’ve become a much more secure, well-rounded person overall.

On the flipside, however, I’ve found that 30 months in Tanzania has had a noticeable effect on my personality, which, admittedly, has become a bit more… volatile.  Indeed, over the past two years, much I what I’ve thought, said, or done in country has had a sort of increased acuteness about it, and much of the comparative indifference and mellowness of my post-baccalaureate ennui has evaporated in favor of egotism and severity.  Put in plain English, acting on impulses has become much easier for me in country, and former obstacles such as “consequences” and “other people’s feelings” have become much less burdensome to my psyche.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that, in Tanzania, you really do need to take care of yourself---it’s not as if anyone is going to come save your ass if you get into trouble or get screwed---and that combined with consistent, relentless ostracism from the locals pushes you into a sort of survival, lone-wolf, me-versus-everyone mindset that keeps you on edge (and a little pissed off) at all times.

I'll admit, in some ways, this sort of hot-bloodedness can be advantageous: I can take charge of a situation more quickly and react more readily to potential problems than I used to back home.  On the other hand, though, there are drawbacks as well: I’ve become vastly more opinionated, and most of my preexisting views have since polarized themselves into deep, caustic cynicisms… many of which, incidentally, I have no problem sharing with those around me (some might even classify me as an “asshole” at times).  In no way have I turned into a nihilistic defeatist, nor have I become a rage-addled sociopath, but I do have much more of a temper than I ever did back in the States, and my tolerance for all the trifling little inadequacies that make up life in Tanzania has worn down to almost nothing.  I’m confident this effect will ebb somewhat when I return to America---I’m pretty sure a lot of this smoldering disgruntlement is just pent-up frustration over having not been home in two-and-a-half years---but I don’t know if it will ever quite leave me.  It’s kind of like the first time you get in a fight: you can watch all the boxing and cage fighting in the world, but until you get punched in the face, you never really know how you’ll react.  And when it’s done---win or lose, for better or for worse---you’ll never forget the split second of intense bitterness you felt in that moment, and that stays with you for a lifetime.

Again, though, please remember that I’m not saying any of this to be particularly morbid or fatalistic… I just think I’ve run my course in Tanzania.  People do things for a while, get tired, and then move on to something else; I’m no different.  And I can say with utter conviction that when I am finally home, and I’ve hung out with all my friends and family, and all the parties and celebrations are over, and I’ve finally moved on with my life… I will miss Tanzania.  A lot.  And that’s just kind of how life goes.

So, how can I summarize?  Peace Corps was something else.  Tanzania was something else.  Teaching my students was something else.  Pontificating with my teachers was something else.  Hanging out with my fellow PCVs was something else.  Living by myself was something else.  Everything I’ve experienced for the past 30 months was something else, and all I can do is mash it all together into one enormous, ineffable morass of stories, memories, and life events that I will henceforth pithily refer to as my “Peace Corps experience.”  I figure that’s the best coping mechanism I’ve got.  It’ll do for now, at least.

In any case, it was a fun ride while it lasted.  Now, it’s time to go home.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Roof of Africa

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my third straight Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Tanzania.  It’s funny: other volunteers tell me that I’ve been in country too long, and I generally tend to ignore them, but damn… when you put it in perspective, three Christmases seems like a long time.  That’s 12% of my total Christmases (including the ones I don’t even remember as a baby) spent without family or home friends.  Crazy.

This is not to say that my past two Christmases haven’t been awesome in their own right.  My first Christmas was spent in a safi expat’s countryside villa, followed up by a chill New Year’s in an Mbeya bar/club.  My second Christmas was at my sitemate’s house, where we cooked ridiculous amounts of Western food and watched all four Die Hard movies back-to-back-to-back-to-back; New Year’s was spent on Lake Nyasa and involved beach camping, hobnobbing with members of Tanzanian parliament, and a 14-mile death-hike from Liuli to Mbamba Bay.  Perhaps not your typical holiday seasons, but fun nonetheless, and, of course, full of treasured memories.

This year, however, I think I’ve done one better than my other two TZ holidays: I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.  And it was awesome.

Of course, I alluded to this in my last post, but I figured a quick recap for the record wouldn’t hurt.  Plus, this’ll give me a chance to throw up a few photos of the trip for the folks who don’t have access to the Facebook album. 

