Friday, December 14, 2007

Jab, Iwe, Jab

I hope this email finds you well, I’m fine although a bit harried from trying to make all the last-second preparations for leaving my site. I’ll officially be leaving muyembe village on December 17, so just a few short days left. the following are a few odds and ends i've been meaning to mention in previous emails but never really got around to.

I keep waiting for the village to feel differently now that I’m about to leave, more dramatic some how, but it doesn’t. life continues on pretty much the same as always, with me bumbling my way through the village experience. I’ve told all my close friends that I’m leaving, their disappointment and sadness at hearing the news has been slightly gratifying but mostly painful. I’ve shared a lot of adventures, funny moments, mis-steps, and cultural understandings and misunderstandings with all of them. It is difficult to cultivate a friendship with most Zambians beyond a certain level because of any number of barriers—race, gender, culture, class, language, etc. but with some of my friends we were able to get beyond those, and the results were incredibly rewarding, allowing me a longer glimpse into Zambian life and the companionship of people with whom I could have an honest conversation about difficult topics.

One such friend is bana kaunda, the lady I wrote about some time back who lost her oldest daughter to a stomach ailment. Because of the barriers to friendship mentioned earlier, some people are hesitant to approach me to talk, ask if I wanted to join in an activity, etc., but that distance was never a problem with bana kaunda—she was always at ease with me and didn’t hesitate to ask if I wanted to be involved. She would wander over, for instance, and ask if I’d like to help her pound cassava (of course I said “no, that’s woman’s work,” but I appreciated the gesture nonetheless), or, just recently, if I’d like to observe a pre-marriage ceremony.

Realizing that this was a chance to add to my already impressive record of challenging Zambian gender stereotypes, I agreed. my status as a muzungu, my whiteness, and the fact that I was willing to take pictures of it all granted me exemption from the normal restrictions on male participation in this sort of thing, an informal ceremony intended to prepare a young girl for her impending marriage. The girl has to remain solemn at all times and immediately obey all instructions from the collection of banacimbusas—older, respected female teachers responsible for guiding the younger women of the village—who are conducting the proceedings. It was funny to watch these dignified women, quite drunk, squabbling about the details of the different rituals, dancing, laughing, and generally behaving as any group of friends the world over do when enjoying themselves. One old lady in particular was constantly hustling her stout body about, shouting orders at the girl, dancing, singing and laughing, her lined face lit with energy. At one point during her dancing she got a bit carried away and began hiking her chitenge above the knee-level threshold deemed acceptably modest in Zambian society. The other bamayos shrieked with laughter at her to stop, echoing the silent scream I’d emitted inside my own head. All in all it was a fascinating time and I was very fortunate to be allowed to watch—to my knowledge I’m the only male in peace corps zambia who’s observed this sort of thing (plenty of female pcv’s have).

I don’t think I’ve ever written about my charcoal-starting travails, mostly because it’s not that interesting and reflects badly on my ability to perform simple functions. Suffice to say there have been multiple occasions when it took me more than 2 hours to cook a meal, highlighted by me nearly hyperventilating after spending minutes blowing with all my strength on a single stubborn spark. However, I’ve persevered, refused to be beaten and finally conquered the problem: I bought a kerosene stove. It works pretty well although there are a few design flaws, most noticeably the one that enables it to try to kill me by emitting fireballs. The first time it happened I was cooking breakfast and received a glancing blow after I’d somehow convinced myself it was a good idea to bend over the burner to get a closer look. I was left looking singed but a good deal warier of kerosene stoves.

We’ve had a mini-drought that’s just broken, thankfully, in the last week and a half or so. Obviously, rain is hugely important for agricultural purposes but is also crucial for replenishing the nearby river that provides all the drinking, bathing, and washing water. The swimming hole I bathe in had gotten particularly disgusting, the last few times I was in there I couldn’t see my hands held at my waist below the surface—whenever I’d get water up my nose I could practically feel the schisto attacking my brain directly.

The higher water level also makes it easier for me to fetch all my water. I use an old 20 liter kerosene can that is really heavy when full. To fill it entirely when the river is low I have to clamber out on slippery rocks into the middle and then try to hop back on the same rocks while lugging this heavy, unwieldy can. I never attempt this when people are around to watch as the potential for humiliation, which despite my frequent interaction with I’ve never gotten entirely used to, is simply too great. If people are around I assume a pathetic, bewildered air (easy as it’s only incrementally removed from my normal village expression) and wait for someone to take pity on me and order their child to fill my jerry can.

Zambia has the women’s world featherweight boxing champ, esther phiri. She’s a national hero and her bouts attract huge television audiences inside of zambia. She recently fought and beat a u.s. contender, opening me up to some good-natured ribbing from the Zambians I was watching the fight with and with whom I’d been trying to talk smack. The concept of ‘talking trash’ hasn’t really taken hold here, and it soon lost its thrill after the third or fourth time I would make an outrageous claim, something like ‘I hope esther’s enjoying her last few moments of being able to walk,’ and all the Zambians in the room would pause and give the comment the type of thought usually reserved for an idea with actual merit. when the fight was over i left, the first time in my life i've received hugs and handshakes from fans cheering for a person i'd just spent an hour trying to insult.

I attended esther’s previous fight in Lusaka when she beat a Romanian challenger. The title bout was a big disappointment with the challenger hurting her arm halfway through the 2nd round and conceding, but the 3 or 4 preliminary fights were a lot of fun. There was a huge guy several rows from us dressed in a fatigue hat, tank top, cargo pants, and chunky boots. Throughout each fight he would shout ‘jab, jab, jab, jab’ incessantly and so earnestly I felt like he’d be mortally offended if the boxer didn’t heed his advice. In between rounds he would turn to his companions and regale them on the same theme, waving his arms about and bobbing his head forward with the force of his conviction: ‘the jab, it is important. Yes, very important.’ At one point he rushed shouting to ringside, apparently so the boxer in the corner could more fully grasp the nuances of his advice. The security guards posted there to prevent just such occurrences dallied conspicuously on their way to remove him, although they assiduously attacked any smaller troublemakers.

