March 14, 2013

Mwisho

I have something to tell you. but before I do, let me just say that I’m back, and that this is my last post. Im off on another adventure in a couple days and i’m posting this from an iphone, so i’ll make it short.

what I want to say is this: you dont have to live your life like they tell you to. You don’t have to follow the mainstream and get a corporate job you don’t enjoy while missing out on your opportunity to live. the hardest thing about doing it is making the decision to do it.

so now I’m off again, onto my next adventure. This time I’m spending five months in the woods hiking two thousand-something miles along the Appalachian trail With two friends from peace corps. The odds are against us that we’ll actually finish– only one in three or four actually make it to the terminus on the top of katahdin in Maine– but well get as far as we can, and we’ll be happy with that.

follow along if you like, for we have a blog together. I promise to update it even less than I updated this one. It’s at http://www.wanderlustorbustAT.wordpress.com

Peace out. Thanks for reading, dear reader.

October 22, 2012

Where Man Was Born

A young Thompson’s gazelle quietly flips her tail, her ears perking up listening for danger. Sensing nothing, she lowers her head and returns to grazing on the dry grass, long enough to hide a stalking predator. At this time of the year, the end of the dry season, the grass on the plains has baked to a soft wheat color, just about the same color as the fur of a hungry lioness. But the sun is too hot for a chase and most of the resident cats are lounging in the shade of a sausage tree, so for now the gazelle are safe. There is a rumble in the distance and ears perk up again; our attention turns from the gazelle to the approaching land rover cruising down the track in the distance. As it draws near we see the vehicle pulling a billowing cloud of dust behind it which threatens to envelop us, so we duck into the safety of our own safari car, the pinkish dust passing over the exposed roof. The gazelle, grazing too close to the track, springs off her agile legs and gracefully gallops off into the plains to join others in her herd. Further afield we see two elephants pulling up grass with their dexterous trunks. Beyond that, a vast grassland extending to infinity. We are in the Serengeti.

We arrived here Thursday morning after driving from Karatu and through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. NCA is literally in my backyard, just 50 meters from my office window at school yet as many times as I’ve wandered through the forest in my village I’d never gotten the opportunity to see the impressive Ngorongoro Crater, just 9 miles from where I live here in Tanzania’s northern highlands. Luckily just as I finished my very last day of teaching a friend and her visiting parents were going on safari and so generously invited me along. Together we entered the conservation area and stopped to enjoy the view of the colorful caldera (crater is a bit of a misnomer), a depression created millions of years ago when the volcano collapsed in on itself. Today, the 12-mile wide caldera, in the midst of a chain of extinct and collapsed volcanoes along the edge of the Great Rift Valley, is home to thousands of animals, more densely packed than anywhere else in Africa. At the bottom of the crater is a clear blue lake to provide them with ample water, and along the crater walls is a lush green forest providing food even in the dry season. The crater is a paradise for elephant, rhino, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, antelope, crocodiles, lions, hyenas, dik-dik, ostrich, hippo, servals, jackals, wild dogs, cheetah, leopards… you name it. Veronica and her parents had descended into the crater the day before, so on this morning we simply took in the view, and from 1800 meters up on the rim we gazed over 12 miles of a green and blue depression surrounded by nothing but sky.

We continued around the crater, heading northwest toward the Serengeti, passing the dry, dusty plains surrounding the mountain. This is the land of the Maasai, a semi-nomadic tribe living in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Traditionally they subsist primarily on cattle milk and blood, wear a few layers of red cloth, and decorate themselves with beaded jewelery. As boys they learn to become either cattle herders or warriors; if they choose the latter, they must spend weeks living in the bush without food or water, searching for their subsistence on their own to prove their worth. These days a Maasai can choose a third path: to enter mainstream life in Tanzania, to go to school and become a teacher or a businessman or a politician. You can usually spot these ones in the towns, as they look no different than any other Tanzanian save for their stretched earlobes, once heavy with beaded jewelery, a vestige of their upbringing which many have chosen to leave behind. Often, however, you will see a Maasai wearing his red shuka cloth, carrying his herding stick, driving a motorcycle down the highway towards Arusha, a reminder that old habits die hard and change comes slowly. In the conservation area, however, Maasai are seen flagging down safari cars, asking for food or water, offering to show their homes and their ways and their dances for a fee, and thus their dependency on tourism has begun. For thousands of years Maasai have lived off the land but as your average tourist invades their home carrying with him a charitable heart and a disposable income, he doesn’t realize the harm that he could be doing to the traditional ways of the Maasai. But while many Maasai have resisted the Tanzanian government’s attempts to merge them into mainstream society, others enjoy the middle-ground, supplementing their lives with handouts and food scraps.