So yeah, an executive summary:


Trekking Kili was easily the safi-est, most expensive thing I’ve done in country.  If you’ve read any of my older blog posts, you know that the vast majority of my trips in TZ have been focused on my being, well, a dirty Peace Corps volunteer with no money… well, this was completely different.  Kilimanjaro, despite being one of the few Seven Summits that don’t require extensive technical experience, is still a really f-ing big mountain---5895 m above sea level---and unless you know what the hell you’re doing, you need to spring for the silver package and get the full entourage treatment to ensure that you do, in fact, make it to the top and back in one piece.  I was in a group of four people, which meant that we had a staff of---no joke---14 people at our beck and call, preparing food for us, setting up our tents, carrying our bags, disposing of our waste, you name it.  Coming from a village situation---where I have trouble ordering a beer, much less have someone actually bring it to me---this was a decided change of pace, and a bit of a shock, to say the least.  I am confident that I ate better during those six days on the mountain than I ever did at site, and having a bunch of on-call Tanzanians take care of all my crap for me 24 hours a day had me feeling like a colonial-era bwana.  In other words, climbing Kili took some getting used to.

But, in the end, I was very glad for the assistance.  Like I’ve said before, Kilimanjaro is freaking big, and if I had to hike ~6 hours a day for 6 days, then pitch my tent, then cook for myself, then clean up afterwards, then repack every morning, it would have been rough.  I know that the guides carry all their own gear and hike the summit ~3 times a month (and each attempt takes ~6 days… they don’t have a lot of free time, these guys), and that the porters lug ~20 kg of crap up and down the mountain in inadequate gear (and still go about 2x our speed), but I’m a soft white guy, and a frail physics nerd to boot, and I wasn’t going anywhere without a ton of help.  This was especially important since the entire trip is essentially a slow build-up for summit day (Day 5), which is a brutal no-sleep no-oxygen march straight up the mountain and then ¾ of the way back down.   Thus, if you’re already exhausted by day 4, it’s not terribly likely that you’ll make it to the top, and I know that if I had to take care of everything myself, I doubt I would have had the energy to finish the hike.

That being said, hiking the mountain was awesome.  The whole trip is like a nature walk on steroids, and we got to see some amazing flora and fauna (different groups of which belonged to different ecosystems up the mountain), as well as some amazing vistas of the surrounding area.  I gotta say: it was pretty cool to see how the environment changed drastically as we made our way up the mountain---from lush rainforest (replete with monkeys and---I’m not kidding---squirrels), to lichen-filled moorland, to barren volcanic ash cones, to glacier-capped summit.  Honestly, I never thought you could literally walk to such disparate ecosystems in such a short amount of time, but hey, apparently you can.

Day 1...
Day 3...
Day 5.

One of the fun little perks of our hike was that our Day 2 happened to be Christmas.  Granted, we didn’t do much different---we had a schedule to maintain and needed to conserve our energy, after all---but it was the small touches that made this Christmas special:

Plus, we got a few Christmas decorations in our mess tent, and we even got a Christmas card and two bottles of non-alcoholic champagne sent to us by the tour company (they were pretty awesome to us, so I’ll plug them here: Gladys Adventure).  Like I said before, we were traveling in style.


If I had to describe the overall climate of Kilimanjaro, I would use two words---cold and wet (with wetness eventually giving way to coldness higher up the mountain).  In truth, spending 2 ½ years in Songea has made me a complete cold wuss, and freezing my ass off so close to the equator was a bit surprising, to say the least.  Especially since we were using tents the whole time, there was literally zero refuge from the coldness and wetness of the mountain for 6 days straight, which meant that changing clothes became a deeply unpleasant experience (if you want a comparative feeling, try stripping down naked in a snow bank… it’s not fun).  There’s nothing like taking off your damp clothes to put on damp long underwear and get into a damp sleeping bag in 30°F weather.  Plus, on summit day, you literally put on everything: I wore six layers on my torso/head (plus a balaclava), four layers of pants, three pairs of wool socks, and two pairs of gloves… it gets cold up there.