Apart from the delight I took in watching the proponent of jabbing, the fights themselves were interesting. I was struck at how boxers moved when they were in tight with their opponent—I could only compare it to how I’d seen a snake dance about with its body raised off the ground as if a wire were running the length of it. The fighters would move the same way, erect in the middle of a hail of blows, moving with a fluid but incredibly rapid smoothness that would necessitate jerky or abrupt movements in non-boxers. When the boxers would start to really slug it out the crowd noise would swell into a mob roar punctuated, of course, by the bellowing from a few rows over: ‘jab, jab, iwe, jab!’

i hope you're all well. have a merry christmas and a happy new year.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Everyone Dance Now

i'm currently in lusaka, i just returned from about 9 days of hanging out with my parents and sister in cape town, south africa. it was a great time that i'll probably write more about later, for now i'm going to mention a few things about life back here in zambia.

a lot of you have asked exactly what i'll be doing in my new job in lusaka; the short answer is, i don't know. the program is relatively new and just starting to go nation-wide, so there are a lot of as yet unspecified work areas within the program that i'll be able to work on. the project itself has been initiated by the center for disease control (cdc) with pepfar (president's emergency plan for aids relief) funding. the cdc contacted peace corps and asked if there were any volunteers who could help them on the project as they needed people with village level experience, people who knew how to interact with villagers, explain concepts simply and clearly, organize village meetings, etc. since my peace corps group has an overlap problem that is forcing us out of our villages early, it worked out perfectly for me to join up with the cdc project. the title of the project is smartcare, and it has developed a small card with an embedded computer chip that will hold a person's entire medical history. the card can be read by a specially designed software program, so if a patient enters any clinic in zambia with smartcare capabilities, his medical information can be accessed by the clinic officer. currently all medical records are found in paper exercise books stacked in the clinics (if they bother to keep records at all), which obviously presents any number of problems. if the smartcare program is successfully implemented in zambia, it will be much simpler to track disease statistics (including hiv) and will help clinic officers accurately diagnose health problems and prescribe the proper treatment. it's a colossal undertaking as only 5 pilot clinics have smartcare currently, and the cdc has now started the process of getting the program into every clinic and hospital in the country. so, i and a couple other pcv's (and some ngo's and the zambian ministry of health, they'll help a little too) will be helping them do that in some capacity or another. so, in mid-january i will be moving to lusaka and start working with the cdc. obviously, leaving so early is bringing sooner than expected a lot of the emotions i thought i wouldn't have to deal with for a while about moving from my village. to keep it simple, it's a roller coaster, with doubt, sadness, guilt (that ever-present friend of all pcv's), happiness, etc., all making themselves felt. but, ultimately i know this is a great opportunity to do some valuable work.

i've mentioned before zambians' kindness and hospitality, but something i don't think i wrote about was that this concern for muzungus' well-being seems to be shared even by strangers. my pet theory concerning this phenomenon is that all white people are seen as foreigners (the meaning of the word muzungu, a word directed at me approximately 6 million times a day), which means they're guests, which means hospitality usually demands that they be treated helpfully. i left my bike in kawambwa one day to accompany tom, my missionary friend, to kazembe to look at the orphanage he was building. on our way back it began to pour, and i had visions of my bike getting entirely drenched. when we arrived at the store where i'd left it the bike was sitting underneath the roofed porch and a zambian man i'd never seen before was drying it off with a rag.

similarly, i was recently riding in a minibus up to kawambwa and hating every second of it. my knees were ground into the seat ahead of me and i was carrying my heavy bag on my lap as there was no place to set it. people were pressing into me from the side and behind, and sweat was trickling down my back while the hot, stagnant air reeked of body odor and fish. then, we drove into a rain storm and suddenly water was pouring down the side of my face from a leak just above my head. the entire bus erupted into a chorus of 'tsks, tsks' and the man behind me thrust his cupped hands out to try to catch the stream. there was a general stirring as people squirmed and twisted to make way for a bucket to be passed forward, which the man held up to the leak until it stopped. i slumped forward, wet and still hot, tired, miserable, and wishing the ride was over, but with one difference: now i was smiling.

we recently had a week-long workshop in mansa and instituted a rule with punitive intent: if you were late to sessions, you had to sing and dance in front of the entire group. the only problem is, zambians love singing and dancing and are blessed with virtually no self-consciousness; the only people hustling to their seats were the americans while the zambians continued to amble in leisurely. several times, a zambian would be serving his sentence in front of the group and be joined by other zambians of their own free will. at one point dan's two counterparts were up singing and dancing; dan, being new to the country, trying to be supportive and engaged, and forgetting that he is white, joined them. now, i've reflected a lot on zambians' previously mentioned un-self-consciousness, and concluded that part of it is that they're tremendous dancers, so they have no reason to be embarrassed. this is not true for white, male pcv's, however, of which dan is one. furthermore, sometimes a pcv's self-delusion concerning his dancing skills, coupled with zambians' supportive attitude and general unwillingness to criticize a muzungu, can result in some truly heinous dance moves. dan entered the fray and immediately perpetrated a flamenco/macarena hybrid dance on the unsuspecting crowd; this being a professional occasion i had to content myself with chortling behind my hand and biting back the taunts that instantly sprang to mind.

but here again is one of the beauties of living in zambia: it's okay to be a rotten dancer. no matter how wretchedly uncoordinated and awkward one looks on the dance floor, you're still going to be a rock star--a standing joke in pc circles is that the first time a volunteer dances in the states he will find himself alone in the middle of the dance floor, gyrating clumsily and wondering why he's not being mobbed by happy people wanting to dance with him. so, later that night as i found myself with my arms slung around the shoulders of two sweaty zambian guys as we hopped around the dance floor in time to the beat of euro-techno music, i had reason, not for the first time, to be grateful that they don't mind terrible dancing here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ba Zungo

i'm currently in lusaka nailing down the final details of the job i'll be working for my last 8 or so months of service. i have finally gotten everything arranged, which is a relief as i've been working on it for a while. i'll send you more details on the job later, the biggest aspect of the transfer is that i'll be leaving my village earlier than expected.

a large part of what makes my village life so interesting at times is, of course, the people who live there. one of my favorites is a man named ba zungo. he's a retired school teacher who probably weighs in at 90 lbs. soaking wet; he's about 5'5" maybe, his face is deeply lined and his balding head is studded with tight tufts of white hair. he has a strange habit of screwing up one side of his mouth when he speaks which gives his face a lopsided appearance during conversations, an impression that becomes even more pronounced when you notice he is missing two of his front teeth on the right side of his mouth. i'm assuming he can walk normally but i've rarely seen it because he staggers everywhere he goes as he is perpetually drunk on kacasu, a village-brewed moonshine that can literally make you go blind or worse--the fact that ba zungo is still alive is a testament to the stunning tenacity of the human body.

ba zungo gained brief notoriety in a small circle of my pcv friends when shawn, richard, and joel were all at my house one day. ever the gentleman, ba zungo lurched into my yard to greet the visitors, and immediately asked them why they couldn't assist him financially. they for their part asked him why he didn't spend the money he used on kacasu to meet his other needs. ba zungo straightened up, blinking owlishly for several seconds as he pondered this impertinence; then, a look of triumph flashed across his face as he hit upon the ideal retort. turning to shawn, thrusting a finger at his pendant-adorned neck, ba zungo parried with his own query: "let me ask you a question. what is that necklace?" so that gives you an idea of what a thrill it is to talk to ba zungo, it is regularly the highlight or lowlight of my day.

