Thursday, October 5, 2017

Kiss of the Nile

So this is what it feels like to be dying.

It was a peaceful thought, one that just kind of gently floated in and out of my head, one that I took as fact.  It felt almost comforting, like everything would be okay if I just slipped into unconsciousness and let it all go, succumbing to the mental haze that was descending and crushing me but was simultaneously lifting me up and taking all my weight and worries away.

The thought itself didn’t scare me, I’m not afraid of dying, but I am afraid of dying on a toilet.  There are many more dignified ways to go; the least I could do for myself was to pull my pants back up.

I zombie-walked from the washroom back to the house, ignoring the greetings of the neighbor’s kids (“I eat mango!”), but I couldn’t make it past the step outside the front door.  I requested a basin and proceeded to throw up everything while all the neighbors stood around and watched.  One of them cornered Josh later and, waving a finger at him, said, “You see! I told you she was pregnant!”

I kind of remember being shuffled into the back seat of our friend’s car and being confused at why everything was so hazy when I looked out at the other trucks and bodas on the road.  More shuffling into the hospital, into a doctor’s office, back to a lab for blood tests, back to the waiting room, back to the other waiting room…  

I didn’t care where I had to go, as long as I could be horizontal.  I felt like I was going to black out any time my head was higher than my stomach.  And I couldn’t breathe… my chest was just slowly going to cave in on itself until I’d quietly suffocate on the floor.  That sounds kind of nice, actually.  Let me just curl up under this wooden bench, let me lay here for a few minutes and close my eyes so I can stop breathing and thinking and just enjoy the feeling of energy and life dripping out of my skin with every passing minute…  Then someone wearing menthol rub would walk by and I could catch my breath again, only to have it taken away as soon as they passed.  What a terrible tease.

The doctor that ordered the blood test called us back into his office.  Josh was antsy, he could barely sit down or stand still.  Another nurse kept popping her head in and looking at me and telling the doctor, “She’s really sick, we need to prepare her a room.”  I just wanted to lie down.  The doctor looked at me, looked at the lab results, looked back at me, and folded his hands under his chin: “Tell me again how you are feeling.”  I muttered something and went back to concentrating on staying upright in the chair.  There was some other back and forth and I said a word in Luganda in response.  His face lit up, “Ahh! You speak Luganda!”  

That’s when Josh interjected: “Does she have malaria or not? She’s really sick!”  I think he expected me to keel over and die at any minute, and this doctor was wasting precious time.  Josh told me later that my eyes were sunken so far into my head he was afraid they’d never go back to their normal eye/face ratio again.

The doctor didn’t so much as bat an eyelash in Josh’s direction.  He sighed and smiled and asked me, “Have you heard of de Kiss of de Nile?”  I just stared at him.  He continued lazily: “Yes, you do have malaria. And eet ees very bad. We can give you de pills, but sometimes, dey don’t work so well and you might have to come back. Or we can give you de stronger IV dat will take care of eet.”  

“GIVE. ME. ALL. THE. STRONGEST. DRUGS. NOW.”  I don’t think that’s exactly what I said, but it was something along those lines.  They shuffled me into an adjacent room (with a bed! finally!) and two nurses spent ten minutes trying to find a vein.  “Oooh, your veins are also very sick.”  

————

There are no curtains in Ugandan hospitals; no smoke & mirrors, no measures to give you a false sense of privacy.  The doctors don’t wear coats, the nurses don’t have uniforms.  I actually couldn’t tell them apart from the patients or from the janitor.  While I was in a daze waiting for the meds to start taking effect, a couple walked through my room to visit the doctor that had a small office on the other side of the wall partition.  She was pregnant and they were having complications.  I heard the whole conversation and the details of the exam in English.  

And the nurses don’t get the IV ready behind closed doors, they bring everything they need in a metal tray and slap it on your bed next to you.  They hum to themselves as they snap the little glass vials that hold the liquids they have to mix together.  They ask you to hold this, shake that, hand me that other thing.  One nurse’s young daughter would run around the hospital, in and out of rooms, having excited one-sided conversations with people before she’d dart off to chase the stray kitten that was also running around the hospital.  The nurses are just normal people and so are you; you just happen to be sick and they just happen to be the person to stick you with things.  

————

To this day, I have no idea what was in the IV.  I can’t read the doctor’s handwriting on the notes, and when I asked later, I couldn’t understand a single word they said.  But God bless it, whatever it was, I started feeling better within ten minutes. 

I had to get IV injections every few hours, so they kept me overnight.  We were moved to a private room (with a real toilet! No toilet paper or hand soap or towels, of course, but I was happy as long as I didn’t have to squat over a hole in the floor; I was so weak I didn’t think I’d be able to stand back up again).  Josh pulled up another hospital bed next to mine and we camped out for the night under the mosquito nets.  Although he said he doesn’t think he slept between checking every few minutes to see if I was breathing and contemplating what he'd say to my father on the phone if I didn't wake back up again.

Josh only looks like he's playing on his phone at the hospital. I'm sure he was actually very worried.
The doctor came in every few hours to do more IV injections.  At one point he asked me, “Are you okay being treated by a Ugandan doctor?”  I balked at the question.  I didn’t say this, but honestly, if he were a monkey in a lab coat I would have been okay with him treating me if it would make the malaria go away.  I asked if people came into the hospital and refused treatment from him.  He said it happens all the time, tourists or volunteers come in and request a white or Indian doctor (it’s a privately-owned Indian hospital).  They say they don’t want to be treated by an African doctor.  I told him I was really sorry people did that.  

Side rant:

I’ve blogged about this before here: yes, I do have alarms and bells that go off when I’m in certain situations because of the race/ethnicity of the people that I’m interacting with.  I have racist thoughts.  A lot.  More than I’m comfortable admitting.  But I really work hard on not letting them affect how I treat people or talk to them.  Tourists are actually the most easy-going, but it’s primarily the volunteers and the missionaries that talk to African adults like they’re children.  It’s really horrible to witness and I feel so ashamed to be a fellow mzungu.  I’ve run into a few Western missionaries who are really unhappy here.  They hate Africa, they hate how long they have to be here, and when one British missionary referred to Ugandans, he called them “these people” and chewed the words with such distain and spit and spite that I couldn’t tell if he was sweating from the heat or because he had worked himself up so much.  And these are the people that are supposed to be sharing the love of God with those less fortunate.  

Churches, please spend your money on something other than missionaries who live like kings and send their kids to great private schools while not loving and creating true Christian relationships with people here!  It’s very complicated and I’m very fired up about it right now, and there are many many wonderful missionaries and well-intentioned Western church programs here, but I digress…  The real point I’m trying to make is: if you go to Africa and get sick, don’t stick your nose up in the air when an African doctor walks into the room!  There’s a good chance they’re better educated than you are.  And there’s also a good chance you’ll meet them again in heaven, so you might as well save yourself some divine embarrassment later and be civil here and now.  Sound good?  Good.