One interesting quirk of our trip was our constant (and somewhat obsessive) battle against dehydration.  Apparently, there’s no quicker way to get altitude sickness than by being dehydrated, and, to avoid this outcome, we drank excessive quantities of fluids each day.  I’m not kidding: in an average day on the mountain, I drank ~9 cups of chai, one cup of hot chocolate, 3-4 liters of water, and maybe a half-cup of Gatorade.  On top of this, we’d usually have at least two bowls of soup for dinner, and sometimes lunch (although I think “soup” is a relative term… I think in most parts of the world it would qualify as “gravy,” if not simply “vegetable-flavored margarine emulsion”).  In other words, while I spent a lot of time on Kili admiring the sights and being one with nature, I spent the vast majority of my time up there sitting around and face-chugging fluids.

One unintentional (but entirely foreseeable) side effect of this constant imbibing was the fact that I needed to urinate.  A lot.  Here’s hoping that the Kilimanjaro Water bottling plant in Moshi has a good filter, because I marked my territory all over that mountain, and not always in the appropriate, designated spaces.  This became particularly troublesome at night: although I tried my best to invoke the no-fluids-after-7pm rule, I would inevitably have to repeatedly wrench myself from the warm comfort of my sleeping bag to scramble up a hill to the camp toilet to take a whiz---a profoundly uncomfortable experience, to say the least.  Plus, due to the high altitude, I would inevitably be out of breath and panting by the time I reached the toilet, meaning that I often found myself hyperventilating in the putrid miasma of a public pit latrine, all while exposing my genitals to the ever-present icy gusts of wind coming down from the summit.  All part of the experience, I suppose.

Although I will say one thing: it was really, really funny watching all the wazungu try to negotiate the Kilimanjaro toilets.  Two-and-a-half years’ experience of pooping in a hole has thoroughly honed my ability to eliminate in even the most extreme environments; the vast majority of the other trekkers, on the other hand, were fresh-off-the-plane, fancy-schmancy Western-style prima donnas who had never popped a squat in their life, and thus had incredible difficulty adjusting to the, ahem, more “rustic” nature of Kilimanjaro toilets.  Let me just say this: I never thought it was possible for someone to literally miss a choo hole---it’s about 5 inches from your butt, for chrissake---but Kili has proven me wrong… those toilets were a mess.  I seriously feel sorry for the guy who has to clean that up, especially since, every day, a whole new horde of Westerners comes in a obliterates the toilets anew.  Silly white people… they don’t know anything.

Either way, it definitely gives new credence to the old saying, “knowing your ass from a hole in the ground.”


In spite of all this---the coldness, the wetness, the filthy, filthy toilets---it’s absolutely stunning on top.  The rainforest and the bog areas are all well and good, but, to me, nothing beats that snow-covered, “outer space” vibe you get at the summit---giant, moonlit glaciers resting atop the walls of a massive crater, literally nothing alive around you (save for your fellow trekkers), and the dim lights of Moshi glimmering ~18000 ft below---it’s something else.  Yeah, you may be nauseated, exhausted, and out of breath, but you can’t help but take in the incredible natural splendor around you.  And that sunrise… holy crap.  Not to indulge in hyperbole, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything that beautiful in my life.  At the very least, it’s a top five moment, and that image will likely be seared into my retinas for the rest of my days.

The moment when everything becomes worthwhile.
Of course, you still have to walk another hour to the real summit, where you take your slightly-less-majestic celebration picture:

And then, it's only another 7.5 hours until you reach your next camp down the mountain.

So yeah, that’s Kili-in-brief.  Was it expensive, difficult, and uncomfortable?  Yes.  Did I spend most of my time cold, miserable, and exhausted?  Sure.  But, at the same time, did I also view breathtaking vistas, explore unique ecosystems, shuffle my way all the way up to the roof of Africa, and have an overall extraordinary, unforgettable experience?  Absolutely.  Hiking Kilimanjaro was utterly, unequivocally awesome, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Victory Lap: Bar-Hopping, Turkeys, and New Suits

Well, it’s been about 3 months since the last entry, and I apologize for my tardiness with updates.  In my defense, though, the past few months of my life have been an unrelenting stream of highly engaging distractions, all of which have forced me to repeatedly put any attempts at expository self-assessment on the backburner.  There were a couple things---most of them introspective and kind of self-indulgent---that I really wanted to write about over these past few months; however, given that a bunch of stuff has happened recently, these will have to wait for a later entry.  For now, I figure my time is best spent throwing up highlights of some of my more recent PCV extension shenanigans.  Enjoy!