a short time ago i happened across him early in the morning looking particularly sharp; his shirt, rolled up at the cuffs to hit just below his wrist, were clean, his trousers bunched around the waist by his cinched-up belt looked pressed, and his vest was only missing two buttons. i remarked on how smart he looked and he launched into a long soliloquy about how hard zambians work and how he in particular toils night and day, but when he gets dressed up no one asks him to work. reflecting that this seemed like a solid strategy for shirking one's duties, i said goodbye and we parted ways. later that day many of my villagers gathered to help build a nearby house. ba zungo, now thoroughly drunk, saw me and told me he was on his way to change as he now was going to be doing some 'rough' work and he didn't want to spoil his clothes. he went on at length about how difficult the job would be and how messy he was going to get until i managed to shoo him gently out of my yard. even with all his claims about his work ethic, however, i still wasn't surprised when i looked over about an hour later and there was ba zungo, sitting on the ground and shouting orders at everyone that they were all ignoring. i decided to walk by the house for a closer look on my way to the river; ba zungo, apparently exhausted from hindering other people's work all day, was now stretched out flat in the shade while about ten men, all pouring down sweat, bustled around constructing the house in the intense heat. i laughed and filed away the memory to tease ba zungo with the next time he claimed to work hard; however, i'd underestimated him; as i walked away he spotted me from his supine position, and his thin voice floated after me: "you see ba joshua? this is how we africans work."

i hope all is well in the states, i know things are great in new england right now, given the boston sports teams' successes. i've spent hours hunched over the computer trying to download clips of red sox and patriots games, cursing slow internet and drinking up every 2 second clip i manage to watch. it's a great time to be a new england fan, it just figures i'm half a world away while it's happening.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Lusaka Death Traps

i'm in lusaka for about a week for our mid term medical examinations, after a year all pcv's come down here to get poked and prodded and searched for parasites, diseases, etc. usually some volunteers get a nasty surprise when test results come back, but fortunately most of the stuff that gets picked up is easily dealt with.

i came down a few days early to explore getting a position with an ngo or some other sort of aid organization. the next group of life'ers coming into the country will get here in february--this is the group slated to replace my intake, so we have to leave our villages earlier than expected to make way for them. so, while it will be sad to leave my village earlier than expected, it is a great opportunity to get an interesting position with one of the many organizations that do aid work in this country. usually ngo's are fairly willing to take on pcv's as we're university graduates from the west, we have development experience, and, most importantly, we're free labor since we'll still be supported by peace corps. currently i'm looking at trying to work with iom, crs, or world vision, although the difficulty so far has been making contact with someone in these organizations in the position to make a decision about taking me on. but, i'm hopeful something will work out, it's an exciting opportunity.

this email is going to be entirely random as i really don't have much to report, so i'll just write a bit about a few things i find funny/interesting about my life over here...if you look for a coherent theme to these stories, you'll be disappointed.

work in the village is going well, i've been doing mostly dry season gardening projects and seed multiplication for certain plants. people have some time on their hands right now as harvest season is over and planting season has not yet begun, so traditionally this is when volunteers have the chance to do most of their work.

we recently got some karaoke cd's that can be played on our dvd player at the mansa house, an addition that has brought a whole new element to the social life of the house. it's generally agreed that i'm the most enthusiastic singer, which is a bit like getting the 'most team spirit' award for sports--it's the only nice thing that can be said about someone's efforts. but hey, i'll take it.

i've been slowly beginning to get the knack of traveling by minibus around lusaka; it's not for the faint of heart, that's for sure. the busses themselves are uniformly ramshackle, closest in size to a 16 passenger van in the states except narrower with a lower roof. they're moving masterpieces of jerry-rigging, testaments to the ingenuity and 'makedo-itevness' of whomever's in charge of keeping these things running...i don't know how they keep it all together without duct tape, but they manage. occasionally the conductor will have to kick and punch and pull at the side sliding door to get it to open, and then jam it back into place when it needs to be closed. many of the windows are broken out and taped over with thin plastic, and often the interiors are stripped so just bare metal is showing all about. i once sat with my feet on a piece of metal flooring that was removed to reveal the gas tank directly below; i've watched a gang of men lift a minibus off a curb where it had gotten stuck, and it's practically standad operating procedure to have to give the busses a push to get them moving. they cram 4 or 5 people onto benches designed for 3, then go careening around town blaring their horns, committing any number of traffic violations and ill-advised maneuvers, leaping out of the bus to try to convince potential passengers to risk their lives with them, and fighting with other bus conductors. they speak mostly nyanja here in lusaka so i don't understand most of what they're yelling at each other, but often it needs no interpretation, the basic gist of an obscenity usually translates effectively.

bargaining over prices is a fact of life here, one i usually don't enjoy very much. as a white person you're instantly marked as a tourist, and people will often jack up a price accordingly. taxi drivers are the worst for this, often quoting a price that's 2 to 3 times higher than it should be. i love watching another pcv bargain with a taxi driver because everyone has their own method; elly will skewer them with a glare, heave a world-weary sigh, then say "ok, now give me a serious price." some volunteers will browbeat a taxi driver, lecturing them that they shouldn't try to cheat us just because we're white. others will claim they're just a volunteer and don't have the money to pay an outrageous fare. some pcv's critique the quality of the product they're purchasing, pointing out flaws that should merit a lower price. shawn used this technique occasionally. i accompanied him one day on a shopping trip to the market to buy some cloth for his mother. he entered a little stall and asked the price of a chitenge, and was told 10,000 kwacha; as i wandered away to look at another part of the market i heard shawn's opening gambit: "10,000?? that thread had better be made of real gold..."

when quoted the white man's price i usually erupt into laughter like i've been told a great joke, and sometimes i'll even slap the person's shoulder like i get it and hit them with a follow-up joke, like, 'is that the price for a ride or the whole car?' (i didn't say they were good follow-up jokes). my nuclear option is the walk-away, i turn and take a few steps as if i'm prepared to leave, at which point i'm usually called back with a better offer. the walk-away has to be used cautiously though, a few times i haven't been called back when bargaining for some crafts that i really did want; then, of course, my pride wouldn't allow me to return and admit they'd won.

occasionally bargaining over a price becomes a matter of principle, you resent the fact that they tried to cheat you so you find yourself haggling ferociously over something like 500 kwacha, approximately 25 cents. i was in shoprite once and saw shawn waiting grimly by the cashier with a dogged look on his face. i walked over and asked him what he was doing, he replied he'd been waiting about 5 minutes for his change and wasn't going to leave it until he got it. there's a permanent change shortage in this country, and shoprite is notorious for shorting their customers if they don't have enough change. but shawn had had enough of being short-changed and was making a stand, a statement of principle, even. another 5 minutes passed as i waited with him and eventually he wilted in the face of the cashier's greater determination not to give him any more money. we trudged out of the store and i asked him the amount he'd been owed. '100 kwacha,' he replied.

i hope you are all well.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mutumboko Ceremony

It's been a while since I've written as things have been hectic here. A new intake of volunteers flew in so I've been down in Lusaka for the last couple of weeks helping to train them; we've only just finished getting the last of the new Luapula volunteers placed in their villages. It was interesting to see how they reacted to being dropped out in the bush, it brought back a lot of memories of how I felt more than a year ago when I was placed. For the most part they smiled bravely and waved as we pulled away, but I've been told that almost all the female volunteers cry when they get left, and probably some of the guys as well. Quick tip: should you ever find yourself dropping off a girl in the middle of an African village for the first time, resist the urge to try to be funny. Humor is wildly underappreciated in those situations, as I discovered.

