Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Six Months

Sunset over Zobue, Mozambique

I started writing this blog entry by hand, sitting on a rock outside of the elementary school.  It was 3:10PM on a Tuesday afternoon, and I was waiting to meet a colleague.  I was late, but she was even later. 

As I sat there, writing, a small group of primary school girls tiptoed over to spy on my work.  They were carrying their chairs on their heads.  I noticed them watching me, and smiled at them.  I scribbled a few numbers on the top of my page and tapped them with the tip of my pencil.

"Podem dizer estes numeros em Portugues?"  I asked, gently, cocking my head at them.  Can you say these numbers in Portuguese?

The girls clamored onto the rock with me and  leaned over my lap, peering at my open notebook.  Slowly at first, then louder, they recited the numbers in Portuguese.

“…Cinco?”

“…Cinco!”

“…Seis!” 

“…Sete!”

The girls’ excitement and attention began to drew a small crowd of children, which, in turn, drew an even larger crowd of children.  I was forced to put down my notebook as kids poured in and surrounded me on my rock.  They were all carrying their chairs on their heads.  Dan and I have described this phenomenon-- the chair-carrying phenomenon-- as the “plastic chair parade.”  If the kids don’t bring their own chairs to school, they have to sit on the floor.  They don’t have desks, of course.  Who could carry their own desk to school?

The kids looked like a flock of sheep, jostling and staring at me, wordlessly.  I felt a little awkward. Should I say something?  I swiveled around and was surprised to find that there were more kids behind me, too.  

"I really should count," I thought.  "Nobody is going to believe me that I was mobbed by this many kids."

“One,” I said, pointing at the girl closest to my lap.  I then pointed at the kids standing behind her.  “Two, three, four.  Five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten.”  The kids started to giggle.  I stopped counting at fifty.

Fifty kids?

“Okay,” I said.  “Who here knows a song?”



What better way to start my celebratory sixth-month blog entry than with a scene from absolutely normal, everyday life?  Just those few paragraphs are packed with things that, six months ago, would have been totally foreign to me.  It’s strange and wonderful how quickly things start to feel normal.  Comfortable, even. 

CELEBRITY:   Like it or not, Dan and I are relatively famous in the small town of Zobue.  We aren’t the first Peace Corps volunteers to be living here, and we won’t be the last, either.  Janet and Lucas were famous before us, and Angelina before them.  Chelsea and Katie, the first two volunteers in Zobue?  Well, they were famous, too.  There’s something about being the only white people in a town of 8,000 people that makes you rather special. 

We can’t walk down the road or to the marketplace without greeting everyone along the way.  We juggle a combination of languages- English for our students, Portuguese for the younger children, and XiChewa/Nyungue for their parents.  We wave at babies and give high-fives and skirt the crazies who like to get too close.  The apple vendors mob us because they know we like apples and Jorge, the appliances vendor, likes to wave at us because we’re white.  Visitors from Malawi will meet up with us on the road to try to practice their English.  It’s a special, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it will be strange to move back to America.  At this point, I can hardly remember what it’s like to be anonymous. 


TARDINESS:  I have always had trouble arriving on time.  It’s one of my worst traits, and is possibly made worse by the fact that I make no effort to actually fix it.  I am late to work, to meetings, and to dinner with friends.  When going to the movies, I am lucky if I can catch the credits, much less the trailers at the beginning.  Dan likes to trick me by giving me time estimates that are thirty-minutes ahead of schedule.

Well.

In terms of tardiness and irresponsibility, I have met my match here in Africa. 

In Mozambique, time is not really a very solid concept.  It is more of an idea, really.  Many people don’t even have watches or clocks and will glance up at the sun if you say Bom Dia, after 11AM.

“I think it’s Boa tarde,” they will say, with a tip of the hat.  “Sun’s getting high.”

I have arrived for 2 o’clock meetings that didn’t start until 3:30.  I have started teaching a 12:30 class with less than twenty-five students, knowing that the rest of them will trickle in by 1:15.  I have even caught a 3AM bus that left at 5:30. 