————

Before I was discharged the next morning, I had a visit from the head doctor.  He was an Indian, and in his wake trailed a handful of African doctors and nurses and I think maybe even a janitor, although I have no idea who the woman really was.  While he looked over my diagnosis and treatment chart, everyone else stood around and dutifully looked at their feet, having somehow lost all the confidence that they were so imbued with the night before as they tried to make small talk with me while I tried to keep from falling over.

The Indian doctor looked at me with big eyes and said, “You were VERY sick.”  I felt like he was trying to convince me of the fact, like I wasn’t there myself, so I widened my eyes too and nodded solemnly back at him.  He barked some questions to the attending staff, who shyly mumbled replies.  He complimented the attending doctor on the course of treatment I had been prescribed the night before and said it was exactly right for how bad the malaria had been.  Then he handed the clipboard to someone and said I was good to go after one more IV injection (and then six more, twice a day for the next three days—you try getting chores done around the house with an IV stent sticking out of your wrist without knocking it against stuff all the time, it was terrible).

Everyone in the room slowly dispersed, except for one new doctor that stayed to administer the IV.  He was chatting with Josh, as Josh had been my unofficial medical decision-maker the entire time we were there.  I think I might have said only a handful of words to the doctors and nurses in the past 24-hours since I was so weak and since most questions were initially directed to him anyway.  All tests, diagnoses, treatment, bill payment, and follow-up medication instructions happened without me and in another language.  And I was totally fine with that.  I was dying, and now I’m not, and Josh will tell me what pills to take and when; what more do I need to know in this situation?

I found out later that this African doctor that had been chatting with Josh asked him if I was okay being treated by a Ugandan.  Josh said of course I was, and the doctor was surprised.  Ugh, don’t get me started on this again…

————

The next three days consisted of going back to the hospital twice a day for more IV fluids.  Sometimes I’d ham it up for the nurse as I could feel the stronger fluids inch through my vein like a nice razor blade/ice water cocktail all the way up my arm.  She’d laugh, but she knew it hurt and she’d rub my arm to get it to move faster.

Ugandans don’t exaggerate or hyperbolize.  They especially tend to downplay pain and sickness.  So I knew I must have at least looked REALLY sick when random people I don’t remember kept popping their heads into my hospital room where I sat with the IV, each one with the whites of their eyes so big and smiling, “Eh! You are okay! You are looking SO much better dan you did!”  Geez, how close was I to decomposing?  I must have looked awful.

Confirmed! I looked terrible.
I have to say the worst part of everything was taking the pills after the IV injections stopped.  I had to take three rounds of pills three days apart.  That week of medication, I had no energy, no motivation, and no personality.  It sucked not being able to stand up for more than a few minutes without feeling dizzy, or to try to make small talk with people and not even being able to smile or maintain eye contact, or to not have anything to say back to them; my mind was a blank slate and the brain fog was overwhelming.  My stomach was sensitive for months afterwards and it took a while to mentally and socially feel like myself again.

The expats here understand.  When I mention that I got malaria, they ask if it was my first time.  I say yes, and they immediately become some version of a doting grandmother with that look on their faces and they say something like, “Oh honey, it’s always so bad the first time. Don’t worry, since you survived this, it’ll never be that bad again.”  And then they reminisce and tell me all the details about when they got malaria the first time.  And sometimes the second, and the third.  And then we compare how much weight we lost from the lack of appetite during recovery.

Locals I tell fall into two categories: they either don’t register anything I said and just stare at me half-lidded, or they very dramatically widen their eyes and take a step back looking aghast like I had just slapped them.  And they say, “Eh! You are okay! Africans, we always survive de malaria because eet ees in our blood all de time-a, but YOU! Eh. Mzungus die all de time from de malaria because you are not used to eet.”

People at home responded accordingly.  My mom immediately sent me a photo of the last time I was hooked up to an IV for an extended period of time, when I was two years old and had a septic hip.  My friend Caroline told me I needed to drink more gin & tonic, since tonic water used to have quinine, an anti-malarial, in it back from when the British were occupying India and the government needed a sure-fire way to get the soldiers to take their malaria meds (read: mix it with alcohol!).  Tonic water doesn’t contain quinine anymore, but still, I’ll run with it.

Two-year-old sick Hollis is much more photogenic.
In the end, I LOVED getting to continue my informal study of the East African healthcare system: how doctors behave in front of patients, how protocols are organized & executed, the out-of-pocket costs of everything, all of it.  It’s such a different system than in the States, and it’s extremely African and messy, but part of me enjoys it much more because of the transparency.  Oh, and the total bill for the hospital?  All the tests and doctor consultations and a private overnight room and three more days of IVs and another week of drugs after that?  Total bill was $89.  We paid in cash.

As for the malaria, I guess the Nile tried to kiss me and I slapped it right back.  Take that, Africa!  Ha!  What else you got?!?  (Actually, no thank you, please don’t throw anything else at me, I’m fine, I’ll shut up.)

Friday, March 3, 2017

A Continent in Review

Writing has recently become a really difficult process.  I have half a dozen posts saved on my desktop that I’ve started working on, but that I can’t quite get right.  Words tend to feel like vomit; I can feel the sickness of needing to type out my experiences, but the wave of nausea just ebbs and flows now as I work and re-work these blogs that will probably never see the light of day.  Life in Uganda is hard on the body, hard on the mind, and hard on the spirit.  And it’s really hard to articulate that when there’s not much to report on a day-to-day basis.

As my trips to Uganda have increased in number and duration, life there has yielded a type of monotony that doesn’t lend itself well to the typical “anecdote, anecdote, nice summarizing epiphany” story structure.  At the same time, certain heavy aspects of the culture have been slowly seeping undetected into me and spreading like a cancer that I wasn’t aware of until I came back to the States and went through reverse culture shock again.

I know what to expect from reverse culture shock now: awe at how accessible and clean everything is, shock at the amount of money Americans (including myself) spend on frivolous and fleeting things, undying gratitude for the hot (and potable!) water that comes out of faucets and shower heads, and although it’s irritating not being invisible overseas, it always takes me a few days to get used to not being the constant center of attention again.  

What I did NOT expect this time I came back to the States was how tired I’d be.  Tired of doing laundry by hand.  Tired of sweating all the time and having to clean the dust off of everything daily.  Tired of having to speed-walk everywhere to avoid cat calls and requests for money or my phone number.  Tired of sitting in traffic in the sun for four hours to travel thirty miles.  Tired of locals looking confused and not understanding what the hell I'm doing here after I explain that I’m not volunteering and that I have no plans to bear children with my Ugandan boyfriend anytime soon. 