A large group of us attended the Mutumboko ceremony just before I headed to Lusaka to help with training. The Mutumboko is a traditional Lunda ceremony (the people in my area mostly are by tribe Lundas but they speak Bemba because they were conquered by them some time in the past) performed by the Mwatta Kazembe, 1 of 7 paramount chiefs and the 2nd most powerful in all--only the Lozi king in Western Province commands more land and therefore more respect. The ceremony attracts about 10,000 people every year, so it's a big deal. The ceremony is really too complex to give you much of a detailed account of all that happens, so I'll try to hit some of the main points. Basically, it's pandemonium as soon as the Mwatta emerges from his palace. He came out dressed entirely in white with beads, an old Lunda sword, and a cow tail swish hanging off his costume in various places--he looked very Druidic. He followed a set path to the river with various stops to perform small rituals of varying significance, most of which was lost on me. At one point he crawled and rolled in the dust towards a sacred tree, sacrificed food like chicken, cassava, grounduts, etc. to the ancestors living in the river by tossing it all into the water, and was carried on the shoulders of his bodyguards back to the palace (his attendant knelt before him and the Mwatta climbed onto his shoulders. the Mwatta was quite a bit larger than his attendant yet the man gamely rose in slow motion, his whole body swaying and trembling with the exertion. Several minutes later the carrier had to be relieved, after which I'm sure he collapsed was a funny series of events) During this procession a soldier who was part of the protective circle formed around the Mwatta and his entourage by linking their arms together happened to catch my eye. I gave him a grin and a thumbs-up and suddenly he reached back and pulled me into the circle. So, there I was with the Mwatta Kazembe, his bodyguards, and his witch doctors with painted white faces and feathered headdresses. In the 14 months of out-of-placeness I've experienced here, this topped them all so far. But I was having a great time and his entourage was large enough, about 30 strong, that no one really noticed. I was, however, deeply interested to know if my presence so close to the Mwatta was some sort of taboo (only in the last 20 or 30 years have white people been allowed to attend this ceremony at all) that would result in my getting speared when people noticed me. Fortunately, no unpleasantness resulted.

The entire ceremony was basically a sustained shoving match as people jockeyed for the best viewing position. Thousands of people would run, jog, bump, and jostle their way from one station to the next. It was hot and clouds of dust hung suspended over the crowd during the last procession. I had lost contact with the other pcv's during all the commotion, my shirt was soaked through with sweat, the massive slit drum that had accompanied the procession was booming away, and I could taste the fine grit of dust in my mouth as I jogged along a short way behind the Mwatta's entourage. Occasionally they would suddenly stop and he would swish his cow-tail whisk around and do a bit of a shimmy while still sitting on his attendant's shoulders. The crowd lining the way would go wild, cheering, whistling, hooting, and trilling their voices in high-pitched cries. Then the slow, stifling, herky-jerky jog would begin again; this continued until we reached his palace, about a kilometer and a half away. There, the crowd made a rush to accompany the entourage into the palace while the soldiers tried to close the gates, which is how I found myself mashed up against one of the iron doors of the gate after I'd tried to use a massive soldier as a blocker through the rush. I scraped along the door and was basically shoved into the palace grounds by several soldiers behind me trying to get in, the Mwatta went into his palace, and that was it for the morning festivities.

The afternoon ceremony was a succession of different people performing the dance specific to the Mutumboko, culminating with the Mwatta coming out with war hatchet and sword. He danced for a few minutes in an elaborate costume, brandishing his weapons to symbolize the Lundas' victory over one tribe or another in the past. Once he had finished the Mutumboko was officially over...all in all, really interesting stuff.

It's strange to say goodbye to all the Luapula volunteers being replaced by this newest group. For those of you who've been reading my posts all along, you've often heard me mention Shawn, Richard, and Parker, my usual partners in the various expeditions I've undertaken and all of whom are leaving within the next couple of days. It is sad to see them go, but the new group is shaping up to be very solid as well. I'll end here as this post has gotten far too long, hopefully I'll be able to write another in the next month or so as I should be back down in Mansa towards the end of September. Stay well.

Monday, July 9, 2007


I'm currently in mansa on my way back from 4th of July vacation in Livingstone which was good times all around. A big group of pcv's were down there for a few days, all but one of whom was from my intake. so, I got to see some old friends from training for the first time in a while which is always nice.

The highlights of the trip for me were the lunar rainbow and the whitewater rafting. one evening we went down to Victoria Falls to see the rainbow that appears for a few days during every full moon; during the day there's always a rainbow as the falls throw up so much mist, and we were lucky enough to be down there when the moon was bright enough to create a rainbow as well. The rainbow looked like a gray version of a regular rainbow except it was incredibly long, it emerged from the mist in the gorge and traveled all the way up the face of the falls until it curved up and over the lip. The gorge is deep enough and the mist so thick that you couldn't see the rainbow all the way to the bottom, it simply disappeared into gray mist far below. Pretty neat sight, something I didn't realize existed.

The rafting was intense, the Zambezi is one of the best rivers in the world for it. We could only run the second half of the river as the water volume was too heavy for us to shoot the first series of rapids, but the second half was plenty. I've done some rafting in Maine but there were spots on the Zambezi where the water was bigger than anything I'd ever been in before--in fact, there are spots where people go surfing on the waves that are created. At the beginning of one rapids (appropriately dubbed 'the washer machine') we dropped into a big hole which made the wall of white water in front of us appear even larger than it was. I was in the front of the raft and when we hit the raft simply stopped, skewed into the air at about a 45 degree angle, then slid off down the side of the water wall and got completely buried. The guy sitting across from me came flying across the raft and knocked me out into the water. I've grown up around water, am a strong swimmer and was wearing a life jacket and helmet, but as I was getting sucked down through the rapids I experienced several moments of "deep concern" (a guy in the raft with me said I looked scared when I first popped up, but I corrected his misperception). There's one general, down-stream current to the river but there's also a cacophony of other, smaller currents flowing every which way-when you're in the middle of it it's incredibly disorienting. I was surfacing long enough to grab a quick half-breath before I'd get smacked in the face by another wave, spun around and then taken under again. I was finally spit out at the far end of the rapids and floated about in a pool until a kayaker retrieved my bedraggled self and ferried me over to another raft. Once they'd pulled me in I lay on the bottom trying to project an air of nonchalance, an effort hindered by my loud gasping for air and clearly waterlogged state. It was amazing just how massively powerful the rapids were, I'd never experienced anything like it before.