You know you are adjusting to life in Africa when you arrive at your own class ten minutes late, feeling fresh and calm and not at all rushed.  Twenty-five students greet you when you walk in the door and the other twenty-five students greet you thirty minutes later. 

“Why arrive on time if my students don’t?”  You think to yourself.

“Why arrive on time if my professor doesn’t?”  Your students think.

And the cycle continues on and on. 


CHILDREN:  People in Mozambique have a very relaxed attitude towards parenting.  Some might say that child-rearing is a community effort, but I would beg to differ.  I think that in Mozambique, children raise themselves. 

The children that met me on the rock (all fifty of them), were done with school for the day.  They were between the ages of four and seven and were totally, completely unsupervised.  Their teachers had gone home, but the children had opted to stay at the school and play in the schoolyard, waiting for something interesting to come along.  That “something interesting,” of course, happened to be me.

There’s a bow-legged baby that lives by the high school, and she is probably no more than two years old.  She hobbles from foot to foot, and is easily recognizable amongst other children by her wide-spread gait.  I think of her as the “Baby-girl Cowboy,” or the “Cow-Baby,” for short.  Places I have seen her without her parents include: sitting on the ground in someone else’s latrine, limping alone through a cornfield, sitting alone on my porch, and standing on top of a boulder, crying.  In fact, I would like to repeat that last line-- I have found her, alone, standing on top of a boulder, crying.  How did she even get up there?  For all I know, she’s still there. 

Dan says that no child knows freedom the way that African children know freedom.  In some ways, it’s true.  While little girls, in particular, have a lot of chores to do at home, they experience total and utter freedom as soon as they are out of their homestead.  They run barefoot down the sandy paths and bounce joyfully into the sugarcane.  They stay out until it is nearly dark and then bound home again, with dirty hair, sticky fingers, and bellies full of who-knows-what.  Nobody asks them where they’ve been.  The life of a child in Africa is a secret that only other children know and understand. 

Sometimes, I can’t help but interfere when these same children are playing in my yard.  Once, I came home to find a boy drinking soapy water from my empty peanut butter jar.  I had been leaving it to soak on the railing.  Another time, I found a baby crawling in my garbage pit, licking at a chocolate wrapper.  Just this morning, I stopped a toddler from putting a mirror shard into her mouth.  All of Bwino’s favorite toys, of course, have been sucked on by every single one of the neighborhood children. 

Somehow, these children survive and grow up to become stable, sturdy, and healthy human beings.  Most of them, at any rate.


PORTUGUESE:  Perhaps the hallmark of my Peace Corps experience has been the fact that I have finally conquered a new language.  I’m not perfect in Portuguese- it is still difficult for me to tell a story, for instance, because stories are told in the past tense- but I can communicate.  I am especially good in the classroom, because I have mastered every single piece of classroom vocabulary that I need to use to teach eighth grade English. 

Six months ago, I remember sitting in a hotel in Maputo, reading over the list of Portuguese “Survival phrases.”

Ola, como esta?

Estou bem, voce?

I was dismayed.  The accent was so different from the Spanish accent, and it had been a full seven years since I had even studied Spanish.  I tentatively tried every word on the list, and they all sounded wrong.

Como esh-tah?

Esh-toe bayn.

Now the words roll off my tongue.  Spanish sounds wrong.  French sounds wrong.  Sometimes even English sounds wrong.  The other day, when trying to say “Vista,” I pronounced it “Veesh-tah.”  I find it difficult to say “Pasta,” without saying, “Pash-tah.”  I call myself “Lee-zah,” when introducing myself to new people.  

It is as easy to communicate a simple message in Portuguese as it is to communicate in English.  Sometimes, after a conversation, I’m not sure which language I have been using. 

“Was that English or Portuguese?”  I wonder.  “It must have been Portuguese, because he seemed to understand.”

I slip in and out of English during class, not because I don’t know the words in Portuguese, but because I forget which language I am speaking.  The two languages have mixed together in my mind.

I find it easiest to communicate with other volunteers, because I don’t have to channel my thoughts in any particular language.  Dan and I speak in a combination of English and Portuguese, depending on the depth of our conversation (Existential?  English.  Cooking dinner?  Portuguese.).  When speaking with my mother and grandmother on the telephone, I make a concerted effort to converse entirely in English.  Some words- chapa, cobrador, bacia- don’t even have good English equivalents.  For me, they exist only in Portuguese. 