———

When I landed back in L.A. in December for my regular visit back to the States, my brother and I woke up at 6 am the next morning to be the first ones in line at Universal Studios.  I don’t know if it was the brain fog from the jet lag or the tangible magic of Hollywood, but the whole experience was glorious.  It was so fun eating all the iconic Simpsons food at Springfield, getting to ride past Boo Radley’s house on the studio tour, and listening to my usually silent-and-stoic brother giggle like a schoolgirl on the new Harry Potter ride.  We beat the crowds and got to ride everything before 10 am and blew a ton of money on an extravagant and totally unnecessary sensory overload experience: the perfect way to welcome myself back to America and to get this reverse culture shock stuff out of the way in one fell swoop.




8 am. No lines! No people! And no napkins!

I have no recollection of the quality of the Krusty Burger; the tiny "Krusty Burger" flag they stuck in it pretty much solidified the 5-star rating I gave it.

I saw this in a gift shop at Universal Studios: people are starving in Africa and we're here in America building entire business models off of the assumption that consumers would like to buy someone else's farts. I thought this was hilarious. "Global perspective" is just fancy-talk for "everything about all cultures is funny to me now because it's all simultaneously insignificant yet incredibly telling." Or maybe it was just the jet lag talking...

As much fun as I was having, I could tell that something was off.  As the crowd at the park started to grow, I was walking exactly like I walk around town in Uganda: pushing past people, looking straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, getting myself to where I needed to go as quickly as I could because everyone on these streets is so slow and they won’t move out of the way even when they see me coming, they’re so inconsiderate, I hope they don’t ask me for anything or yell at me because I won’t say hi to them why won’t you say hello to me I am just being your friend they yell. Because I don’t want to give you an opportunity to hear about how much you’d like to have a white woman to take you to the U.S. like I’m some commodity you can pass around because it personifies how little Africans value me and each other and human life in general I scream back at them in my head you’re all stupid and small-minded and I don’t want to help you if you refuse to help yourselves and oh my gosh I’M. SO. TIRED.

A woman at the park snapped me out of it as she side-stepped in front of me and apologized.  She apologized.  I had gotten so used to people being unaware and inconsiderate in Uganda that I was unbelievably shocked that someone would say sorry for accidentally getting in the way of my assumed path of travel.  I just froze speechless where I was.  Who was this person I had become that had so much disgust and distain for everyone around me all the time?  

———

A week later, I hit a new low point.  I missed a connecting flight in Kansas City (I have some very choice words for whoever designed your airport, by the way), and cried all the way through security.  I couldn’t keep my shit together at the gate as I watched my plane back away from the tarmac, so I ran to the nearest bathroom to do the “crouch-and-cry” since I could feel my knees beginning to buckle.  There were only two stalls in the bathroom and a long line of women going out the door had to stand and listen to my gasping and sobbing bounce off the walls for a few minutes.  Even in the moment, I knew it was embarrassingly and pathetically funny, and I had to smile as I came out of the stall and all the women in line graciously looked everywhere else except at me.  I honestly had no idea why I was crying; I take pride in being pretty resilient, but there was obviously something that needed to get out.  As I did a quick scan of everything I was feeling while crouched on the floor of the bathroom, the one word I kept coming back to was “tired”.

I knew daily life in Uganda would take its toll on me emotionally and physically, but I had no idea how taxing extended exposure to their culture would be.  Living there made me realize how deep-rooted and ingrained some of these economic development and social problems really are.  Ugandans tend to relate by making fun of each other and they don’t put much effort into building up others emotionally with encouragement.  This fosters an “every man for himself” mentality, which in turn breeds corruption, crime, tribalism, poverty, etc.  As a tourist, a volunteer, or an outsider, we just see the big problems: famine, no access to clean water, dictators.  But over time, I started to feel like the real problem was how they treated each other on an individual level.  So much could be solved if people would just put away apathy and self-interest.  It makes the problem of “Africa” feel so much bigger and so much harder to help solve.  And then to find myself taking on those inconsiderate and self-serving characteristics was a shock.  I've always believed "I'm a woman of the world! Open-minded and independent from all cultures!"  Nope.  Totally untrue.  Culture seeps into you whether you want it to or not.  I wasn’t aware at how emotionally exhausted I had become while trying to dive head-first into Ugandan life for the adventure and intellectual stimulation, while at the same time trying to shield myself from the aspects of the culture that began to wear me down.  I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

———

There are some really beautiful aspects of life in Africa that I’ll always admire and cherish, but I’ve seen the poverty and the struggle up close, and honestly, I kind of just want to forget about it and turn away from it for a while.  

I know “Africa” will follow me around for the rest of my life.  I feel a tinge of guilt every time I pull out my credit card.  Or when I complain about sitting in traffic in my air-conditioned car listening to whatever music I want on my bluetooth-enabled iPhone that uses a cellular plan with unlimited data.  Of course no one wants to be around that person that constantly reminds the group: “They don’t have that in Africa”, but as much as I try to not externalize those thoughts, they still lurk internally.  Right now, I feel blanketed with a dull sadness: sadness for the situation over there and sadness that solutions on both individual and global levels are so hard to come by.

I still have a lot to process, and I know writing will help me articulate everything.  I still have to remind myself to smile and to be polite and to make eye contact when I interact with coworkers and strangers, since I'd gotten so used to avoiding small talk while I lived in Uganda.  Having just two years ago been someone who smiled out of politeness so much that my face frequently hurt, I'm trying to find a balance between being polite without being disingenuous that might take me a while to settle in to.

In the mean time, I’m elated to spend time in the States with dear friends, some of whom are processing their own joys and griefs and life changes, but who are all committed to loving and supporting each other through whatever life throws at us.  And a special shout-out to those who don’t bat an eyelash when I don’t offer to share my cheesecake with them, because everyone who knows my opinion on cheesecake also knows that “they don’t have that in Africa.”

Bart & Lisa. Doh!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Village Wedding

Settle down, it wasn’t us that got married. 

I was so excited to get invited.  The bride is Canadian, but she’ll have her time to shine when they plan their Canadian wedding.  This wedding was for the groom.  Or more like the groom’s grandparents and every other person in their village.  I raced home and gave Josh the great news that we were invited and he responded by giving me that deadpan look and chuckling that low sarcastic laugh and saying “My dear, you will go and you will have fun, but you will be going by yourself.”  I spent the next three weeks poking and prodding and whining about how important it is to go to weddings together, but in the end, he ended up having to work, and I can’t argue with that.