One of my next door neighbors got some batteries for her radio recently and has been playing it full-blast; the kids I hang out with have now taken up dancing as one of their main pastimes. 4 or 5 of them, ranging in ages from probably 3-6, will wander into my yard and start a spontaneous dance party, it's high comedy. Bellies bulging forward and torn shorts flapping around their spindly legs, they crouch bowl-legged and begin slowly, like they're underwater, shimmying their hips and waving their arms back and forth. They're still so young that they aren't able to dance as rapidly or as fluidly as adults, so they mostly resemble small, black old men tottering about the yard. These dancing interludes are quickly becoming the highlight of my days.

I've started a gardening project and seed multiplication program with the smallest and poorest village I work with, called Chifwesa. About 50 people live in the village, their huts scattered throughout the bush, some of them very isolated. I've grown to enjoy more and more visiting them as the people are incredible; the last time I was there 3 different families presented me with armfuls of sweet potatoes and groundnuts. This type of generosity is typical in all villages but more pronounced for whatever reason in this one. Yet I cringe when I see them disappear right before I leave because I know that they're going to get me food to take or to eat there. It is difficult for me as I don't need the food and they very much do. A few times I've even tried sneaking away or leaving abruptly so I wouldn't have to take their food, but every time they make a determined effort to give me something. If someone from their family hasn't already gotten me something the man will tell me to wait while he hustles out to his field and digs up some sweet potatoes or groundnuts for me.

So why don't I simply refuse? Part of it is that it's a custom, a show of respect. But the bigger reason is the pride it gives them. Poverty is largely a corrosive attack on people's dignity; when they present me with a gift that I express appreciation for, it is dignity-confirming--they have something of value that even I, an obscenely wealthy (by their standards) white foreigner enjoys. When I thank them profusely (my gratitude is always genuine; given the circumstances those handfuls of groundnuts and sweet potatoes are absolutely some of the nicest gifts I've ever been given) I can see their faces glow with pride. Accepting their gifts with gratitude and humility may well be one of the most important things I do over here to mitigate the effects of poverty. So I invariably end up biking away from Chifwesa deeply, deeply humbled, ashamed of my own selfishness, and filled with admiration for these people's generosity. I undergo the same experience when I attend church and watch a stream of people move forward to make an offering. The sums themselves are tiny, but taken as a percentage of their income I'd be willing to bet it would shame most people in the west who consider themselves charitable. These villagers are generous in the midst of their need, they give from their want, and it is sometimes staggering to watch.

Well, I've rambled on for long enough, I hope you are all well and enjoyed your 4th of july holiday.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007


I was actually able to motivate myself and write two posts within the space of a couple of days, first time that's happened I'm pretty sure.

So, a couple of random village stories. These are both taken from my journal for which I apologize, but I promise I will not subject you to 'journal-ly' talk (example: I was watching the sunset today and started thinking about death, and how someday I'll shuffle off this mortal coil...nobody wants to hear that junk, which is why you put it in a journal. Back to the story).

Right now I'm sitting in my chair watching a ragtag band of iwes (children) furiously sweeping my yard, they're setting to with such vigor they've kicked up a small dust storm. This is high comedy marked by collisions, loud cries of "iwe!" (you) and lots of sweeping to cross-purpose as one child will brush the leaves and twigs in one direction only to have another sweep it back into the area just cleared. So, essentially, the yard has been divided into 8 mini-kingdoms, each cleared by sweeping the refuse into the neighboring area.

This all started when I promised the kids clustered around me that I'd give them each a sweetie if they swept my cluttered yard free of the detritus that had collected in my absence (it collects even when I'm here although not as quickly as I'll occasionally kick a bit of it away on my way out of my yard). There was a brief pause as they processed my heavily-accented bemba, sifted through my outrageous sentence structure, and parsed my misplaced inflections; then their faces lit up when the import of my words dawned on them, followed by a stampede out of the yard, bare feet thumping against the packed dirt, laughter and squeals of delight trailing behind them. Silence settled around me, and I imagined birds chirping, crickets singing and a soft breeze shushing through the trees. Then they returned, bursting into my yard wielding makeshift brooms of twigs (the conservationist in me wondered how many bushes' deaths I'd just commissioned because I'm too lazy to sweep my own yard) and began their mostly ineffective but ferocious sweeping. There was one kid standing in the middle of the yard beaming at me, clearly wanting to make sure that I noticed that he was working so he could be justly rewarded later. The problem was that he wasn't really sweeping, he was mostly flailing the ground with a few bedraggled twigs while he maintained his 100 watt, self-satisfied smile directed my way. He either thought I was unfamiliar with what constitutes sweeping (actually, a reasonable conclusion to draw, there is nothing in my village conduct that would have disabused him of that notion) or that I was more interested in form and a pleasant demeanor than actual results. I gave him a sweetie anyways because he made me laugh.

Early one morning joel and I helped one of my village friends, ba Kaunda, to harvest her groundnut (peanut) field. Ba Kaunda is one of the most respected women in the village and a banacimbusa, a teacher of tradition to younger women in the village concerning marriage, keeping house, etc...very important in the village setting. She looks the part as well as she is tall and big boned with high, prominent cheekbones; she is highly educated by Zambian standards and speaks very good English. She is easily my best female friend in the village, which is how I ended up helping her harvest her groundnut field. I was enjoying the time, it was early so the day was still cool and the village mostly quiet. I could look across the river at the dambo (low-lying, swampy area with high elephant grass) and admire the brassy rays of the early morning sun slanting towards us. The work was easy, there were 2 iwes hoeing the plants out of the ridges and piling them together. We would come along after and pick the shells from the plants and deposit them in a large mealie meal sack. Ba Kaunda was plying Joel and I with questions about life in America which we'd do our best to answer, asking in turn about Zambian life for comparison purposes. We covered a lot of ground: wealth, sexual norms, food, grieving, at times laughing at the strangeness of the other culture's traditions or marveling at just how similar we could be. There was a brief pause in the conversation and we worked on in companionable silence until ba Kaunda asked another question: "did you know that while you were gone my daughter died?"