So I have lived in Mozambique for six entire months.  I’m not going to say, “I can’t believe it’s been six months!” because I can believe it.  It has felt like exactly six months, in fact.  We arrived on the seventh day of spring.  We spent the spring in Namaacha and the summer at our new sites.  It’s fall, now.  As the days are getting warmer in America, the nights in Africa are getting longer.  The sky is orange by 5:30 and dark by 6:15.  Soon it will be winter, and there will be frost in the mountains. 

I live in Zobue, Mozambique.  I speak Portuguese and I have many, many neighbors.  I live in the most beautiful site in the world, and I am surrounded by the nicest children.  Sometimes I am unhappy and sometimes I struggle, but there are always fifty children waiting to surround me and sing at a moment’s notice.

I am a celebrity, after all.  And this is where I live. 


Zobue Flower

Zobue Flower

A candid moment in a posed picture- neighborhood girls on my front step.

Wary of me and of my big camera

Going through a karate phase...

This toddler, named Gilda, waddled up my front steps with a runny nose,
no shirt, and a blanket on top of her head.  Just another day for little Gilda.

Bwino (right) and his best friend Scrappy Little-Dog

Zobue, Mozambique.  This is where I live.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Money

Traveling back from Tete City last week, Dan and I were invited to sit in the front of the chapa.  At first, I wasn’t so sure that this was what I wanted to do.  There weren’t any seatbelts, first of all, and, secondly, there were several dead fish strapped to the grill.  Why were there dead fish strapped to the grill?  That was anyone’s guess.

I mulled over my decision for a minute, then shifted my bags and slid into the bucket seat.  The truth is--  my standards for road travel have been lowered considerably since leaving the United States.  Instead of worrying, I smiled at the driver and struck up a conversation. 

The driver was from Malawi, it turns out, and spoke very good English.  I was thrilled.   I decided that this was the perfect time to ask the questions that I have been dying to ask about chapas and their motoristas.  I wasted no time.

“How much money do you make?”  I asked. My sense of curiosity was stronger than my desire to be polite. Luckily, the driver seemed delighted to have this conversation.

“Well,” he said, “I made 100 Meticais a day.  That’s my rate.  My cobrador makes 50 Meticais per day.  That’s his rate.”

“How much money do you bring in every day from passengers?”

“We give our boss 3,000 Meticais per day.”

“How much gas do you use?”

“In one trip to Tete City, we use 60 liters of petrol.  It costs about 2,400 Meticais.”

“What time do you start working?”

“4AM.”

“What time do you finish?”

“4PM.”

“Do you work on weekends?”

“I work every day of the week.”

“Wow.”

This made me think about money and about what people could and could not afford.  I had eaten a cheese pita that afternoon, for instance, and it had cost me 150 Meticais.  I knew that it was expensive, but I had justified it by thinking of the price in terms of US Dollars.  In US currency, it had cost less than 6 dollars.  In terms of Mozambican currency, though, it represented one full week’s worth of groceries. 

After this conversation with the chapa driver, I thought it would be interesting to be honest here, on my blog, about what I make as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Specifically, I want to discuss the value of money and what that money allows me to do here in Mozambique. 

First, we need to know that the current exchange rate is about 1 US Dollar to 27 Mozambican Medicais (MZM).

27 MZM = $1 US

Next, we need to know that, as a teacher in Mozambique, I am paid about 7,000 MZM per month.  This money is deposited directly into my bank account.

7,000 MZM = $260 US


Teachers in Mozambique earn between 6,000 and 14,000 MZM per month.  They also wear snappy white batas like the one pictured above.
  
To clarify, as a volunteer, I am paid of stipend of $260 US per month (about $60 per week) to cover my expenses.  In the United States, I would be hard-pressed to make ends meet on this income alone.  This is a salary of less than $3,400 a year, after all.  However, I am currently living in Africa.  Things are a little bit different here. 