I ended up going with Josh’s brother & his friend, and his sister-in-law, all who live next door.  The wedding started at 2 pm, so at 1:30 we all met each other out front and spent fifteen minutes “Eeeeh!”-ing and “Yiiiii!”-ing over how smart everyone looked.  Betty and I opted not to wear gomas, the traditional Ugandan formal dress, because she doesn’t own one, and I feel slightly disrespectful wearing one since it feels like a costume.  Tim and Jalil were all dressed up in their suits, their shoes slightly scuffed, and their jackets a few sizes too small.  I was on “bow tie duty” all afternoon, which involved adjusting and straightening their clip-on bow ties that kept shifting underneath their shirt collars.  We were a banging bunch, but unfortunately not banging enough to think to get any photos of everyone together.  You all know at this point anyway that I'm not one to accentuate my whiteness by going out of my way to get amazing photos of regular life over here.

We arrived on time to the wedding, where, surprise! the ceremony area wasn’t even set up yet.  It rained, all the white linens got muddy while we sat in chairs under tents, then it stopped raining.  We spent two hours shooting the shit and listening to Tim’s long list of complaints about mzungu women, ranging from how much water they use when they wash their hair to how they flirt shamelessly and then refuse to give you their numbers because they say they have a boyfriend.  

People were wandering in and out of the site and slowly filling seats.  Around 4 pm, someone drove their motorcycle right through the middle of the wedding area, and as I was laughing about it, we realized that he was the emcee for the wedding.  To keep everyone entertained (the wedding party was on a river cruise that ended up going a few hours late after a more private ceremony where they exchanged vows and rings), the emcee got things going by saying…I have no idea, the next two hours were all in Lusoga.  Tim obligingly translated when I asked what was happening, but at this point I’m kind of used to having no idea what’s going on most of the time.  There were jokes, there were loud blasts of local music that kept my ears ringing long after the wedding was over (Ugandans only have one volume for their music: LOUD!!!), there was whooping and hollering from the crowd, there were discussions and question and answer sessions (none of which had anything to do with the wedding; one question was “Who is better: the one who gives you a kidney, or the one who gives you money?”) but most of all, there was dancing.  Dancing, as in a few women ranging in ages get up and dance in the middle of the wedding area by shaking their asses and then men watch and hoot and holler and cheer for the best one.  The emcee makes more jokes, calls for more dancing, and the cycle continues.  It went on like this for two more hours.

Some of the dancing guests; many of them over the age of 40, wearing traditional gomas.

Before the wedding party arrived, I was the only white person there.  I really don’t mind the stares, you get used to it after a while, knowing that you’re always being watched.  But I hate being singled out in front of everyone, especially at big gatherings.  That’s when I stop being the mzungu woman and start being the zoo animal.  I was avoiding eye contact with the emcee anytime there was dancing because 1. I really can’t move my ass like that, and 2. even if I could, this stuck-up white woman does not approve of herself being paraded around or objectified.  Ugandan culture embodies a very tangible and raw sexuality that we don’t have in Western culture, but at the end of the day, I’m not Ugandan, so I’m fine being a wet blanket.  Anyways, the emcee finally honed in on me and said something about how the love of Africa is for everyone as he outstretched his hand.  I shook my head and covered my face in my hands and he didn’t press.  Phew!  Tim and Jalil laughed and we went back to picking out which one of the big-bottomed dancing women we thought Tim should marry.  

—————————————

At 6 pm, the wedding party finally arrived.  They danced down the dirt road and processed to their seats, which took about half an hour, between corralling the ever-growing crowd of village kids that wanted to get as close to the action as they could, and the emcee barking instructions to everyone, telling them to stop and go and do this and do that “DJ! Music!” and “DJ! Stop da music!”.  His favorite English phrase the whole night was “Allow me to control dees function!” which he repeated every few minutes.

More dancing!

Then the speeches began.  Person after person got up to speak, some were translated into English, some weren’t, but almost all, including the groom’s grandfather, included some version of “Hey! You bagged a white woman! You lucky bastard.”  My eyes kept darting to the bride and her parents, wondering how they were doing.  All the mzungus in the wedding party had looks of blissful confusion and resignation on their faces, and I was reminded that if you can’t handle curve balls, like your own wedding being four hours behind schedule, you probably don’t have much business living in Africa or marrying an African anyway.

The bride is in blue. The guy holding up his phone to take a video on the right is not part of the wedding party; he was just a really excited guest and barely stayed in his seat the whole ceremony.
The emcee made a big deal about repeatedly hugging the bride’s big-breasted Canadian maid of honor, and then there were more jokes and more speeches and more dancing.  People were wandering in and out of the ceremony space, kids had climbed trees to get a better view, and the ones on the ground were inching slowly as a unit toward the cake, which was in the middle of the stage area.  One woman blocked the bride and groom’s view of the speeches as she was taking photos; someone told her to move but she shuffled back into place a few seconds later.  Some government chairperson wandered in halfway through the ceremony and he was given the microphone for a good ten minutes to give a speech, which I’m assuming didn’t have much to do with marital bliss.  

When the bride and groom stood up and gave speeches to each other, the groom said something very sweet that made the bride and the rest of the mzungu wedding party start crying.  The emcee saw this and grabbed the microphone and said, “No! Dees is too much feeling. DJ! Music!”  So the music started blasting again and there wasn’t much to do besides dance along until the music was cut off and the groom could continue his speech.  There were presents given to both sets of parents, a receiving line for anyone who had brought gifts for the happy couple, and the cake was cut and passed out to the seated guests, much to the chagrin of the mob of probably hungry village kids that kept getting swatted away as they reached for stray pieces that fell to the ground.  The cake looked fabulous, by the way.  The groom is a raft guide: it was a three-tiered green cake with a little yellow and red raft on top of a river that was cascading down the side.  Then everyone abruptly rushed to get food and the whole thing was over at 8 pm.  It was chaotic and I was exhausted.  But the reasons that Josh gave as to why he didn’t want to attend had fully matriculated: it takes all day, and it’s more an expensive spectacle with free food for everyone than it is a celebration of the couple or the marriage.

Pictured: mob of village kids eyeing the green cake on the right, kids in trees, and one of the breastfeeding mothers in the foreground.

It took me a few days to process everything, but I woke up in the middle of the night to grab a pen as I finally realized what the big difference is between here and the Western world that this wedding embodied for me (and pardon my French, this is what I wrote down at 4 am):  Ugandans just don’t give a fuck.  It’s simultaneously their most detrimental and their most beautiful quality as a culture.  It inhibits economic growth and development and allows for rampant corruption on both an individual and government scale, but on a social level, they aren’t afraid to make mistakes.  That’s what makes them such a joy to be around, despite all the other annoyances of living here.

