The content and opinions found on this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect any position of the United States Government or the Peace Corps.

April 25, 2011

4th of Jul-island

A lot of people have this misconception that Peace Corps is some huge, selfless sacrifice, a sacrifice made with the goal of helping others, but still a sacrifice. On paper it certainly sounds this way: you've got to pack up your life, say goodbye to everyone you know, move halfway around the world, complete an excrutiating training program, settle by yourself in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of strangers who don't speak your language, and work on development projects for two years. On top of that, you must give up many basic creature comforts and do it all for less than minimum wage. Because of this, some refer to the experience as "self-inflicted masochism."

But the reality is that this can be a pretty kickass lifestyle. I teach seven 80-minute classes per week. If you include the time I spend grading assignments and planning lessons, that's maybe a 25-hour work week. There's no boss breathing down my neck and virtually no chance of losing my job. I receive one of the best healthcare packages on the planet, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Did I mention 24 paid vacation days a year? Sure, I'm paid a paltry $300 monthly living allowance. But when your rent is free, electricity is $5 a month, and $3 easily buys a day's worth of food, that $300 goes quite a long way. Especially when you consider the following indulgence: celebrating the 4th of July on a Kenyan billionaire's private tropical island in Lake Victoria, food and homemade banana rum included, for 20 bucks a night.

Banda Island is located 40 kilometers south of Entebbe, which served as the country's administrative seat during British colonial rule ("Entebbe" means "chair" in Luganda, an apt name selection by the Brits), and currently is home to Uganda's only international airport. After setting my midterm exams last July, I headed to the port of Kasenyi to take the boat down to Banda with a few other PCVs.

It turns out that there are no docks at Kasenyi, nor are there ferries. Instead, small, hand-crafted wooden boats perch about 10 meters offshore, awaiting passengers travelling to the Ssese Islands. The only apparent reason why the boats are parked like this is to place a short stretch of waist-deep water between dry land and the boats. This creates a wholly unnecessary, but lucrative, job for the local men: hoisting Ssese-bound travellers onto their shoulders, and carrying them out to the boats.
With our backpacks filled with cameras and iPods and dry clothing, we had no choice but to pay the men to carry us. One by one, we were loaded onto our boat (poorly, I'll add, since some people ended up getting their legs wet, defeating the purpose of being carried), and subsequently asked for ridiculous sums of money. "20,000 shillings!" one man demanded from my friend, Nathalie. "5000!" my carrier shouted at me. Now, I'd estimate that 1000 shillings has the same purchasing power in Uganda as perhaps $3 spent in America, even though it's worth only about 42 cents at the current exchange rate. So essentially, Nathalie and I were being charged $60 and $15, respectively, for a sloppily-executed shoulder ride! I handed my carrier two 500-shilling coins and laughed in his face. That was all he was going to get out of me.

The boat pulled away from land and we began our journey south of the equator. Given the situation, it seemed an appopriate time to listen to "I'm on a Boat" by the Lonely Island. An iPod and portable speakers were pulled out, and soon we were all singing about "busting five knots" and fucking mermaids. There were a few Ugandan passengers with us, but we figured that the 4th of July justified us being ugly Americans, just this one time.

Five hours later, it seemed almost comical to think that being on a boat would ever be something to brag or sing about. Four foot waves had been pounding us from the front (sorry, "the bow") nearly the entire way and it didn't look like we were getting any closer to the island. Water bottles had been urinated in, and then accidentally spilled because of the boat's rocking. A penis (Boy Devon's) had been spotted by mistake while it was filling one of these bottles. Rather than exciting its female viewer (Girl Devon), it caused her to vomit multiple times over the side of the boat. One girl in our group, who was suffering from an untimely case of giardia, crapped her panties. A few compassionate Volunteers assisted her in the clean-up while everyone else turned away, trying to ignore the unmistakable aroma of poo beginning to taint the air. The sun had gone down, and damp with schistosomiasis-infested lakewater, we started to seriously question whether we would reach dry land at all.
Thankfully, it was only another 40 minutes or so before the boat pulled up to a bank, dumped us on land, and sped off before we got a chance to ask why Banda Island Resort looked like a deserted grassy knoll. Where were the beach cottages? The volleyball net? And most importantly, where was the banana rum?

We had been scammed. The boat was supposed to take us directly to the resort, but instead dropped on the wrong side of the island so that another boat driver, conveniently waiting for us at the drop point, could charge us 20,000 shillings for a ride to the other side. Once again, we grudgingly handed over our money for an unnecessary ride.

Finally, finally, FINALLY we reached the resort. We were greeted by a palm frond beach fire, a pack of barking dogs, and two Israeli girls. The girls, fresh out of compulsory military service, had been invited to take care of the resort for a few weeks, after meeting its wealthy owner on their post-service travels in East Africa. They helped us unload our food and backpacks, which had done an excellent job of soaking up the vile liquids that had collected in the bottom of the boat, onto the beach, then showed us up to the island's "castle" for dinner.

Dinner in the "castle"
The rest of our Independence Day weekend, thank God, went a lot smoother than the boat ride. We packed in many hours of hardcore unwinding: reading in the hammocks strung from some lakeside trees out back of the castle, playing cards on the beach, swimming in the water (while praying we wouldn't contract schisto) and hiking up the island's main hill for a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding islands. The place was gorgeous and chill, and we had it all to ourselves, except for the Israeli caretakers, the cook staff, and an extremely stoned South African Member of Parliament (out of courtesy, I won't post his name) with travel buddy in tow.

Foreground: A Ugandan mancala game called omweso (way better and more complex than regular mancala). Background: someone chilling out in a hammock
Get out of my picture, bitch!
Bald eagle! Well, a wannabe, but who cares? Go America!
Back home in Ohio, Dave "Smiles" from our group – so called to differentiate him from the three other Daves we trained with, because he is perpetually smiling – had this 4th of July tradition he called Jortstock: he and his friends would cut up jeans into short shorts (jorts), which they would celebrate the holiday in all day long. Smiles, Boy Devon, and I decided to carry on the tradition. In light of it being America's birthday, I chose to make my jorts out of a pair of Obama Jeanswear jeans, a cheap Chinese brand with OBAMA stitched across the back pockets and legs. They were hideous, of course, but an entirely necessary component of our Jortstock 2010 take on the Iwo Jima war memorial:

It's not gay if you're doing it for America.
At the end of the weekend, we all took the boat back to the mainland. The trip only took two hours this time, with placid water and sunny skies the whole way. Of course, dozens of people carriers were waiting for us at Kasenyi. As we neared the shore, we could see them jostling each other, each determined to grab one of us out of the boat and take our money. Everyone on board was tense, waiting for the onslaught. It was like D-Day. When we reached the shallows, the carriers dashed towards us and started pushing the boat back. They wanted to keep us in deeper water so that we had no choice but to be carried. Our driver, though, knew the carriers' sheisty ways. He gunned the outboard motor as hard as he could, blasting them out of the way and landing us safely on shore. The Americans won the battle. A perfect end to a perfect 4th of July weekend.

Getting spanked with an American flag flip flop while wearing Obama jorts. Could I get more patriotic?

Charlene sings into her "mic" on the ride back

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