First of all, let’s think of all those pesky costs that affect our cost of living in the United States.  How does the average person spend their paycheck?

HOUSING COSTS (35%)
TRANSPORT (17%)
FOOD (13%)
INSURANCE (11%)
HEALTH (7%)

 For us American volunteers living in Mozambique, this pyramid looks a little bit different.

 FOOD (75%)
OTHER (25%)


First of all, Peace Corps volunteers don’t have any housing fees.  Dan and I rent our house for 1,000 MZM a month, but the Peace Corps reimburses that cost.  My husband and I, as far as I know, are the only Peace Corps volunteers in Mozambique who actually have a landlord.  Everyone else lives on school property or in specialized housing.

1,000 MZM = $37 US
1,000 MZM = $37 US
(Payment reimbursed)

Our house in Zobue, Mozambique

So housing costs are out.  Next, we have the cost of transport.  Dan and I aren’t allowed to own (or drive) a car in Mozambique, so there are no upkeep, insurance, or gas costs to worry about.  There is only the occasional cost of a chapa or taxi ride.  Finally, there is the question of insurance and health care.  Peace Corps covers the cost of our health insurance and our health care, should any incidents arise.  Therefore, what had been a large part of my monthly expenditure in the United States is now the responsibility of the US government.

After subtracting all of these extra costs, we are left with just cost of food.

What does food costs us here in Mozambique?

Well.

The materials for tonight’s soup (onions, tomatoes, and okra) cost 31 Meticais.

Vegetable soup
31 MZM = $1.15 US


More specifically, ten tomatoes cost 20 Meticais.

Tomatoes are comparatively expensive in
Mozambique, but are available all year
20 MZM = $0.75 US



 Half a pound of okra costs 2 MZM.

Okra is relatively inexpensive and common in Zobue
2 MZM = $0.07 US


Three large onions (not pictured) cost about 9 MZM.

9 MZM = $0.36 US


Nearly every day, Dan and I travel to the market.  We usually buy a handful of tomatoes, one or two onions, and a few green peppers (1 MZM, or $0.04 US).  The cost is rarely more than (40 MZM, or $1.50).  Sometimes we will buy some bread (2.5 MZM, or $0.10 US) or, better, a small, greasy donut known simply as a bolo (cake).


My favorite treat in Mozambique
 1 MZM = $0.04 US


In general, we can get by quite comfortably on about 500 Meticais per week.

500 MZM = $18.50 US

There are some things that we buy, though, that are ridiculous.  By Mozambican standards, these things are unaffordable and absolutely unnecessary.  Most of our neighbors (who eat little more than grits, beans, and tomatoes every day) have never even tried some of the foods that we bring in from the big city.  Dan and I are a little embarrassed to be seen with these things, actually, but we continue to buy them because we are homesick.  That, and we are hungry.  It isn’t very fulfilling to eat ground corn every night for dinner.

On that particular day in the chapa, the day that I talked to the driver, Dan and I were carting:

Nestle Honey Cheerios :             150 MZM        ($5.50 US)
Cadbury Chocolate Bar:             60 MZM          ($2.25 US)
Fanta Grape Soda:                     60 MZM          ($2.25 US)
Orange Processed Cheese:         180 MZM        ($6.75 US)
Processed Mozzarella Cheese:    150 MZM        ($5.50 US)

The total value of our purchases was no more than about 30 US Dollars, or 1,000 Medicais.  Unfortunately, I was sitting next to a man who earned 100 Meticais a day.

100 MZM = $2.75 US

The cobrador behind me, collecting my fare, earned 50 Meticais per day.

50 MZM = $1.35 US

The average person in Mozambique earns about 21,600 MZM per year.

21,600 MZM = $800 US

Suddenly, I felt very guilty taking a swig from my 2-liter bottle of soda that I had bought for 60 MZM.  I thought about how long it would take for Romao to save up 60 MZM for a bottle of soda.  It would take at least a week.  Probably more.

