Monday, May 23, 2016

Times in Transit

I love airports.  Not only is the people watching always fantastic, but I love mentally ranking airport facilities in developing countries, much like I do with East African museums.  Long layovers hold a particularly special place in my heart.  Yes, they can be irritating when you’re exhausted and you can’t sleep and the group of Chinese men sitting next to you won’t stop barking loudly at each other (which is why I turned on my computer to start writing this…), but I enjoy the thought that everyone around me is in the same boat.  We’re all in transition from one place to another; all of us on the brink of an adventure of some sort, all of us trapped in a manifested physical anticipation for a time with nothing to do but…wait.

As I type this, I’m sitting in the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, reveling at the free mildly-high speed wifi and waiting for my flight back to the States.  I’ve been in Uganda for the past three months and although I have a lot of posts to catch up on, I’ll go ahead and take advantage of this layover, this “get out of jail free” card, these few precious hours where I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything where I just wait, where both my body and my life rest in perpetual transit, sitting for the time being between my two homes: my body is from one and my heart is stuck in the other.

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While I’m really excited to visit friends and family (and to meet my godson whenever he chooses to enter the world!) and partake in fabulous traditional American summer festivities, I’m already feeling homesick for my little slice of Ugandan life.  As I teeter between these two parts of the world, I’m already reminiscing about the best and the worst of both.

There are certainly things I’m tired of in Uganda.  I’m tired of having to take cold showers.  I’m really tired of having to wash all my clothes by hand.  I’ve stopped wearing jeans for the simple reason that they’re a pain in the butt to wash, but I have to say that my forearms, when they aren’t cramping, can certainly wring water out of anything now.  I’m tired of not having a fridge or a stove or a microwave or an oven.  I’m tired of listening to the fan click off at night because of a power outage and lying in bed knowing I probably have a sleepless and sweaty night ahead of me.  I’m tired of the high oil & carb diet here that’s left me a little pudgy and bloated.

I’m tired of being the only white person in the village and being a spectacle everywhere I go.  I’m tired of the catcalls and men trying to grab my hand on the street.  I’m tired of kids constantly asking for money or sweets, even when I’ve told them to never ask me that again.  I’m tired of not being able to sleep past 7 am: the hour when everyone comes out of their houses and proceeds to talk loudly at each other while their kids run past the window screaming and yelling.  

I’m tired of the dust and air pollution, that the water in the sink is brown every time I wash my hands, that my shoulders are streaked with brown every time I shampoo my hair.  I’m tired of having to walk to the pit latrine to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, keeping an eye out for roaches and the rat that likes to take shelter there when it rains, and keeping one foot ready to kick the dogs as they try to jump and streak my clothes with their muddy paws.

And I’m tired of being in a country ruled by such an openly corrupt government.  Last week, during a Parliamentary session, the President realized he didn’t have enough votes for whatever bill he wanted passed, so during a break, he quickly spent 60 billion shillings buying the votes he needed (about $17,000,000 USD; that money could have provided A LOT of needed infrastructure in the country).  Afterward, one of the members that was bought off corrected a reporter: “Oh no, he didn’t pay us five million shillings each, he paid us fifteen million shillings each.”  Geez, get the facts right, Mr. Reporter, to better inform the public about how the government is serving their people.  

I’m tired of watching expats continually underpay local workers.  I’m tired of watching people living in perpetual poverty.  I'm tired of being around NGOs and volunteer organizations that often perpetuate that poverty.  I’m tired of not knowing what to do to help.

But, at the same time, I’m really going to miss just a few things.

I’m going to miss how everyone greets each other on the street, how men hold hands as they walk and talk to each other, how conversations between locals seem to consist more of eyebrow raises and sound effects than they do words.  I’m going to miss how much everyone smiles at each other, and how despite the fact that they treat me like a circus act sometimes, the locals are always so happy that I’m in the country and are very hopeful that I love it here and will come back and want to stay forever and bear lots of little African babies.  I’m going to miss that it’s not taboo to talk about sex or bodily functions.  I’m going to miss everyone’s sense of humor, and the fact that everyone laughs at everything, all the time.  I’m going to miss how men here LOVE a little meat on their women; how it’s looked down upon to be thin (because that means you don’t have enough to eat), and how there are absolutely no body image issues here.  Women are chubby, but they’re strong.  I’m going to miss that while I don’t feel “American standard” bikini ready, I’m physically the strongest I’ve been in a long time.

I’ll miss how simple the days are.  How there’s not a lot of distraction.  How I can count on one hand the number of things I accomplish every day, and how I’ve learned how to not feel guilty that I didn’t do more.  I’ll miss how it takes a solid two hours to prepare dinner, eat, and clean up afterward, but how those two hours allow us so much uninterrupted and genuine conversation.  I’ll miss running into people I know in town and taking a full half hour to catch up and shoot the shit, even if you saw them yesterday and you’re probably going to see them tomorrow, too.  

I already miss being mistaken each time I think I’ve seen every shade of green as we speed past forests, tea fields, and sugar cane on the back of a motorcycle.  I miss watching those pesky monkeys jump from tree to tree as the sun sets on the other side of the Nile.  I miss how no one rushes to do anything, how children learn how to be so independent at such a young age, how I’ve learned to laugh when things don’t go according to plan, or how I’ve learned how to just not have a plan at all.

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Neither home quite feels like it fits; I feel like an outsider in both places and there’s an odd mix of relief and culture shock that always takes a few weeks to wade through while I work past being an emotional robot.  But it’s also taught me to find comfort and belonging in my relationships with the people that I surround myself with.  

For now, I’m about to hop on a plane and speed back to the United States: the land of potable water, great wifi, paved roads, and hot showers.  I still left a part of myself in Uganda, and I know I’ll feel a little incomplete until I buy that ticket back to the jungle, but, we’re all on the edge of an adventure, right?  And I can’t wait to see where mine lands me.


**Side note on the “people watching at the airport” front**
There are various small groups of Japanese military personnel wandering around burning time before their flight.  Although they look intimidating in full fatigues, I’ve seen more than one with Mickey Mouse-themed passport holders hanging from their necks.  I love it, although it makes me a little sad to be returning to the hipster scene in the U.S. where appearances and preferences are so curated.  You let those passport holders fly, boys!

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