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!


  1. Dude, nice equation list! The geek in me wants to RaTeXi the sh** out of that thing...because it looks like you used Word to put it together.

    1. Thanks man! Yeah, in an ideal world, I would've used cranked that thing out in RaTeXi... but I'm still a bit new to the software, and I needed to get that thing out before all the Form VIs went home for Christmas.

      Regardless, that might be a follow-up project that I'll hammer out in the weeks before I leave... well that, or I'll just make Steve do it. We'll see.