That brings me to the topic of labor and chores.  In the past, we paid Romao 50 Meticais a week to cart water for us and to guard our house while we were away.  He quickly grew lazy, though, and sullen.  As a result, we changed his job description.  We now pay him for the individual chores that he does for us around the house.  This keeps him from getting lazy and, frankly, keeps our house much neater.  Our payment system is as follows:



Anyone, in fact, can do any of these chores for us at any time for the price listed above.  The last chore, of course, is dependent upon whether or not there has been any recent and unusual activity in our showerhouse. 


An unpleasant surprise left in our latrine


So that’s how money works in Mozambique.  Some things (cereal, peanut butter, and other “western goods”) are more expensive here than they would be in the United States.  Other things (mangos, avocados, cucumbers, and green peppers) are much, much cheaper. Labor is inexpensive, and time is worth next to nothing. 

Our puppy, it is interesting to note, cost us 50 MZM.

Cheap puppy
50 MZM = $1.35 US

Though they are only worth 50 Meticais, puppies are stolen in Mozambique all the time.  This really helps to illustrate the value of 50 Meticais.  What we perceive to be "only "$1.35" is worth much more to the people of Mozambique.

Here is an example to illustrate this point.  The other day, Romao came over to our house to hide a 20-Met bank note.  Worth approximately $0.75, he wanted to hide it because he couldn’t keep it “safe” in his own house.

“I don’t have a lock,” he said. “And I don’t want thieves to steal it.” 

It is interesting to realize that the value of 75 cents is variable, depending on your point of view.  For Romao, it is a sum worth treasuring. 

I try to bear all of this in mind every time that Dan and I head into the city to do our fancy grocery shopping.  Often, though, a combination of homesickness, deep hunger, and a desire for cheese will triumph in the end.  Unable to fight the cravings, we will find ourselves standing in the checkout isle clutching wrapped packets of cheese, bars of chocolate, bottles of soda, and enormous 1-kilogram boxes of cereal.  The beep-beep of the checkout machine is strangely soothing.  Try as we may to fit in in Africa, the grocery store is a setting that will always remind us of home.

Homemade quesadillas.  Cheese and flour:  $9.  Salary per week:  $60.  Worth it?  Absolutely.


Monday, March 12, 2012

There is a Man Under the Bed

The plan was simple, really.

Dan and I had just completed three months at site, and we were going to travel to Blantyre to celebrate.  We would catch a taxi at the Mozambique border at 7AM on Saturday, ride to the Malawian border (66 cents per person), and flag down a mini-bus headed towards Blantyre.  Two hours later, we would successfully arrive in the city, where we could begin our working towards our only real goal for the weekend:  To eat our way through the city of Blantyre in what would become a legendary festival of gorge. 

We hoped to meet our friend James, another Peace Corps volunteer, while we were in town.  He had been to the city a few times before and was prepared to take us to all of his favorite restaurants.  On his list was:

The Ethiopian Place
The Indian Place but not the Expensive One
The Pizza Place near the bus stop
The Lodge at Which we were Staying
Any of the Ice Cream Shops

In addition, we were going to do a hefty dose of grocery shopping.  Believe me when I say that I wrote out my grocery list one full week in advance of my departure.  No food item was going to evade me on this particular trip.  In fact, the night before we left, I wrote an entire journal entry about the food I intended to purchase.  My grocery list looked something like this:

Powdered milk
Chocolate
Cereal
Granola
Oatmeal
Candy
Powdered milk
Cereal
Candy
Cereal
Candy

The words became harder and harder to read as the list continued.  My handwriting became more frenzied and the ink smudged in the drops of saliva that pooled along the crease of the paper. 

It might come as a bit of a surprise, then, when you realize that this blog post is not about food.  While we did most of the things that we intended to do in Blantyre, we also had the SINGLE MOST FRIGHTENING EXPERIENCE OF OUR LIVES.

In Dan’s words, we experienced, “Absolute shenanigans.”

I would like to present to you my newest blog post:

That time that I went to Malawi to buy food and, in addition to buying food, also found myself in a highly precarious situation.”

AKA:  There is a Man Under the Bed


            *                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *


Blantyre is not the capital of Malawi, but, if you didn’t know better, you would think that it was. 

I thought it was.