No, I hadn't known. Her oldest daughter had died in Chimpempe while away at school and had been buried there, the body unable to be returned to Muyembe. Ba Kaunda explained that it had been a stomach problem of some sort, nobody seemed to really know but it had killed her daughter quickly. As she was explaining this to me the slightest tremor ran through her voice and she bent quickly over a pile of groundnuts. I stared down at my feet, embarrassed to witness this dignified woman's pain and understanding how awkward and inadequate I was. She shakily finished her story, the hurt almost palpable in the air. I offered my condolences, fully aware that the words I voiced were part of the American grieving ritual where certain stock phrases are expected and used, but which are probably mostly meaningless over here.

I'm hesitant to tell stories like that, which is why my posts are usually filled with only funny (well, attempted funny at least) or innocuous tales. The sad stories happen in a certain context that is usually too difficult to describe in a post. I don't want people to only believe that all is death and despair over here, as nothing could be further from the truth. Yet it is true that tragedy seems to lurk nearer the surface in zambia, and strikes frequently. Mostly, I told this story to someone on the phone who asked me to write it down, so I did. Hope you all are well.

Sunday, June 3, 2007


i am currently down in lusaka, we've just had TOT (training of trainers, part of peace corps' ongoing love affair with acronyms) which is basically a logistics meeting for all the trainers who will be helping with the new intake of volunteers due in june. i'll be helping to train the life group for the last 3 weeks of training, should be fun. this also is a reminder that i now have been in zambia for a full year, seems incredible.

my friend joel has left, back to the land of milk and honey. we had a great time while he was here, the presence of not one but two muzungus in muyembe really thrilled the children--they got some quality white man watching in. joel and i started playing frisbee on the soccer pitch when we didn't have much else to do, giving us an opportunity to showcase our 2 inch vertical leaps, mediocre running ability and lead hands. the first time we played i looked up after the first few tosses to see knots of children literally sprinting towards us to get a look at what we were doing. every frisbee game after that we'd be surrounded by kids which made it difficult to chase down errant tosses--a problem since 90% of our throws could be categorized as such. once we grew tired, though, it was nice to have them around as they would scamper after particularly bad throws as well as the occasional hat hurled in frustration. plus, the game was so foreign to them they probably didn't realize you aren't supposed to allow the frisbee to bounce of your hand/knee/face or launch it 20 feet over your partner's head.

last week the life/rap programs in luapula held a week-long workshop for village counterparts on a variety of subjects. it was a good time and beneficial i think, there were several interesting discussions about gender. it is funny to hear zambians air certain opinions on the topic, mostly because we westerners have been trained to be so highly sensitive about the subject; zambians, however, will blithely bust out with a sexist comment. as the only american male at the workshop it was sometimes up to me to try to counter some of those opinions since the american girls probably didn't have as much credibility in zambian eyes. one counterpart in all seriousness opined that good nutrition lessens divorce since "women aren't so difficult, if they're well-fed they will be happy." knowing i should say something, i broke in and offered that that was probably only true if there was chocolate involved. somehow, the girls later forgot to thank me for defending them.

we always try to incorporate hiv/aids discussions into every workshop we have, simply because all other development work we try to do is pointless if zambia doesn't start halting the epidemic that is absolutely crippling the country. so, hiv/aids education is critical and serious, but there are moments when it is difficult to maintain the somber face the topic deserves; i usually find myself wondering what the appropriate facial expression should be when watching a zambian counterpart struggle to demonstrate the proper condom application method using whatever model we have had to press into service (a bike pump once, usually bananas or cucumbers--a pcv once used a bottle of beer in a bar. he told me later that he was feeling pretty good about his extension technique until he tried to fill a condom with a liter of water to prove his boast about how strong condoms are. the condom broke, spilling water all over the floor and leaving him to try and convince a skeptical crowd that he'd been using one that had expired).

we recently had our province-wide meetings; me, shawn, richard, maneesh, and parker all decided to kill and roast a pig as we'd done during manfest '06. we spent a lot of time bragging about how this pig would be the best pork anyone had ever had, since we'd done so well at shawn's the one time we'd tried it (we now understand that that particular success was what is commonly referred to as "blind luck"). i killed the pig and we then convinced the guard to clean it, who finished the job about 3 times as quickly as we could have. we stuck it in the ground and continued raising expectations of magnificent pork among the other pcv's. about 14 hours later, with an expectant crowd gathered around, we pulled the pig out. silence...and then richard turning to erin and discreetly inquiring if she could run to the store and get 5 extra bottles of barbecue sauce. the pig was nowhere near cooked, a serious blow to the assembled male egos. several rash promises were made (mostly be me and shawn) to eat the thing anyway to prove all the complaining crybabies wrong but cooler heads prevailed and we ended up butchering the thing and roasting it like crazy. the pork turned out ok but what little faith the girls had in our culinary abilities was forever destroyed.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turnin'

i'm going to apologize ahead of time for this post, i'm a bit wired at the moment from two consecutive long days of public transport and lots of sugar consumed during transit.

easter vacation was an absolute blast. at lake malawi we spent about a week at a place called mayoka village, beautiful and very relaxed. i've decided that one of my favorite things about traveling in africa is the variety and quality of people you bump into. it takes a certain type of traveler to cruise around africa for long periods of time so often there's a feeling of almost instant kinship and camraderie when you run into other travelers. just on this trip alone i met people from germany, sweden, switzerland, u.s.a., iceland, zimbabwe, malawi, britain, canada, lebanon (an older gentleman named kamal who lived in sierra leone for a long time but left when the fighting broke out; he said he made the decision to leave when the hotel he was holed up in got rocketed by the rebels trying to flush out the nigerian peacekeepers hiding in the basement...good call), ecuador, and probably a few i'm forgetting.

i've decided anyone speaking with a british accent can sound sophisticated no matter what, even if they're discussing foot fungus or the like--this led me to wonder if i should start buttressing my arguments that are based on shaky logic with a hint of a british accent.

joel and i spent the first few days of our stay mostly hanging out with kamal and his group until they left and we met a couple of girls, cat and susie, from seattle who, despite thinking that boas are an acceptable fashion accessory, were very cool. we later met two american guys who joined our contingent, one of whom was born and raised in new york but has managed to escape the fate of being a yankees fan (this could be key to breaking the vicious cycle that is being a yankees fan), and in fact has the good sense to be a red sox fan. that's how i found myself one evening discussing red sox minutiae, like who was the second baseman when the sox won the world series (mark bellhorn, better known as "blowhorn" in my circle of maine friends; it defies the imagination how a guy can strike out that much). this type of fascinating discussion inexplicably drove cat away although susie, also fortunate enough to be a sox fan, hung on.