Gradually the land flattens and we see less and less Maasai. We pass Oldupai Gorge, the site where Louis and Mary Leakey discovered fossil remains of early hominid species. This is the place where man was born, where our species transformed to bipedalism, where our brain size increased, where we began eating more and more iron and protein, strengthening our capacity for learning and intelligent thought, before we spread out among the continents. The place where we made the dichotomous transition from beast to man, and forever changed the fate of the earth.

The road straightens and flattens, and soon we pass through the arch declaring the land ahead Serengeti National Park. At the gate Maasai casually stand, waiting for nothing, simply passing the time on their side of the gate. They do not live in the Serengeti, do not mingle with ostrich and hyena and elephants passing their homes in the night like they do in Ngorongoro. We pass under the arch and the road continues forever ahead. In the distance the horizon undulates with the humidity and it’s difficult to tell if those silhouettes in the distance are gazelle or if I’m imagining things in the heat. At one point I think I see a lake near the horizon but then I realize it’s the sky and I can’t discern where the land ends and the sky begins. After an hour or so of driving I can’t tell if we’ve covered 10 miles or 100 miles, the landscape seems completely unchanged from when we entered the park.

The name Serengeti is a corruption of the Maasai Siringet, meaning endless plains. The Serengeti is a vast expanse of grassland, impressive for its sheer size, 5,700 square miles of unchanging plains extending from the National Park in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya.  Cruising down the dirt track toward the center of the park, Veronica and I stand up in our safari car, our bodies emerging through the exposed roof and we enjoy the breeze and even the dust and we take in the sights. We spend the afternoon searching for game and come across gazelle, antelope, several herds of elephant, a giraffe so close we could almost touch it. Lionesses nap under the shade of a yellow fever tree, nursing two cubs, and a short distance away rest two males with their soft, fluffy manes. Hippos cool off in the pool of a river, a baby crocodile sunbathes on a small grassy island. Huge secretary birds wander the plains, and a female ostrich shows off its feathers to a nearby male. Zebras cross the road, Grant’s gazelle gallop in the distance, and suddenly a cheetah darts across the road, two cubs following behind.

After several hours of driving in circles seemingly everywhere yet nowhere, it’s time to retire for the night. Veronica and her parents stay at an expensive safari camp, and I’m happy to pitch my tent in the public campground. I wake up in the middle of the night, poke my head out of my tent and gaze at the stars, too afraid to risk walking around and meeting a hyena or worse, an elephant in the campground. I rise early in the morning and walk around the perimeter of the camp, a field maybe 200 feet in diameter crowded with 40 or 50 scattered tents. The only thing separating the camp from the animals is a few trees and shrubs and through the brush and the pre-dawn darkness I see a lone buffalo munching on grass. I promptly decide against a morning run and head back to my tent, brush my teeth, have some coffee, and pack up.

Friday morning we enjoy a few more hours of game driving then retire to the airstrip, a field of gravel in the middle of the Serengeti. Nobody checks my baggage or even looks at an ID as I climb aboard a Cessna Caravan 208B, a tiny little 12-seater that will drop me off at the airstrip in Manyara, a field equally as small and unprepossessing. I’ve been wanting to take a tiny little plane like this for a while and with this trip I’ve checked a few more items off my Tanzania Bucket List. After 35 minutes we land in Manyara and I procede to make the 10 mile hike uphill to my village. Exhausted from the afternoon equatorial sun, I quaff three Sprites and promptly fall alseep as soon as I make it home.