Halloween and Fond Farewells

Late October (namely, the week before Halloween) saw the first departures of members of my training class, many of whom have since elected to either head back to the US or embark on epic, post-Peace Corps trips around the world.  Luckily for me, I got to see a lot of them right before I left: although I was (and still am) extending, I was scheduled to participate in a meeting for the Shika initiative right before Halloween, meaning that both the first crew and I happened to be in Dar at roughly the same time.  As you’d probably imagine, this week in Dar was kind of like a “Peace Corps wake”: safi food was eaten, libations were imbibed, emotions were outpoured, and good times were had by all---when I wasn’t having a great time partying/hanging out with everyone, I was busy engaging in fits of deep, crushing nostalgia… that is, until I inevitably found something to distract me again.  And, luckily for me, there was plenty of that to go around.

Perhaps the most entertaining part of the week, though, was the fact that it took place during Halloween.  Take heed, potential visitors to Tanzania: there is no better place to get a Halloween costume than a Tanzanian soko (market).  I’m serious---the vast majority of Tanzanians get their clothes from huge used-clothing emporiums, which means, from the get-go, you pretty much have your pick of the finest America’s church donation bins have to offer (and, trust me, you can find some really crazy stuff if you look hard enough).  More importantly, however, one of the coolest things about living in Tanzania is the nearly limitless selection of cheap fabric and fundis (tailors) to work it---with enough imagination (and a good eye for detail), you can have literally any type of clothing made, all of it fitted and custom-tailored specially for you for under $10.  It’s kind of awesome, and very few volunteers make it through two years of service without getting at least something made, be it an East African-style shirt, creatively-colored pajama pants, or a belt cut from an old, shredded truck tire (that last one’s me).

Thus, as you can figure, this sort of situation opens myriad possibilities for potential Halloween costumes.  Need tights?  No problem.  A mask?  Easily done.  A funny hat?  Sketch it out and send it in.  A wig?  Buy it at the local duka for 5000/=.  The soko is literally packed with things that Tanzanians tend to wear un-ironically that can be exploited and worn very-ironically for the enjoyment of you and your knucklehead friends, and it’s only right that you take advantage of that fact while in country.

So, true to form, one of my friends and I decided to go big this Halloween and dress as Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunn from the tuxedo scene of Dumb and Dumber (i.e., over-the-top pastel tuxes in bright orange and baby blue)---not the most original idea, but still pretty awesome nonetheless.  Because we don’t play around, we went the whole nine yards---bowties, frills, cummerbunds, top hats, and even canes (which turned out to be sword canes… even more awesome).  I think the results speak for themselves:

New suits!
Perhaps the clincher of all this was that, in spite of it all, the suits were actually pretty good quality, with decent lining, hidden pockets, and ample frills.  The hats could’ve used a little work though (the fundi messed them up the first time and I made him redo them in the dark in 30 minutes while I held my cellphone flashlight above his head).  Regardless, literally the moment I put my suit on for the first time---alone in my house by lantern light at night, because Tanesco hates me---I felt entirely vindicated in my purchase.

But yeah, needless to say, my friend and I took every possible opportunity to wear these suits around Dar, both during Halloween and otherwise.  Some of my favorite suit-related memories of the week:
  • Going to a Halloween party full of Europeans and Africans---as part of a group of ~15 rowdy, costumed Americans---and trying to explain to them why dressing up in preposterous costumes for one day a year is awesome
  • On a different night, trying to reenact the classic Dumb and Dumber entrance at front door of a bar (which ends with me hitting my friend in the back of the knee with my cane, causing him to fall), only to have some random Tanzanian guy at the bar grab my cane mid-swing and yelp at me worriedly, “DON’T HIT HIM!!!”
  • Storming into a Dar casino in full, suited glory and proceeding to systematically plunder the blackjack tables (by the end of the night, I had more than enough to recoup the payment for the suits… threefold).
  • While gambling, telling one of the dealers that she looked very pretty… because her dress was made of the same material as my suit.  I told her I was prettier, though, since I had frills on my outfit, whereas she didn’t have any.  I suggested that she should have a word with her fundi.  She didn't laugh.
So yeah, I had fun.  And, in case you’re wondering, yes: my friend and I have made a pact to wear these suits at each other’s respective future weddings.  Any woman I marry will have to love me for more than just my looks or my personality; she’ll have to love me for that suit, too.