At an age where American kids start to withdraw and become self-conscious in school, kids in the class I used to teach in Kenya couldn’t wait to raise their hands and get to the blackboard, even if they had no idea what to do after I handed them the chalk.  There’s no shame or embarrassment for not knowing an answer or getting it wrong.

In the U.S., there’s a lot of pressure to have the look, the social media accounts, the artisanal products, the right conversation, to drink the right coffee, to be witty and educated and to be in-the-know, to be so well put together and perfect all the time, and it feels exhausting to come back to after being removed from it for a while.  I haven’t experienced much of that over here.  Everyone dresses how they want to: I once saw a fashionista walking around Jinja town in fleece onesie adult pajamas, the type with the zipper that runs from neck to ankle, with her hair in a nice weave, swinging her fancy purse as she strutted her stuff.  As I’ve mentioned before, Africans are many things, but never ironic.  She was serious and everyone took her seriously.  Betty walks around outside with her youngest son’s basketball shorts on her head if she doesn’t have a clean scarf on hand.  

No one cares if you say the wrong thing or act awkwardly or are anti-social or rude, no one talks about you after you leave.  No one has anything to prove to anyone else, no one is inauthentic or deceitful or apologetic about who they are.  Hell, a lot of women don’t bother to wear bras around here, and no, they’re not trying to make a feminist statement.  Breastfeeding in public isn’t an issue here because everyone does it without trying to hide it (there were at least two women openly breastfeeding at the wedding that I saw, both in the front row).  There’s also not much emphasis on being respectful or contentious of other people, which is really tiresome to be around sometimes, but it’s still refreshing that there’s absolutely no pretense.  What you see is what you get.

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There were a lot of aspects about this wedding that felt very disrespectful to the bride and groom.  There’s a certain aversion to any kind of emotional depth in conversation here that makes it hard to really connect with locals that I think comes with this apathetic aspect of their culture.  There wasn’t much conversation about the couple as people, and anything serious or emotional was either brushed off or skipped over.  But why do I focus on that?  Because I’m an American and we’re used to weddings being perfectly planned and well-executed and being heartfelt and sweet and, oh! bonus points if you can get the in-laws to cry during your speech!  Both Ugandan and Western weddings embody a certain amount of showmanship; they just focus on different aspects of the “show”.  Western weddings are all about the couple.  Ugandan weddings are all about the audience.  They’re just there to eat food and have a good time, right?  Why fight it?  And honestly, when’s the last time you went to a Western wedding and the thought of cake didn’t slip into your mind during the toasts?

The bride and groom at this wedding are both mild-mannered, easy-going people.  They’re incredibly gracious and looked like they were having a great time.  And everyone that attended the wedding?  It was obvious everyone had a blast.  To Ugandans, it was a great Ugandan wedding.

Mzungus!!

Don’t worry, I don’t want a Ugandan wedding.  There are certain parts of this culture that I’ll just never assimilate to and I’m fine with that.  But I don’t want a Western wedding, either.  So much pressure and investment to make things go right, when I don’t place a high priority on spending time or energy to make things “go right” right now.  Living over here, you’re fighting an uphill battle on that one anyway.

But if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s obviously the cake.  World peace?  World piece of wedding cake is more like it.  And in the spirit of living in Uganda and not giving a fuck, I really don’t care what you think of my puns.



Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Lesson in Compassion

After living in Haiti for a few years during one of my dad’s diplomatic posts, my parents signed my brother and I up to sponsor children from Haiti through Compassion International.  I tended to forget about the sponsorship until another letter or batch of photos arrived depicting a tiny thin dark black girl clad in her best Sunday dress that never quite sat right on her bony shoulders, unsmiling, staring deadpan at the camera.  Year after year, she’d grow a little bit taller and her face would mature with a little more definition, but those eyes and that mouth would never vary.  I never had much emotional attachment to the sponsorship or the child, it was just something we did.

I think I got a new child sometime in middle or high school, since my original family never responded to letters, and when I was a freshman in college, I canceled the sponsorship in the midst of an extreme-budgeting cleanup.  It took a few months for me to realize how stupid that was, that as tight as my finances might get, $38 a month means a whole lot more to someone else than it does to me.  Sitting at my little dorm desk cubby, I picked out a young girl from Rwanda, Sendrine, embarking again on automated monthly payments, trying to write out heart-felt, uplifting letters every few months, sending the occasional sheet of stickers or photo, and getting yearly updates of a sweet but unaffected face that became another monotonous constant in my life.

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A few months into my travels last year, I saw an email from Compassion that showcased a few sponsor testimonies highlighting their experiences visiting their sponsored children.  Hey, if I’m heading toward Rwanda anyway, why not?  And it’ll give me some sort of deadline and direction to keep me from just meandering aimlessly around (at the time I was in the middle of a month-long lounge in Lamu, Kenya, not doing much besides walking to the same sea-front cafe for lunch every day and trying to convince my dad to come visit and do nothing, too. He did, it was fun.).  I paid a bunch of fees for background checks and signed a bunch of waivers agreeing that Compassion wouldn’t be liable for natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or guerrilla kidnappings and ransom (?!?), and a date was set.

As I continued to travel and my cynicism about Western aid and non-profits really started to set in, I began dreading the visit.  I felt like another “white savior” looking to pat herself on the back for doing good.  I knew I’d get movie-star treatment during the visit for funding this girl’s life, *cue announcer voice: brought to you by white skin and cold, hard cash!  I didn’t want to be the center of attention, paraded around for the whole village to see.  I didn’t want recognition.  I just wanted to cancel the visit and remain anonymous, patting myself on the back for not seeking praise for my charity.

When the visit was just a week away, I was still dreading it, but for completely different reasons.  Sendrine was a pre-teen at this point, the most terrible of all the age groups (yes, even here in Africa—a group of middle schoolers made me cry the other day as they jeered and mocked my Luganda “Vayo!” (Go away!) while they pressed their faces up to the kitchen window to stare at me doing the dishes. They also stole one of our neighbor’s puppies while they were at it).  What if I’m a letdown to her?  What if she doesn’t think I’m cool?  What if she just strokes my ego so she can continue to get the sponsorship?  What will we even talk about?  Would I be a disappointment to her?  Leave it to me to turn the whole situation around to make it about myself & my oh-so-fragile sponsor ego.