The Serengeti was an amazing place, one of the most impressive I’ve ever been. Not only is the scenery starkly beautiful but just being in the middle of the vast expanse of grassland, with animals hiding around every corner, is to be in the Africa many of us dream about. The Africa where survival is precarious and one can never know what the day will bring, the Africa where man evolved in the hot sun under the baobab tree. During my two years here I’ve learned a lot… about man and nature, about the people in Tanzania and the tribes who, since colonialism, have left their traditional ways and now dream of a life not unlike your average American, who see that a different type of life exists and imagine that life to be infinitely better than their own. The more one moves towards the modern life, the more one leaves nature behind. Seeing the Serengeti, the landscaped which has remained unchanged for hundreds of years and the wildlife living the way nature intended, the primordial way of life, is a reminder of what life really is, and a reminder that we are all here simply to survive. Man is not so different than beast. Man evolved to survive. Skyscrapers and spaceships and iPods and microwave dinners are a byproduct of us forgetting that we are alive because Mother Nature allowed it, not because we learned to overcome and to defeat her. Being in this setting, in the expanse of the Serengeti plains in East Africa, helps you to see the essential, to begin to scrape off a little of the shell of existence in which you currently live and chisel it down to the core, to re-examine the values that guide your life and drive your daily decisions.

I think that’s enough philosophizing for now. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll save my energy and let you imagine for yourself.

Early morning Serengeti scape.

October 4, 2012

Expect the Unexpected

It’s 4:00 pm and I’m in Arusha, sitting on a bar stool in the Backpacker’s hostel looking over the streets full of people, the constant flow of traffic, multi-story buildings that are the closest thing I’ve seen to a skyscraper in two years but are hardly worthy of the title. Clouds are gathered around the summit of Mt. Meru, content to wrap themselves around her peaks until the air cools. It’s the end of the dry season and lining the streets are Jacaranda trees void of green leaves yet bursting with lilac-colored flowers. It’s like a painter left dollops of purple paint all over the town, and it’s beautiful.

I woke up this morning to my usual early-rise ritual: out of bed around 5:30, sit atop my courtyard wall and scan the field for wildlife, then prompty hop back into bed to read by candlelight for about 30 minutes. I started to get up, decided I was too lazy for a run, went back to bed, then finally got up and made coffee, brushed my teeth, and by 7:30 I was in my office ready to review the notes for today’s math lessons. Before I could even sit down suddenly the headmaster steps into my office, greets me by saying “Habari ya mpenzi?” meaning “how is your lover?” to which I am too utterly confused to respond and I’m not sure if he means Nic my new roommate (the Volunteer who is replacing me) or if he’s making up rumors. He then goes on to tell me that there is a regional conference in Arusha about preparing the practicals for the upcoming national exams, and that I am going. In two hours.

Umm… what? I wasn’t sure how to respond, because I had immediately decided I wasn’t going — two hours notice to go out of town for a few days? When this is my last week to teach, when I have yet to review physics and give my students last-minute help before their exams start next week? Of course I’m not going! But I’ve learned that disagreeing with my mkuu up front inevitably leads to a headache, so I kept my mouth shut and agreed, figuring I’d regroup after our talk and decide what to do. Anyway, Peace Corps will get me out of this. Officially we’re not allowed to stay in Arusha on account of rampant theivery. The headmaster can’t argue with that.

But that didn’t work. I called Peace Corps and they said it was fine, it’s for work, don’t worry, just fill out the paperwork and you’re good. So then I tried to think of other excuses. And then I thought… why am I so against this?

True, losing my last few days to teach is less than desireable, but the conference could actually help. Starting in about a week and a half many of Tanzania’s Form IV students will be expected to perform six separate practicals (what we in America called lab experiements) as part of their national standardized examination. The practicals are exactly the same throughout the country but each school’s respective teacher is expected to prepare solutions, specimens, instruments, etc. for chemistry, biology, and physics. If a teacher fails to prepare the lab correctly, it could cause the students to obtain the wrong results and to fail the exam. So what was I so worried about?

