Hi, everybody! I've been in Uganda for 10 days now and the time is ripe for a proper update on what's going on under the sunny (well, lately a little rainy) skies of east Africa. Peace Corps has been fantastic so far. So much has happened and I am well aware of your miniscule attention spans, so here's the condensed version of my first few days in the Corps:
Tuesday, February 9. I said goodbye to mom and dad at Newark-Penn Station and boarded a train for Philadelphia. I checked into the hotel the Peace Corps had booked for the Uganda training group's US staging event, only to find out that because of the massive blizzard heading towards the east coast, we would have to check out immediately and take a bus up to a JFK airport hotel. Luckily, that helped us beat the snow the next morning. After an hour of de-icing on the tarmac, our group of 29 was up in the air, faced with the colossal task of keeping ourselves entertained for the next 15 hours as we inched our way towards Johannesburg, South Africa.
Let me tell you, 15 hours is a long freakin time to sit on an airplane. But South African Airways serves free wine -- in coach -- so I couldn't complain too much. My inner cartophile had me neurotically glued to the in-flight map for most of the flight; I watched as the icon of our plane slowly crossed the Atlantic, the Equator, the Prime Meridian, Namibia, and Botswana before eventually touching down in Jo'burg. The layover provided a prime opportunity to pick up an overpriced stick of deodorant at the airport chemist (that's a drug store, my fellow Americans), some Malaysian curry, and a beer. I passed on the World Cup 2010 gear. A relatively short 4-hour flight later, we were on the ground at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
It looks like my goal of condensing this post isn't exactly panning out. Forgive me, I have to indulge my romantic fascination with travel by writing about it. But back to the story...
We were greeted at Entebbe by a slew of Peace Corps Uganda staff, including our charismatic CD (Country Director), Ted Mooney. They whisked us away in buses to the Lweza Conference and Training Center, where I was able to get my first decent night of sleep in days, under a mosquito net.
We spent the next few days at Lweza, getting to know everyone in the training group, meeting various staff members, receiving basic survival Luganda language instruction, attending security briefings, and having private interviews with our trainers and medical officers. A particularly nice consequence of my medical interview is that I no longer have to wear dress shoes to work, and instead MUST wear sandals (PC policy is very clear on the whole business casual dress code thing). Nurse Kathy determined that my sexy dress shoes had exacerbated a small infection on my right pinkie toe, and that the infection needed exposure to the tropical Ugandan air in order to fully heal. Adios, shoes!
On the final day at Lweza, a Sunday, we broke into groups of 3 and 4 and toured the Ugandan capital of Kampala. In Uganda, Sunday is typically spent relaxing at home after going to morning church services. Accordingly, most cities and towns are a little more laid-back and manageable that one day of the week. I would not describe Kampala on a Sunday as laid back. It is a manageable size, but beyond that it's anything but manageable. Kampala is a crowded, hectic, fast-paced metropolis where pickpockets run wild, traffic lights are treated as suggestions, and motorcycle taxis called boda-bodas whip by at 50 mph, two inches from clipping your arm. It's the kind of place where someone might snatch your cell phone out of your hand while you are talking on it, and as you turn around quickly to locate the thief in the crowd, a matatu (minibus taxi) barrels through a red light, straight for where you are standing, and you are forced to dive out of the way. In shock from this near-death experience, you manage to pick yourself up off the sidewalk, and just as you are about to look for that phone thief, the little boy standing in front of you shouts, "Eh, muzungu!" ("Hey, white guy!") and puts out his hand, fully expecting that you will draw from your bottomless muzungu coffers and hand him a 10,000 shilling note. And that's on a Sunday.
One thing Kampala has going for it is Owino market. Owino is a canopied jungle of flip flops, fabric, and fashion. Kenyans will take a 12 hour bus from Nairobi to Kampala just to shop at Owino for half a day. You can find any reasonably inexpensive clothing item under the sun there, and haggling is mandatory. As a muzungu (white person), I expect the starting price quoted to me to be at least double what would be quoted to a muganda (Ugandan), so I bargain accordingly. My big triumph in Owino was negotiating a 2/3 price reduction on a quality pair of Airwalk flip flops, from 45,000 shillings ($22) to 15,000 shillings ($7). A different dealer had originally asked 85,000 ($42 - totally absurd) for the same flip flops, so I could almost claim an 82% reduction.
I have so much more to write about -- my homestay family in Kisimbiri, sugarcane, the weather, the landscape, language and teacher training classes, electricity (or lack thereof), shitting in a hole, and bathing with a bucket, to scratch the surface -- and thus far I've barely described anything! But I gotta stop here for tonight. Peace Corps Training is a 6-day-a-week affair, an intense introduction to the next two years of my life as a full-fledged Volunteer, and I need my rest to function.
I'm happy to be in a new place, with new people, doing good work, even if the living isn't easy. I'm pretty sure that coming here was the right decision.