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The Kinyarwanda translator & I traveled from Kigali to the southern-most tip of Rwanda where Sendrine’s village is.  On the bus ride, he informed me that the families aren’t allowed to ask for money or contact information from the visiting sponsors, and that the whole meeting is structured and scheduled and chaperoned.  Good, I liked where this was going.  Early the next morning, a car picked us up and took us to the local church that coordinates all of the sponsorships for the area.  They sat me in the big wing-backed chair behind the office desk while the five staff members either sat on tables or leaned against the wall as they all introduced themselves and their positions: Compassion regional director, marketing director (i.e. the guy with the camera), pastor, etc.  My French is pretty rusty, but it’s good enough that we skipped speaking English early on in the meeting since more people could be involved in the conversation that way.  Ironically, the translator was the only one that didn’t speak French, so he zoned out and picked at his fingernails for the remainder of the hour.

The regional director explained how the whole process works: in order for the children to retain their sponsorships, they have to keep their grades up in school, go to regular medical checkups, attend weekly Sunday School at this church, and the families have to agree to meet and communicate regularly with a local Compassion representative.  The office had a binder just for Sendrine containing all of her medical records, school marks, and notes from meetings since the sponsorship started.  I looked up at the wall of white binders that looked grey in the dimly-lit office and could feel the cynicism slowly leaking out of me and dissipating into the air to mingle with the dust particles that constantly float around in patches of leaked rays of sunlight.  During that visit, I wanted proof that my money wasn’t being treated as an easy handout, that Sendrine was working for it.  And both she & Compassion definitely were.

I asked what happens to the kids once they turn eighteen and the sponsorship stops.  For the few that have the potential to go to college, there are some scholarship opportunities that Compassion helps the students apply for.  For those who won’t go to university, there are sessions and groups showcasing vocational skills that Compassion holds for the students long after the sponsorships end.  Okay, check and check.  I continued to be impressed, but also slightly surprised that I didn’t know about any of this during the two decades that we’ve spent sponsoring children.  Probably because at age ten, it didn’t occur to me to ask about any of this stuff.

I still felt a little icy toward the whole charade of the visit when we piled back into the car to drive to Sendrine’s village.  As we neared the site, the director pointed to a girl walking along a path toward the car and said “That’s Sendrine.”  She was as tall as I was, a big-boned, soft-faced girl with short hair and a long stride.  She saw me and smiled, the first time in eight years I had seen a smile on that face.  She was saying something in Kinyarwanda the whole time, I have no idea what, but as she jogged toward me and almost knocked me over with her hug, something inside me broke and I burst into tears.  I was still sobbing when I saw a woman, huge, almost six feet tall, out of breath, jogging up the same path and muttering continuously.  I assumed this was Sendrine’s mother, as she carelessly shoved Sendrine out of the way and nearly lifted me off the ground as she pinned my arms to my sides and shoved my face into her chest and squeezed and muttered and cried.  If I weren’t being suffocated, I would have laughed: the whole village was out to see this white girl slowly asphyxiate.  Between Sendrine’s family, extended family, friends, neighbors, and the Compassion crew, we had a whole caravan of people tromping down the dirt path to their house.


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Sendrine didn’t let go of me the entire visit.  We all, all of us that could fit, crammed into their dark sparse living room with Sendrine & I on the couch.  The ones that couldn’t fit blocked what little sunlight came into the room by peering in through the windows and doorway.  The translator got things going by introducing everyone, but Sendrine couldn’t wait.  She whipped out the family photo album and started pointing and talking about everyone in the photos.  Her mother had to tell her to shut up and pay attention multiple times.  


Everything was very structured, there wasn’t a moment of stillness or lull in the agenda.  Sendrine ceremoniously opened up the backpack of school & bath supplies I had brought for her, and everyone laughed at the flip-flops she pulled out that were far too small for her huge feet.  Her mother stood up and said a few words to me, including how a thief had broken into their house a few years ago and taken everything, but that they were most distraught to lose the letters I had written.  The generic letters I didn’t think twice about as I quickly jotted down some “Hope you’re enjoying school!”s and some “God bless.”s?  Those letters? 


Now came Sendrine’s time to shine, she finally got to show me the family photo album.  Each page contained a single 5x7 photograph, and the first photo was of her mother and father at their wedding, her mother towering about a foot and a half over her meek hunched father (her father reminded me of Boo Radley, mostly hiding behind the door for the duration of my visit).  She turned the page to the second photo and I had to cover my face with my hands as I broke down sobbing again.  It was my own high school face staring back at me, along with my brother and two of our, over the years, many, gerbils (these two were named Yoo & Mee, until we unceremoniously found out that Mee was either a boy gerbil or a very pushy lesbian gerbil, so Mee had to go back to PetCo. Mee’s replacement, Mee Too, didn’t last very long).  I don’t even remember sending the photo.  Nobody acknowledged I was crying again, thank goodness, because they were all too busy jabbing their fingers at the gerbils in the photo asking what they were and why the hell we were holding them.  In East Africa, “pets” don’t really exist for locals, since you only keep animals you can eat.  Although I’m pretty sure if you skewered and roasted a skinned gerbil and added copious amounts of salt, they’d be pretty crispy and tasty.

Me & You & Yoo & Mee
The translator asked me to say just a few words to everyone, and then we took a tour of the yard.  Sendrine’s mother pointed to a huge pig in a pen and said, “Remember that money you sent us for Christmas? We bought that with it.”  I was shocked, I had no idea how much the sponsorship was benefiting the whole family.  The mother couldn’t stop thanking me for everything I’ve done for them.

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Sendrine's immediate family & the Compassion staff
I felt shell shocked and worn out in the car on the way back to the guesthouse.  The translator went back to picking at his fingernails (probably mulling over all the various versions of the marriage proposal he would try on me over the next 24 hours) and I struggled to keep up the conversation in French with the director about something I knew I wouldn’t bother to remember.  It was an exhausting and humbling experience, and for all my picking and whining about the dangers of mission work and non-profits, sometimes I just need to shut my mouth and trust God and give the money.  My heart doesn’t even have to be in it.  My skepticism and cynicism will probably never go away, but neither will the needs of others.  

I highly urge you to get involved with Compassion International, whether it’s through a one-time donation or a monthly sponsorship.  They’ve been doing what they do for a long time, and they do it very well.  

Sendrine and I still send letters back and forth, but they don’t contain any more fervor or connection than the previous letters did.  I don’t know if I’ll visit her again even though I’m only a day’s travel away from her right now, but at least when I get those letters from her, I now think of the person, smiling and laughing and squirming next to me on the couch, waiting for her turn to talk.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

When "when helping hurts" hurts

Who’s ready for a can of worms?

For the past year and a half, I’ve been surrounded by NGOs, charities, and mission organizations that have come to “save Africa” with Western solutions that are often unsustainable and not even appropriate solutions to the problem.  Yes, they arrive with good intentions, we all do, but many charities and volunteer organizations are incredibly inefficient and create a culture of dependency where locals either get stuck in the system or become too complacent to find work on their own and help themselves.  