the guy from sweden (andreas) had just recently been expelled from zimbabwe; apparently he spent an evening antagonizing a government official (launching the conversation with "so, i hear you guys are torturing dissidents down here"...subtlety, apparently, is not a skill he has acquired in his extensive travels). it was fascinating to listen to his story as there were two zimbabweans there who work for advocacy groups in that country, one of whom knew the government official in question and let andreas know he'd been extremely lucky to only get expelled from the country. i had mixed feelings about the whole thing. on the one hand it had clearly been unwise, pointless, and self-indulgent; he could simply leave the country, yet the people still there trying to change the system probably had their work made just a bit harder by his conversation. on the other hand, it's hard not to secretly cheer when someone stands up to those arrogant, bombastic jerks currently running zimbabwe. it's saddening to talk to zimbabweans about their country, they speak about how beautiful and modern and free it used to be, an african success story, only to see it now crumble beneath the hand of a tyrant. it is now a virtual police state where torture and beatings and arrests are commonplace, where people simply do not talk about politics in public for fear of being overheard by the secret police. it's tragic, but if mugabe can somehow be removed the country still has the capacity to rebound.

on to happier things. lake malawi is beautiful and massive and has a surprisingly tropical feel to it. you can see mozambique if you look directly across the lake, but it's long enough that looking down it only reveals more water. mayoka village is perched right on the shore of the lake and consists of a scattering of chalets and a big dorm room; the whole complex is built up the side of a hill steep enough that when you're looking out towards the lake from the main dining room/bar/hangout porch area all you can see is water and the far shore, as if the building rests in the water. the place is run by two south africans named gary and catherine, who say the word "cool" in a manner i hope to someday mimic. it's soft and drawn out, accompanied by a beatific smile and nodding head, as if their use of "cool" was an acknowledgment of some greater cosmic truth you had just helped them glimpse.

i am now scuba certified as i took a dive course during my time there. i'm completely hooked, everything is more interesting 12 meters under water. the lake houses about 850 varieties of cichlids--brightly colored fish, usually electric blue although i also saw some that were pure white. what i enjoyed even more than the sensation of swimming through a massive aquarium was the terrain of the lake, huge jumbles of boulders everywhere and cliffs we would swim to and peak over and see only blue turning to darker blue to black, an expanse of nothingness that inevitably fires the imagination and makes you wonder about what exotic creatures could possibly be lurking down there. occasionally we would swim beneath overhangs and watch the air bubbles get caught beneath the rocks; the bubbles have the hard, metallic silver color of mercury and would tumble and undulate across the bottom of the rock and finally escape and drift towards the surface. everything appears graceful underwater, even my multiple faceplants into the sandy bottom when i couldn't "maintain positive bouyancy" (a phrase that i mostly understand). in a word, diving is cooool.

this post is far too long, the people i met on this trip who had a severe enough lapse of judgment to ask me for the blog address are probably already regretting it. i'll try to write later about south luangwa national park which we visited; if we meet someday and you're interested to hear more about lake malawi, mayoka village, et al, i'll be happy to bore you to tears with interminable stories. stay well.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Super Maheu and Other Rotten Things

i am currently in lusaka as i begin my easter vacation. we are going first to south luangwa national park in eastern province, then on to lake malawi which is located in, yes, malawi. should be good times.

it is with sadness that i announce the end of moustache march, an annual luapula tradition. it's a fun time but can also have serious implications for our work (parker claims people stopped attending his meetings when he had a moustache last year), social life, and general self-esteem. i am pleased to say that i was the proud owner of one of the "best" moustaches, meaning the most gross looking; others who will not remain nameless (shawn) did not fare as well: it looked like a caterpillar with mange died on his upper lip.

the great (or not so great, depending on with whom you speak) hair experiment has also ended, i am now clean-shaven with a buzz cut for the first time since i've been in country. it was for the best, and may have preempted a threatened haircutting intervention by one of the girls. plus this means i can now attend kim's birthday party, she made a general announcement that anyone with moustaches or other similary unacceptable hair manifestations would not be allowed in the door.

my friend joel has been visiting me for the last month, he was a pcv in guinea but was evacuated after the country began to experience a lot of internal unrest. it's been great having a good friend from home around, we've spent some time at my site but have also been traveling around kawambwa district seeing what there is to see. since joel spent about a year in guinea he's well acquainted with the strangeness that can occur over here sometimes, so he's had no problems adapting to pc zambia life. although, in my opinion, he has actually assimilated a bit too well, as he now professes a love for a maize-based drink called super maheu, a fate that doesn't normally befall someone until they've been in country for a long time and the resulting food desperation and loss of taste buds has set in. joel's poor culinary sensibilities has actually plunged him in the midst of a long-standing feud between shawn and i: shawn claims that super maheu is delicious and can serve as both food and drink (probably because of the floating maize chunks), whereas i claim that liking it is the surest sign one can receive of approaching senility. richard has even joined the fray on shawn's side, something that saddened me and made me realize that things like "logic" "truth," and "sound reasoning" were going to have no currency at all in the discussion. things degenerated to the point that my manliness was questioned: my formerly long, flowing hair and love of musicals aside, i'm as manly as the next guy. an uneasy detente now exists over the subject.

well, i'm going to keep this short as i have pressing business to attend to (i'm watching the red sox season opener!! parker has a friend who'll be watching the game, he wisely decided to tell me about it knowing that if he didn't it would be a serious blow to our friendship). hopefully i'll have time in the next month or so to let you all know how my vacation went and how work is progressing. hope you all are well.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Malarial Bike Rides

well, it's been quite a while since i have written anything, i've been at my site for an extended period of time so haven't been able to get to the internet. however, i'm hoping to write a bit in the next few days, so maybe that will make up for my delinquency.

my closest pcv friend in luapula province and closest neighbor's name is shawn, you may remember me mentioning him in connection with the pig slaughter during manfest. i may just start following him around every day as some how he gets himself into ridiculous situations on a semi-regular basis, most of which are extremely funny in the re-telling. his latest fiasco began when he got malaria for the second time. malaria hits pretty hard and fast so your decision-making can become rather fuzzy, which apparently was true in this case. shawn took some anti-malaria medication but misread the instructions and ended up swallowing twice the prescribed dosage. as one of his village friends said after shawn told him how much he'd taken, "that's not good." several hours later shawn had a high fever and his heart was racing so his friend, mulonga, decided to take him to the hospital which was about 10 kms away. however, it was 10 o'clock on a moonless night, and trying to navigate a wet bush path with someone on your bike rack in the dark is just about the least pleasant biking experience you can have. to complicate matters, shawn weighs more than mulonga so the front of the bike kept popping up into the air, leading to multiple crashes, some of which were in mud puddles. several hours later, covered in mud and thoroughly exhausted, mulonga pedalled into kawambwa with shawn clinging feebly to the bike rack. as it turns out there wasn't much that could be done other than to wait for the affects of the drug to wear off, so shawn spent the night in a mosquitoe net-less hospital room with an i.v. in his arm, watching the mosquitoes buzz over to bite him. he traveled to lusaka the next morning and was given a clean bill of health by the peace corps medical officer (although, as i pointed out to shawn later, they probably should have run some tests for pre-existing brain damage, considering that he hadn't been able to follow the simple instructions on the medication's box...he wasn't amused).