Work and Shadow Week

Following this fun little diversion, I found myself back in Songea, and back to work.  Remember, despite this blog's more apparent focus---fun anecdotes and assorted misadventures---I really do spend most of my time working here… it’s just that I don’t write about it too much because it’s esoteric and boring.  I mean, I happen to think that quantum mechanics and nonlinear dynamics are about as cool as it gets, but I also understand that not everyone agrees with me, so I just keep that crap to myself.  Besides, we’re nowhere near that point in the syllabus.

The first (and actually only) documented evidence that I do, in fact, teach here.  Bonus points if you can guess what the lecture is about.
Regardless, the general theme of this most recent term has been to get the Form VI students prepped for their mock examinations, which are currently happening this week.  To this end, I’ve been churning out a ton of weekly problem sets, study guides, and full-on practice tests… it’s been rough on me almost as much as it’s been rough on my students (remember, I have to solve these problem sets and type up marking schemes for each test I produce… it’s a pain in the ass).  Granted, at least I’m not making up the problems myself---THAT would be unreasonable---but I still have to compile these problems, add or trim certain portions to make them more NECTA-y, assign marks, import (or draw) accompanying diagrams, print these tests out (apparently, the nearest place to buy printer toner is Mbeya, so I literally have to take the toner canister out and shake it to collect the dregs to print one legible copy), and go to town and make 180 copies… it can be a hassle.  And of course, during this entire process, the power is constantly cutting out at random.  Ah, Songea.

Oh yeah, and during this whole time, I’m still teaching a full schedule (plus occasional weekends and night classes), and grading my students’ first term finals, which we had postponed to October.  So yeah, it’s been busy.  I remember one point a few weeks back when the class president asked me if I could grade the Form VI weekly practice examinations for the past three weeks (that’s a grand total of 540 exams)… I’m not gonna lie---I openly laughed in his face.  I’m pretty sure I handed him the marking scheme and told him that I was a very busy man, and that he “[had] 180 available students, so grade your own stupid tests.”  It’s true: my students, while hard workers with a tough life, still don’t quite understand some of the logistics and hardships of being a teacher (and I don’t blame them… I was the same way when I was their age).

Still, while all this has been going on, I’ve found time for one fun little side project (I guess you could call it a secondary project?)---what I perfunctorily call my “CD project.”  My students have always been blaming their poor performance on tests on a general dearth of math and science resources in the Songea area, and after a particularly abysmal round of failures with the term 1 finals (it was right after big break, so I know they didn’t study beforehand) as well as the obligatory aftershock of griping/despondency that ensued, I decided to remove the “we don’t have any textbooks” excuse out of the equation and furnish my students with complete digital math and science resource bundles via CD.  Why CD?  Well, CDs are actually pretty cheap here (affordable even for my students) and flash drives haven’t really taken hold outside of Dar… plus, my school just got a bunch of new computers from World Friends Japan that are barely being used, all of which have standard CD drives (and besides, most middle-class Tanzanians like my students have at least some sort of access to computers, even if it’s just an internet café, so my students will be able to view the CDs even at home).

Regardless, the bundle I’ve prepared for my kids is---not to sound pompous---the complete package.  Each CD consists of four sections (math, physics, chemistry, and biology), each with its own textbooks, lab practical descriptions, and study guides, plus some additional animations/simulations, if available.  Moreover, I made sure to include instructions for installation/use, as well as a self-executing open-source PDF reader installer for easy viewing, no matter what the computer.  In sum, the CD contains pretty much everything my kids will need to know and more, all in one place (for the low, low price of 500/=... it's not like my PC salary is sufficient for this kind of expenditure).  I’m kind of proud of it.

Of course, while most of the stuff I’ve included in the bundle is open-source textbooks and various other free resources, I’ve definitely thrown in a bit of my own flair as well---a comprehensive equation list for physics.  I figured that, since these students don’t get equation sheets for their NECTA final (which, incidentally, is utter BS… that thing is what saved my ass during the AP), I could at least give them something to look at beforehand to help them memorize the appropriate relations.  As you can guess, I’m pretty pleased with the results… you can read it here (and yes, they need to know ALL that):

Plus, if you want an idea of what the NECTA final is like, I’ve posted two of my practice tests here.  These tests are actually a little on the easy side… if you want a true idea of what the NECTA is like, increase the difficulty, remove all the pictures, and throw in a few spelling errors/accidentally insoluble problems.  Note how, on Paper 2, you nominally only have to solve 5 problems, but, in reality, you’re solving 10 (on the real NECTA, it’s more like 15):