I try to apply three rules when getting involved with charitable organizations:

1. Make sure the project/purpose is sustainable.  Are they going to run out of money in the middle of a project?  What happens when the brand new donated water tank gets pierced by a jealous neighboring village a week after it gets set up and no one bothers to report it (true story)?  If things break or are mismanaged after the volunteers leave or the organization pulls out, will they sit around being broken until the next charitable group comes along?  Have the locals been empowered enough to know how to report/solve/prevent issues like this?

2. Don’t do things locals can do for themselves.  Don’t build buildings, paint schools, teach kids, or hold babies; Africans are perfectly capable of doing these things themselves (the question is: are they willing to if Western groups will come along and do it for them for free?).  A lot of African-run charitable organizations need help with management & technology skills or resource networking.  Sometimes what locals really need isn’t actually what they’re asking for.  It’s not as Instagram-worthy as volunteering at an orphanage and it sometimes takes more time and yields less instantaneous warm-fuzzies for the volunteers & workers, much like contributing to my 401k.

3. Don’t give anything away for free.  Ask any white-skinned person that’s lived or traveled in Africa: all it takes is one mzungu giving out money or sweets to kids, and they assume all wazungu are there for the same purpose.  If we continually donate no strings attached money or supplies or volunteers to impoverished communities, what does that teach them about the value of their own work?  What does it teach them about us?  You don't give your kids allowance without them completing chores and keeping up grades, why is it okay to do that to other adults?  Yes, they're poor, but they're also smart, competent and strong human beings that can be held accountable and get shit done when they need to.

As you can probably guess, with these guidelines I’ve given myself, I inevitably turn my nose up at almost every NGO I run across here.  I’m not involved in any charities in Jinja, and I don’t even tithe at the church we attend.  I don’t volunteer anymore, and I sure as hell don’t hand out money or candy to kids that ask for it.  In fact, I tend to get a little nasty at them when the words “Give me…” escapes their mouths.  But in a culture where most communication between adults and children is comprised of yelling, I’m the one that walks away more shaken than the kids whenever this happens.

We joke that my version of “saving Africa” is paying the local boda drivers in our village a really good price to zip me around whenever I need to go to town.  Or by over-tipping the underpaid, lethargic, extremely unenthusiastic local waiters and waitresses.  Or by testing out the, count 'em, four different types of boxed cake mix available in Jinja in our tiny toaster oven and handing out the results to the neighbors (if you ever want to see an African move fast, hand out cake. I thought Josh’s sister-in-law would trip over herself and accidentally stab one of her kids with the gigantic butcher knife she was clutching as she sprinted toward the tray in my outstretched hand).  

There have been other things I’ve done, but I can count on one hand the number of people who know about them, and it feels crass to publicly pat myself on the back.  Even by mentioning it here, I feel like I’m devaluing both my intention and their need.  So these things remain private, forever immortalized in the Catch-22 of this paragraph in this post on this blog...

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God calls us to serve & help, but He didn’t give us conditions & guidelines.  When I encounter an African that sees my skin and starts trying to manipulate me for money, pulling out Bible verses left & right to back up why I should donate this and fund that, I hold my ground and think about casting pearls before swine.  But when I encounter all the NGO workers here that work tirelessly despite cultural setbacks and little to show for it, I feel a deep sense of guilt that I’m not doing more.  They’re better people than I am.  They’re better Christians than I am.

Although I have to waltz across dust, naked kids, and goat droppings every time I need to go use the pit latrine, I’m starting to realize how emotionally and spiritually selfish this period in my life is right now.  My money and my time are my pearls and I don’t just hand them out to whoever asks for them.  I’ve worked hard for them and they are some damn fine pearls.  The thing is, though, they’re not mine.  They never were mine and they never will be.  They’re all God’s.  Just because I can’t find a charity “worthy” enough for my money doesn’t mean I should withhold all service.  It’s like the parable of the guy who buried the coin in the ground to protect it until his master got back (do you see why I always get beat in Biblical knowledge by these verse-toting Africans? I’m literally sitting at a computer right now and can’t even be bothered to look up the parable online to get the details right).

Needless to say, it’s complicated.  I could go on and on and on and on and talk about this for hours.  I can see the light slowly leave people’s faces when they ask “How’s Africa?” and this uncontrollable stream of cynicism comes out of my mouth.  It’s a real struggle (but not as much of a struggle as actually living in poverty, am I right? Ha, Africa jokes, elbow jab) and I have zero idea how to even approach thinking about a solution, especially since my own mindset is a huge part of the problem.


That’s kind of it.  There’s no neat wrap-up or lesson to be learned or witty sign-off.  It’s just this huge looming cloud that follows me around all the time.  Like my 401k.

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If you're interested in Hollis-approved non-profits, check these out:
Compassion International **I HIGHLY recommend this one; the kids lose their sponsorships if they don't keep their grades up in school or if they drop out completely. And the monthly contributions don't break the bank. Stay tuned next time to hear about when I visited my sponsor child in Rwanda and had to eat a huge steaming pile of my own cynicism.

There are lots of ideas floating around along this same vein like this one from Relevant Magazine.

And if you're in the mood for a little satire, Barbie Savior never fails to satiate. Make sure to follow them on Instagram.

Lastly, behold: SNL really nailed it here.

Friday, July 15, 2016

In the Dentist's Chair

Medical stuff can be a little tricky in Uganda.  

Since I spend the majority of the year overseas, it doesn’t make sense to have a US health insurance policy.  I’m not chronically ill and I can’t afford it on my part-time salary (Newsflash: the Affordable Care Act is NOT affordable!).  So I bought travel insurance that covers me for catastrophic events both overseas and in the US, things like trips to the emergency room, medical evacuations, broken limbs, stuff like that.  Even by paying the extra “extreme sports” fee (since motorcycles are the main form of public transportation in much of the world), it’s incredibly affordable and even though it doesn’t cover routine care, it will cover just what I need it to considering I’m currently spending most of my time in a part of the world where everyday medical care is incredibly cheap.

There are obviously pros and cons to getting medical care on either side of the world:

Uganda pro: It’s SO cheap.  I mysteriously became anaemic last year.  The blood test, consultation with the doctor, and iron pills all cost a grand total of $8 and took less than fifteen minutes. 