when shawn told me the story i really wasn't surprised by the lengths to which mulonga went to make sure that shawn would be okay. volunteers have a lot of stories about their villagers looking after them, sometimes even when they don't know the villager very well. i think there are a number of different reasons for it, one of which is that zambians have such a strong sense of hospitality and obligation towards their guests. we live in the villages and try to assimilate as much as possible but in certain respects we'll always be guests, which means that zambians, especially our friends, very much feel that they're responsible for our safety.

i was in kazembe about a month ago with my missionary friends, tom and amy, and we were sitting around in a van waiting for the butcher to show up with the beef that they'd ordered. the guy was already an hour and a half late, which means that he was only a little late by zambian standards. we were chatting away when i noticed a procession coming down the dusty main street of the town towards us. it was a group of six men carrying a bed on their shoulders in much the way you would carry a coffin; they were sweating heavily and some had their jaws clenched as they labored under the weight of the bed and the woman lying in it. one of the woman's hands hung limply over the side and her face was turned towards us, eyes shut, her countenance not so much pain-filled as resolute, as if she were trying to hang on. silence settled over the car as we watched them trudge on in the direction of the hospital, until amy quietly said "sometimes you just forget..."

she's right, sometimes i just forget about the depth of poverty many people are facing over here, and the situations in which it places them. there are a lot of reasons for my forgetfulness: one is that i have become familiar with it and it seems nearly normal, but a big one is self-preservation. however, there are moments like the one described above that serve to suddenly and painfully remind me about how difficult life can be. it was a sobering moment, made all the sadder because moments like that occur many times a day all over the world.

so, as i said, i hope to write a few more emails in the next several days. my friend joel is going to be visiting me soon for hopefully an extended stay, he was with the peace corps in guinea but has been evacuated as the country has become a mess over the last few months. we also have the annual luapula celebration that is known as moustache march, followed closely by mullet may coming soon...the events in question are probably going to be as gross as the names would suggest (when planning activities, we usually start with a basic query: how can we look the most physically repulsive? and go from there). hoping you are all well

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


These are mostly from Namibia and a few from Livingstone. Hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007


well, my christmas/new year's vacation has just about ended, i am now back in lusaka and am heading up to mansa tomorrow. the time away flew by, of course, but i had a wonderful trip and have no complaints. so much happened it would be impossible to recount them all in an email, but i'll try to give you some of the highlights.

namibia is far more developed than zambia and has a very western feel to it as it is a big tourist destination for germans and south africans. it was strange to suddenly be surrounded again by wealth and so many modern conveniences: the running joke throughout the trip was that it was like an extended episode of the "beverly hillbillies" as we wandered slack-jawed around gas stations and exclaimed about things like how many different types of candy bars there were. we also discovered a kentucky fried chicken restaurant in windhoek; if you've never seen a group of male pcv's descend on a kfc after having spent months in the african bush, it's a ferocious sight...we ended up eating there 5 times. the first time three of us, myself, parker and brad, split the family meal which was 12 pieces of chicken and a bunch of sides. the lady actually rolled her eyes at parker when he made the order, but she obviously didn't have any experience with peace corps as we finished it off without breaking a sweat. the best kfc moment involved brad several days later, however, when he tried to eat a 21 piece bucket all by himself. at about piece 13 he began to look as if he'd taken a suckerpunch to the solar plexus, and he declared defeat at piece 16 and spent the next several hours walking about in slow motion. ari and parker had split a 21 piece in a show of solidarity and managed to struggle through to the end, but not before i had to give parker a peptalk and ari appeared to be taking a nap. so, a bit humbled but much wiser about the advisability of trifling with the 21 piece kfc bucket, we took a several day hiatus from the colonel. (endnote: later in the day richard went back to kfc and they were closed with a sign hanging on the front saying they had run out of chicken...i swear. also, parker counted it up and realized he'd eaten 24 pieces of kfc chicken during the trip).

skydiving was the most fun i had on the trip. eston, doug, and i along with our tandem instructors and 3 soloists all climbed into a small plane and began the ascent. there was very little talking or movement as we were all crammed closed together and the wind whistling by the open door made it difficult to chat. i spent most of my time craning my neck to look out the window at the ocean and desert stretching out all was an incredible view. suddenly, the plane erupted into a flurry of activity as we reached the drop point 12,000 feet in the air. the soloists went first, striding to the open door and leaping out one after another with arms and legs spread as if they were belly-flopping into a pool. as they jumped the rest of us, strapped to our instructors, were frantically scooting our way across the floor and towards the door. i barely had time to give eston a thumbs up and doug a slap on the back before they were gone so abruptly it seemed like they'd been sucked out the side of the plane. then it was my turn and i was sitting with my legs dangling out the side of the door with the wind screaming by and my heart in my mouth. we rocked back as we discussed during our breif training session, then forward, toppling out the side of the plane. the ocean where it met the horizon tilted up towards me and then slanted diagonally as our momentum caused our bodies to swing until we were falling with our heads pointed straight towards the earth several miles below. we both flung our arms out, arched our backs and bent our legs at the knees and plummeted for about 45 seconds towards the ground. the wind was whistling by my ears so fast it sounded like a mechanical hum, and i could feel the air around me grow noticeably warmer. i opened my mouth to let out what i hoped was a manly whoop but the air pounding up at me almost instantly dried my mouth and throat. stretched out below me was sand and ocean and the town, swakopmund, a perfect view until we dropped into cloud cover and everything was partially veiled by a gauzy haze. then we were through the clouds and the instructor yanked the rip cord, my shoulders were jerked back and my legs swung forward and we drifted slowly for about 5 minutes until we touched down. there was a lot of backslapping and whooping back on earth, and shouted exclamations like "that was awesome!" and various other profundities. i've had some time to think about the experience but that word is still the best i can come up with with: it was simply "awesome."

there were a lot of other interesting and fun things that happened as well. i ate a ton of food, hamburgers, pizzas, chinese, mexican, indian, basically everything i could get my hands on. we saw ostriches, kudu, meerkats, zebras, and hardly any insects, which was a pleasant change. we went to sossuvlei, home of the world's largest sand dune at 350 meters high. i'm too lazy right now to convert that into feet, but take my word for it, it's a lot. we hung out on the beach (first time i'd seen the ocean in 7 months), went fishing, saw 3 different movies in a theatre (DO NOT SEE "Deja vu," it's awful. the girls liked it but the guys hated it, which, as parker pointed out, is a classic case of taste vs. extreme irrationality), and basically bashed around windhoek and swakopmund and enjoyed a lot of amenities we'd forgotten were so nice to have.