If this material looks hard to you, that’s because it is: standard high school physics curricula in the US typically don’t cover more than classical mechanics, electricity & magnetism, and waves (thermodynamics is usually covered in chemistry)---this stuff has a whole bunch of other useless crap about fluid mechanics, surface tension, the Bohr model, solid state physics, and even electronics.  Being generous, I would say that these tests are roughly on par with the standard AP physics test (at least when I took it), but remember what “AP” stands for---i.e., “advanced placement for college credit”, not “pass this test or go back to being a dirt farmer for the rest of your life”.  Now imagine taking this test without an equation sheet or any sort of reference, with a three-hour time limit.  Also imagine taking this test in your second or third language, with virtually no guidance except some tattered textbook from the 80s and two years of self-study under your belt (it’s not like the teachers are always present to help you out, after all).  Furthermore, say you're a student who one day wants to be a doctor... this means you'd have to be part of the PCB (physics-chemistry-biology) curriculum, which mandates---no joke---an 11-day-straight testing period (three days for papers 1 and 2, plus a practical, for biology, chemistry, and physics subjects, plus additional exams for mathematics (basic applied mathematics, or BAM) and general studies ("GS").  Does that seem at all fair to you?

It’s funny---Tanzanians love to say that math and science are the “sickness of the nation,” and I am constantly pestered about why this is so.  To this, I have a simple answer: Because doing all this crap is freaking IMPOSSIBLE.


Going back to life events for a bit, in mid-November, there was one minor reprieve from all this school-related toil: shadow week.  Yes, the new health and environment class has come in, making me officially a super-senior, and some of them were selected to shadow me here in Songea (there’s this new policy now that you shadow where your site is supposed to be instead of shadowing someone who has a similar job to yours… lame).  I assume this decision was made strictly for geographical convenience---I can’t imagine any Peace Corps job being more different from mine than that of a health/environment volunteer---but, in the end, it was cool to see some new faces, and we had a good time that week.  I have to admit: I was probably the worst host ever, as I was fully wrapped up in my standard 8am-5pm workday (plus I was writing all these tests or burning CDs in the evenings), so I pretty much monopolized all the computer time and frequently abandoned my guests to go deal with my own problems.  I did, however, manage to work far enough ahead so we could relax on the weekend: we had a pretty cool churrasco (Brazilian-style BBQ pork) dinner at my house with the whole gang of newbies (nine of them in total), which was a pretty chill evening, and lots of fun.  We even took them out dancing at the local discotheque, which I’m sure was a nice break from the tedium of pre-service training.

It was kind of funny, dealing with all these folks… for the first time in my service, I truly felt old.  Well, maybe “old” isn’t the right word---more like “seasoned.”  It was kind of surprising to see that things that totally come second nature to me at this point (knowing how much tomatoes cost, coping with electricity/water shortage, getting in screaming arguments with kondas, etc) don’t necessarily come second nature to everyone else, and it made me think a lot about what a (relative) dumbass I was when I first came to country (read my first few blog posts, and you’ll know what I mean).  This is not to put down any of the newbies, who are all very smart in their own right and who, I’m sure, will have very fruitful and productive services of their own (and besides, some of them are my age or older and thus far more seasoned than I am anyways); I’m just saying that I was a bit taken aback by their greenness---or, rather, my apparent lack of greenness.

Huh… maybe I’m growing up after all.  I’m not getting any younger, at least.

Thanksgiving and IST

This year marked my first non-Songea Thanksgiving, which turned out to be pretty awesome.  It was expertly organized by a PCV couple living in neighboring Njombe, and it was pretty much everything I hoped a Tanzanian Thanksgiving would be.  Seriously, I was impressed: we were able to create (or, at least, very nearly replicate) nearly every standard Thanksgiving dish---mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, greens, fruit salad, etc.  Of course, given that this was a Tanzanian Thanksgiving, we replaced the not-existing-in-country cranberry sauce with the more conventional PC TZ staple of guacamole, which definitely altered the general motif of the meal a bit.