And then I realized what it was. After two years here I’m still not used to the lack of preparation, the schedule that is never followed, and the lack of consideration for other people’s plans (because I’m about the only person at the school that ever has any). I realized that I was upset because the headmaster was asking me to instantly drop everything and change course. There was no asking if I would be available to go, it was just a sudden “you’re going.” A command, an order from above. But that’s life in Tanzania: you respect authority. And didn’t I come here to learn how to live like a Tanzanian?

In Tanzania, most people have grown up learning to surrender their lives to something bigger than themselves. Many would call it God, but here in Africa that’s a concept that is barely a couple hundred years old, much less in many villages. There’s no way to know what that “something bigger” is going to bring you today. How can we know what we will be doing this afternoon, let alone tomorrow, where and what we will eat, who we shall meet on the way? People have dreams and ideas for the future, but it all rests on the assumptions that one can’t make any assumptions. That you have to ride the wave of life, if you will, and take what comes your way. It’s a way to accept things as they are.

So I decided to go. To drop everything, run home and pack a bag for a night or two, and maybe stop in Karatu for a Snicker’s bar before finding a lift to Arusha. And now here I am on a rooftop balcony four stories up, and the clouds have already parted and the craggy peak of Mt. Meru is visible and the sky is clear. I don’t know how long I’m going to stay in Arusha or what’s going to happen at this conference. I’m leaving my village in about three weeks and I don’t even know if I’m going to Mombasa, Nairobi, or straight home when I’m finished with Peace Corps. For all I know I still might extend my Peace Corps service. Life is full of unknowns, variables you just can’t control, and instead of fretting over it, worrying about where it’s all going to take you, why not just let it take you? Enjoy the ride.

September 30, 2012

It’s About Time

It’s about time to start cleaning up. To gather the mounds of dirty clothes up off my floor; to arrange my books on the shelves; to scrub the dishes and let them dry in the sun; hell, maybe even to bathe. To take an inventory of the objects and possessions and memories in my house and find something to do with them, somewhere to keep them. It’s a good day for tidying up the house.

It’s now been more than two years since my training class landed in Tanzania on that fateful Friday evening in 2010. 39 pairs of bright and idealistic eyes scanned the streets of Dar es Salaam as we traveled from the airport to the center we stayed at our first five days in country. I think I can say that we’re all a little different than we were back then, though I’m not quite sure how. Perhaps our skin is a little bit tougher on the outside as we’ve become inured to the hardships of living in rural East Africa. Maybe it’s a little softer on the inside as we’ve made friendships here and come to understand a little more about humanity and realized that we’re not quite so different after all.

Tanzanians want in life what anybody else wants in life: happiness. To be surrounded by close friends and family who you can depend on through thick and thin. Here, times of trial and tribulation aren’t treated so different as times of prosperity. When the harvest is good you pile your plate high with ugali and mchicha; when it’s bad, nobody denies a visitor an equally sized mound. Tanzanians live in the moment more than I really thought possible: if a plate overflowing with food is the last of the rations, that problem will be dealt with tomorrow, and it’s a good bet you can count on a neighbor to have plenty of food left for you.

I have exactly one month left in my village before I leave it for good. Before I have to say goodbye to my students, my fellow teachers, my friends in the village, and people who were once strangers welcoming me into their homes to pile my plate high with ugali. One month before I have to say goodbye to people who have become the closest thing I have to family here. I have exactly one month to take stock of two years of life in a tiny, beautiful village in East Africa, thousands of miles from home. But in some ways I never actually left home, I just moved it for a while. Here in the tiny corner of Slahhamo village on the edge of the forest, I have found another home. The people I share this village with have helped me to create a new home, and for that I am indebted to them.