America con: It’s SO expensive.  Even when I had insurance I would balk at bills, but without insurance that covers routine care, forget about it.  When I came back to the US for Christmas, I refused to pay $150 for a skin cancer check, so I found one clinic outside of Austin that does them for free.  Hooray!  I needed a biopsy and they quoted me $280.  “It’s not that expensive!” the doctor said.  No thanks.  On another occasion, I needed my teeth cleaned and found a $35 Groupon for x-rays and a cleaning.  They recommended two fillings for deep crevices in my molars for $450.  Nope, maybe later…

Uganda con: The facilities and environment.  That skin biopsy I needed?  I got it done in Uganda for half the price.  Granted, the procedure took about four times as long as it would have in the States, the power in the hospital went out twice, and the nurse spent the majority of the time squishing my face with her huge pregnant belly as she leaned over the table, but hey, it was cheaper!  What I hadn’t realized was that since tap water here isn’t potable, I had to spend the next two and a half weeks taking cold sponge baths and reminiscing about that time a month ago when I could go swimming in the Nile whenever I wanted.  Crap.  Was it really worth the savings?  I’ve also been in clinics here that didn’t have electricity or running water.  The service I got was perfectly fine and the staff did their jobs well, but sometimes I wonder when the last time the place was chemically sterilized.  

Anyway, it’s constantly changing game of evaluating risk vs. cost vs. convenience.  There are some things I’ll walk into any rundown African clinic for, and some things I won’t.  Dental work was one of those things.  It’s easy to go get a second opinion after visiting a clinic doctor (there have been times when I straight-up disagreed with an initial diagnosis here, and I'm not usually one to questions doctors), but it’s a little harder to recover from a botched filling or permanent nerve damage.  I’m not a worrier by nature (obviously), but teeth stuff freaks me out.  I figured I’d wait for those fillings until I got back to the States and either got dental insurance or found a Groupon.

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Fast forward to lunch at the expat hot-spot in Jinja.  Most of us have screens in front of our faces.  I usually wear earbuds when I work on my laptop because it makes people a little less inclined to strike up conversations with me that end up lasting the better part of half an hour, and it’s a mental switch for myself that I’m in mental work mode.  However, especially at this particular cafe, I tend to not have anything playing on the earbuds.  Okay, it’s to eavesdrop on the other expats.  Since I’m not plugged into the NGO crowd or the “I’ve lived here since Apartheid” South African crowd, it’s tough getting to meet people and hear the news sometimes.  And yes, I understand the irony of my tactics.

To set the scene, man across from me starts talking to passing man in scrubs.  Turns out man across from me is the father of a friend, and man in scrubs, a mzungu, is a dentist.  Once I realize both of these things, I rip out my earbuds, ask the dentist for a card, and introduce myself to the man across from me.  Bam, two new friends!

I made an appointment with the dentist for the two fillings I needed.  I thought, “Great! He’s an American, I totally trust his dental qualifications and skills, and it’s bound to be much cheaper than getting it done in the States.”

When the appointment comes around, I show up only to find out that the American dentist has gone on a village visit and that a Ugandan dentist, Mercy (no one used “Dr.” or her last name the entire time), would be working on me.  I panic for a minute and then plopped down in the exam chair after coming to the conclusion that if Dr. Absent American Dentist trusted Mercy, then I could too.

She and an assistant poked around in my mouth for a few minutes, saw the teeth that needed fillings, and then dropped the bomb: “The cavities are so small that I don’t think we need to numb you.”

Oooooh snap, this visit to the local dentist was going downhill very quickly.  I had not planned on putting “writhing in pain” on my calendar for that day.  I immediately expressed my severe disagreement with her suggestion.  She patted me on the arm and said, “How about this: I’ll go really slowly and if you’re uncomfortable, just let us know and we’ll numb you up right away.”  I agreed and they went to work.

Not only was it boiling hot in the clinic, but I was also sweating extra bullets and clenching the arms of the exam chair waiting for the pain to hit an 8 out of 10.  It probably only got to a 1.5, but I was so sensitive about it, I’d thrash my arms around whenever I thought I could feel something hurty.  The assistant noticed how much I was sweating and turned on the wall fan that was the size of a saucer that somehow seemed to make everything cooler.  And I knew this about Africans already, but I had forgotten: when you tell them it hurts, they say “I’m almost done!” and then proceed to continue with the same force and intention for another 10-15 minutes.  To say that Africans underestimate how low the pain threshold is for Westerners is a severe understatement.

When it was all done, Mercy took one look at me and dryly said that they wouldn’t charge me for the free shower I had given myself.  She also informed me that while they were at it, they went ahead and filled in a third tooth that had a teeny cavity in it, just for fun.  

Now that my mouth was free to flap, she and the assistant pelted me with questions about what I was doing in Uganda.  The minute they found out that I was dating a local, their reaction was the exact same as every other local woman that discovers this, in this exact order: *Squeeeal* “Do you have any children? When will you have children? You should really get going on making a baby soon. We want you to have lots and lots of African babies and stay in Uganda forever!!!”  I usually respond by telling them that we already have six children, which they think is hilarious, especially since everyone assumes I'm eighteen.

After I paid my whopping $48 bill, I walked back and had a Sex & the City-esque moment of reflection about what I had just learned (don't tell anyone I love that show!):

1. Westerners really are weenies.  I wonder how much money is spent on pain prevention when it’s not even needed.  If an American dentist even suggested that a patient not be numbed during any kind of procedure, they’d have lawsuits slapped all over them.  How much do we pay for peace of mind, when the issue can be taken care of with a little faith, a little sweat, and a whole lot less cost?  In the end, Mercy was right.  There was no reason I needed to spend the rest of the day wondering if rice and beans were falling out of my numb mouth as I ate and tried not to bite the inside of my cheek.  My respect for the American health insurance system continues to deteriorate steadily.

2. Crap, I’m really racist sometimes.  One of the hardest parts about traveling like this and meeting so many people from so many different cultures is that you often find yourself at a constant crux of feeling like your mind and worldview are expanding exponentially, but that your perceptions of cultures and people are becoming more narrow because you experience first-hand how true stereotypes really are and where they come from.  African kids see my skin and their hands automatically extend asking for money or sweets.  I see the black Ugandan skin of my dentist and immediately doubt that she knows what she’s doing.  These stereotypes all have roots in reality, but it's a horrible feeling to be confronted with how your own assumptions limit other people, especially when you take so much pride in being so worldly and open-minded.  And it’s really hard to admit that extended travel does often make you more prejudiced towards people from certain cultures.  It sucks.  I did not sign up for this, and of course you think it's never going to happen to you.

Travelers know all too well how much our lifestyle is glamorized and envied.  But behind those pretty Instagram shots and crazy stories about riding motorcycles across Vietnam (upcoming spoiler!), there are a lot of things travelers come face-to-face with in the world and in ourselves that we really struggle with and that will never leave us.  I certainly have days where I wish I had just taken the easy route and stayed in the States and would never have to work through any of this.  Ignorance is bliss, and bliss sounds really great sometimes.  But at least now I have a Ugandan dentist that'll clean my teeth AND ask me if I'm pregnant, all for the low price of $3!  Beat that, Groupon!