Some people describe Blantyre as the New York City of Malawi.  By this, they mean that Blantyre is the living, beating heart of the country, if not the actual gubernatorial seat.  It also claims to be the most exciting city in the entire country.  While that sounds like quite a boast, it is important to note that Malawi only has four urban centers that have achieved actual city status, and the real capital, Lilongwe, has been described as a bloated, over-grown suburb. 

It was on this weekend, three months into our service, that Dan and I finally decided to visit this social and cultural hotspot, located just two hours away from our home on the border.  Armed with lots of cash, a grocery list that unfolded all the way to my waist, and my very fancy camera, Dan and I traveled to Blantyre. 

“Mostly,” we reasoned, we “just wanted to see what was there.”

It was a fairly smooth ride from our home in Zobue.  Malawi has better roads than Mozambique, and our mini-bus was only seating 13 individuals.  In Mozambique, the same type of mini-bus (a chapa) will refuse to budge until there are at least 19 paying customers on board.  Once there are 19 people on board a Mozambican chapa, sitting chock o’block atop one another and sweating and swearing profusely, the driver will crank the engine and squeal down the road, stopping only to pick up the driver’s entire family, a herd of goats, and sixty bags of charcoal. 

Sitting comfortably in our spacious Malawian mini-bus, Dan and I had time to look at the scenery around us.  We were startled by the beauty of the countryside.  It was, in a word, bucolic (a word that sounds like vomit but means “full of delightful, peaceful pastures.”  I believe that is comes from the Latin, meaning “spew of the Gods.”).  Malawi is green and mountainous, and it contrasts starkly with the landscape of the neighboring province.  With the exception of the mountains around Zobue, most of Tete Provice is wide, flat, and scorched.    

“Why have we been traveling to Tete City these past few months?”  I whispered to Dan.  “When we just could have come here?”

Approaching Blantyre, we were entertained by a large number of signs and business advertisements in English.  Coming from Mozambique, I hadn’t expected to find many businesses with English names.  Here they were, though:

Glory of God Barbershop
Uncle Pat and Christ the Lord Mini-Shop
You and God:  The Bucolic Food Shop of Blantyre

Most business had religious names.  Faith is a big part of daily life in this part of Africa, we’ve learned.  In Malawi, perhaps it is not enough to attend a four-hour service every Sunday and Wednesday.  Why not also honor God by constructing a bottle shop in His name?

Other signs were funny, too.  The advertisements in Malawi tend to be very cautious and equivocal.  Take this advertisement for juice, for instance:

“Sure-Taste Juice-  A good option in terms of what’s available”

That’s paraphrased, of course, but you get the point. 

There was also this slogan for a Danish brand of beer called “Carlsburg.”  This particular slogan is not paraphrased.  It is the most common advertisement in all of Malawi, and it is painted on every other house and business along the two-hour stretch between Blantyre and the border.  You can’t go for 2 minutes without seeing this particular slogan, and by the time you leave Malawi, it is forever imbedded into your brain.

“Carlsburg,” the advertisement brags, “Probably the best beer in the world.”

Probably the Best Beer in the World

What a strange statement.  It’s made even stranger by the fact that Carlsburg is not an especially delicious or well-known beer.  As far as I know, it’s never won any awards and is not even very popular in its own home country. 

“At least they allow for a margin of error,” says Dan.  “They did say “probably,” after all.  The pressure’s off.”

Thoroughly entertained by our bus ride and feeling fresh and cool, we met up with James outside of the bus station (a gravely patch of pavement behind a row of seedy-looking shops).  It was about 10:30 in the morning, and we were primed to begin our gustatory adventure. 

I won’t bore you with the details, but I feel somewhat obligated to give an overview. 

From 10:30 to 11:00AM, we ate pastries.
From 11:00 to 12:00PM, we ate Ethiopian food.
From 12:00 to 2:00PM, we did our grocery shopping
From 2:00 to 2:30PM, we split three pastries from the grocery store.
From 2:30 to 3:30PM, we split a bag of candy from the grocery store
From 3:30 to 4:30PM, we ate Indian food
From 5:00 to 5:30PM, we each ate a large ice cream cone with a spear of chocolate through the center

It was set to become the perfect weekend. 