People keep asking me how I will remember them when I’m gone. All I can think is, how could I possibly forget? How could I forget the first time I met Ema the smiley school guard who talks so fast I can still only understand half of what he says, picking wild vegetables with Madame Getude, watching the crazy old man whose name I can never remember eat a piece of raw goat stomach, helping Mama Veronica get her cabbage ready for the market. Watching Aladdin with Sophia, and coloring with my neighbor kids. Cooking banana bread for Mama Grace from whom I buy my bananas. Maggie the house mama in Karatu and the time I’ve spent with the dadas at the stationary store over soda on slow afternoons in town. Teaching my students to say “just chillin’” and explaining how to cook pizza, discussing why America is more developed than Tanzania and trying to convince them that global warming isn’t only America’s fault. How could I possibly forget the hospitality they’ve given me, how much of our lives we’ve shared together?

As I clean up my house today, I start reflecting on the past and start thinking a little bit about the future. I start making piles of what I’m taking home, what I’m giving away, and what I’m leaving for the next Volunteer. I start thinking about how I’m going to say goodbye to people I’ve shared my life with for two years, people who I don’t know when I’ll see again. If I come back to my village and to my school later in life, will anyone remember me? Will there be a paved road in these parts, will the village finally be connected to the electric grid? How many of my students will be in the village and how many will have left for greener pastures? Will people just think I’m a lost tourist trying to find a new safari hotel in the area?

There’s a lot I can say about the past two years. I’ve cried in public over the silliest things (a bus that smells like cows), been frustrated enough to throw cultural sensitivity out the window, wanted to crawl in to a cave and never come out. I’ve been elated over the silliest things (a COLD apple!!!), and I’ve accomplished a lot of what I came here to do. Without a doubt this has been one of the wildest rides of my life, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. Looking back on these past two years stirs up a grab bag of emotions and memories, and all I can do is be thankful for everything that has come my way. So thank you, to everyone in my village, at my school, fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, and to everyone back home that has supported me and encouraged me through this journey. It’s been a great ride.

July 14, 2012

The Kammer Principle, or How Development is Sort of Like a Satellite Dynamics Problem

I’m not sure who said it. It could have been a my Math 312 TA, it could have been a study group tutor. Maybe it was  Bonazza, my aerodynamics professor who always seemed to have the most simple yet profound insights (and the coolest name ever). I’ve racked my brain trying to recall who it was that said it, but wherever it came from the idea has stuck with me in my years since finishing college. For some reason I’m compelled to attribute it to Dan Kammer, my advanced dynamics and satellite dynamics professor, who reminds me a bit of a tacit and shy John Cena, though without the obscenely buldgeing muscles.

What was told to me time and time again was the simple fact of why my engineering homework was always so damn difficult. The only way to make it through an engineering major or any other technical field is to struggle through each problem on your own, to work through everything you are given even if it takes you all night, to make a hundred mistakes before you get it right. I was told time and time again that the reason my homework was so difficult was because that it isn’t necessarily the content of the questions that are important so much as stretching the muscles of your brain to figure out how to solve the problem. Engineers are rigorously trained problem-solvers. It’s not an exercise in getting the right answer, it’s an exercise in finding it.

Though I haven’t sat through a satellite dynamics class or done any homework in nearly 3 years, their lessons are coming back to me now, and I don’t mean lessons on the Coriolis effect, either. It’s strange the things some of us take away from college — some of my friends walked away with the ability to design rockets and fix roller coasters, and I walked away with a new metaphor for my life. The way I see it, a satellite dynamics homework assignment is like a developing nation striving to achieve it’s goals. There isn’t a single person or NGO or agency or outside government, or professor, who can figure it out for them; if that happens, the nation, or the student, won’t have the capacity to find their way through other problems. They’ll come to depend on others, they’ll look for handouts and freebies and shortcuts. The only way for a developing nation to develop is for them to do it themselves, to figure out their own way and what works for them. It takes a lot of trial and error, hundreds of mistakes, and a lot of mental exercise. It’s difficult, and takes a long time, but it’s the only way for sustainable development, the only way to develop and maintain the capacity for problem-solving.

So that begs the question: What the hell are we all doing here?

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