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.