The Modern World of Consumerism:  Both Great and Terrible

The Game Superstore in Blantyre

Finally satiated, we went to the Backpacker’s Lodge to settle in for the night (and to eat the bag of marshmallows that we had recently acquired.)  Called Doogle’s Lodge, it was located five minutes from the city center, right next to a busy bus terminal.  This particular bus terminal was loud and noisy, filled with towering buses and untrustworthy characters.

Doogle's Lodge, Blantyre

Doogle's Lodge, Blantyre

“The Lodge is pretty safe, though,” said James.  “I’ve stayed there a few times and I’ve never had any problems.”

We chose to sleep in a dormitory-style bedroom (4 dollars per person) and unloaded our things onto the bunkbeds. 

“We should probably lock our stuff in the lockers,” said Dan.  “I don’t think the bedroom door locks.”

“It doesn’t,” said James.  “It’s a dorm.  People can come and go.  I think someone else is staying in here, too.”

He gestured towards a wet towel hanging on a hook by the door. 

We put away most of our valuables and locked the lockers.  This action was automatic, but I will admit that I wasn’t thinking about security when we left the room to go play pool.  I didn’t even look behind me to make sure that everything was put away before I walked out of the room.  I’d never had any problems with my stuff in hotel rooms, after all. 

We played pool for about an hour, then returned to the room.  I had just tried my first-ever Carlsburg beer and could honestly say that I was entirely underwhelmed.  Their next slogan, I thought, could easily be:

Fails to live up to unreasonably high, if ambiguous, statements of quality

Upon entering the room, Dan noticed that something strange had transpired.  He walked over to the lockers.

“I would check your stuff,” he said to James.  “This lock has been tampered with.”

He was right.  In fact, the lock had been more than tampered with.  The swinging bar that attached the padlock to a metal fastener on the frame of the locker had been ripped off it its hinges.  The padlock was still intact, but the locker door was hanging open. 

“I’d better check,” said James.  “I did have some money in there…”

He started rooting through the pockets of his traveling bag.

“Uh-oh,” he said.  “This isn’t good.”

“What?”  We asked.

“I think my money’s gone,” he said.

He continued to search through zippers and folds of his bag.

“My bank card is still here…” he said.

“Is your computer still there?”

“Yeah.  I still have my computer.  But all of my money is definitely gone.”

“What should we do?”

“I don’t know.”

“How much was it?”

“Enough.  It was almost a full month’s salary.  I was going to go traveling next weekend.”

It was decided that Dan would stay in the room to guard our stuff while James and I went to speak to the owner of the hostel.  It didn’t seem likely that this would accomplish anything, but we felt obligated to report the theft to someone.

The owner, a long-haired Bolivian man named Carlos, turned very pink and said a few choice words when we told him what had happened. 

“Let’s go look,” he said. 

He came with us back to the room, then shook his head when he saw the broken lock. 

“Was anything else stolen?”  He asked.

We shook our heads.  “Actually,” I said, “It’s strange.  James’s laptop wasn’t stolen, and neither was my camera.  It was only the money.”

“Was anybody else in this room?” Asked Carlos.

“Just one person,” we said.  “But we haven’t seen him.  His towel was hanging by the door but- oh, now it’s on the bed.  He must have come back at some point while we were at the bar.”

The owner ran his fingers through his hair.  “I don’t like the sound of that,” he said.  “I know this guy.  He's kind of a drifter.  He sells T-shirts in tourist areas.  He stays here because, you know, it’s cheap.  I think it might have been him.  I never liked the guy, anyway.”  He twisted his long hair into a bun.  “Listen, I have no idea when he’s going to come back.  His towel’s still here, but he didn’t sign in for the night.  I think you had better go to the police station and file a report.  I’ll send one of my guards with you.”

Once again, it was decided that Dan would stay behind and guard our belongings while James and I traveled to the police station.  It was unlikely that we were going to trust those flimsy locks to protect the rest of our stuff. 

The police station was very close by, in the middle of the honking, steaming bus terminal.  It was not well-lit, but I felt strangely safe and comfortable.  Just the idea of a police station makes me feel better. 