Oh, and did I mention that we had a legit turkey?  I’m not even remotely kidding.  We managed to score a whole bird from Iringa, and we cooked it by improvising an oven out of a charcoal jiko.  You heard me right: we cooked a full turkey using nothing but a few sufurias (aluminum pots) and charcoal.  THIS is why Peace Corps volunteers are, by nature, the coolest people ever.

Preparing the turkey.  Note how I am "supervising."  I'm so helpful.
One big happy family.
And, of course, after the feast was over and we were lying in a tryptophan-induced stupor, we watched Dumb and Dumber.  In all, it was a perfect day.


Soon following Thanksgiving was a brief visit up to Morogoro to do some more science stuff with the new ED class (or, as I call them, “baby EDs”, although I guess they’re now sophomores… again, I’m old) for their IST.  It was a pretty run-of-the-mill session, although we shifted the focus a little bit to describe extracurricular ways to make science more accessible for students (think science fairs, mathletes, Bill Nye the Science Guy... you know, catnip for geeks like us).  In all, it was a nice, productive visit.

The only thing that I guess merits special attention was our intro to our session.  For those of you who read some of the old blog entries, you know that we have a knack for making gunpowder out of fertilizer… well, given the time we had, we couldn’t think of anything else that wasn’t (a) too expensive or (b) too dangerous to demonstrate the awesomeness of science, so we just opted to make a crap-ton of said gunpowder (about ¾ kilo) and set it on fire all at once.  Of course, since we care about presentation (and we’re huge nerds), we did a little skit to lighten the mood: one of the volunteers and I dressed up in some old jedi-esque costumes we had lying around (don’t ask) and had a mock lightsaber battle with flaming sword-canes (we used an improvised bug-spray flamethrower to light the cane-swords from our Halloween costumes on fire, and proceeded to battle each other with them, all while playing the Star Wars soundtrack).  We finished by stabbing a giant, ¾-kilo-of-gunpowder-stuffed paper crane (made from flipchart paper and soaked with kerosene) with the aforementioned flaming swords, igniting it and creating a pretty big explosion (although we might have needed some additional help from the bug-spray flamethrower to get it going).  Nerdy?  Yes.  Childish?  Sure.  But awesome?  Absolutely.

Oh, and I forgot to say: we did this little skit in front of all the ED volunteers, plus their corresponding Tanzanian counterparts (i.e., pretty much normal Tanzanians who are teachers at their respective schools from all over TZ and are thus unaccustomed to the hare-brained antics of giddy, immature American twenty-somethings).  It’s kind of amusing that Peace Corps always insists on its volunteers maintaining a modicum of professional decorum when interacting with host-country nationals… well, I can think of nothing more dignified and professional than two guys dressed in unwashed space cadet uniforms and spandex leggings fighting each other with flaming swords while setting a giant paper crane full of gunpowder on fire.  I’m putting that shit on my résumé.

Sadly, while I know pictures/video of this awesome event exist, I don’t have any on me at the moment.  What I DO have access to is the pictures of the 3rd annual IST prom we went to that night (making this the 5th prom I’ve been to in my life… Jesus):

Yeah, we broke out the suits again.  After reading this blog post, would you expect anything less?

So yeah, good times were had by all.

Future Plans

So that about drops us off to when I’m currently writing this, mid-December 2012.  I’ve settled back into Songea fairly nicely, and I’ve resumed my standard routine of grading massive quantities of papers and burning massive quantities of CDs (power permitting).  Things have returned to normal, but who knows what tales the next adventure will bring…

Oh wait, I do: over Christmas this year, after two long years of waiting, I will be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

I know it’s not a huge deal and that tons of people do it every year, but nonetheless, I’m stoked.  This trip is going to be all sorts of awesome.  Granted, I have a couple… unsavory experiences from climbing large mountains before (Emeishan in China evokes some particularly unpleasant memories), but, nonetheless, I feel confident that I have prepared accordingly---both in terms of adequate climbing gear and general physical fitness---that I should be able to do this one.

Hell, I have to do this one.  I’ve been to Moshi.  I’ve stared at the mountain, and it has stared right back at me, taunting me from on high with its snow-capped arrogance and utter remoteness.  I must conquer it, or else turn in my Tanzania card and relinquish all rights to my manhood.  I'm a young man of means in my twenties, with nothing to lose and everything to prove... did you really think I was going to let that happen?

In any case, I doubt I’ll be writing in here until after the event.  I’ll see you guys after I’m done!