Things inside of the station were a bit chaotic, though.  Everyone was speaking Chewa and I was unsure of who did and who did not have a firm grasp on English.  James told his story to the policeman at the front desk, who began writing a long, handwritten report about the incident.  After twenty or thirty minutes, he gave the report to James to read.  We were a bit surprised by the wording of the transcript:

“I, James, swear that these events transpired as followed:

It was on a Saturday night at 8PM when I left my room at Doogles to relax at the neighboring bar.  When I returned, I was shocked to discover that the lock on the cabinet in which my belongings were being held had been tampered with and that my bag had been searched.  It was with great urgency that I searched here and there for my missing cash, but I was unable to find the money that I had previously called my own.  Unfortunately, the room was a dormitory-style hotel room and there was no lock on the door.  Other objects of value were left, untouched.  In total, the thief made off with $XX,XXX,XXX Malawian Kwacha.

Signed,
James, March 10, 2012”

“This is correct,” said James.  “I guess.” 

We were both a bit confused by the flowery language.  And why was there no actual police report form to fill out?  The form in question was just a piece of computer paper with crooked, hand-drawn lines.

“We had better go and search the room,” said the policeman.  He stood up to leave and was followed by two or three other officers.  None of them seemed interested in speaking English unless it was absolutely necessary. 

Dan was still in the room when we returned, sitting cross-legged on his bunkbed. 

“That guy didn’t return,” he said, mentioning the drifter.  “He’s still out.”

“The police are here to check,” I said.  “Maybe they’ll find something.”

Mostly, though, the police just asked us to repeat our story and then began to root through the contents of the lockers.  They even started to pat down the mattress closest to the lockers, on which the wet towel was still lying. 

Finally, they seemed to be out of ideas.

“We’ll go back to the office now,” they said.  “And search for leads.”

“…Okay,” we said.  “Well, we’ll let you know if anything happens.”

Carlos stayed in the room with us after the police had left.  “Listen,” he said.  “I have an idea.”

Carlos laid out his plan:  The drifter, Carlos reasoned, was probably out getting drunk.   But when he returned, he would probably still be carrying a large amount of cash.  If we were lucky, it would be enough money to incriminate him.  All we had to do was to stay in the room as bait, and wait for him to return.  If he came back, after all, and found an empty room, he might get suspicious and flee.  If we were there, though, we could apprehend him as he entered and pin him until the police arrived.

“I’m really not comfortable with that,” said James bluntly.  “I don’t know who this guy is.  I am not interested in putting myself at risk here.”

Carlos seemed disappointed. 

“Of course you can change rooms,” he said, slowly.

“Yes, please,” said James.  “We would like to change rooms.”

With that, we emptied out the lockers and moved down the hall into the adjoining room.

“I think this is probably far enough away,” I said, settling on to a lower bunk.  The mattress had a colorful peacock pattern.  “I mean, I don’t know.  That guy might not even come back tonight.  It might not even have been him.” 

“You know,"  said James.  "I have a great idea.  We don't have to stay in that room at all.  We can go in there right now and make pillow people.”

“That’s perfect,” said Dan.  “That way, if the thief returns, he won’t be able to tell that we have changed rooms.  He will think that nothing’s wrong.”

“I love it,” I said.  “Let’s go!”

Less than thirty seconds after leaving the original room, Dan, James, and I returned to make pillow people.  We pulled down the mosquito nets and ruffled up the covers to make it look like we were snuggled up in bed. 

“This kind of reminds me of Lord of the Rings,” I said.  “When the Ring Wraiths come to kill Frodo at the Inn.”

“Let’s hope that this guy is not coming back to stab us,” said Dan, dryly. 

I think we all felt a thrill of fear.

The pillow people were finished, and it looked very much like three lumpy people were sleeping soundly under three well-tucked mosquito nets.

We left the room and turned off the light, shutting the door behind us.  As soon as I returned to the new room, however, I got the urge to return to the scene of the crime.

“I'm going back," I said.  "I want to take a picture of the beds and of the pillow people.  Maybe of the broken lock, too.”

“Okay,” said James.  He accompanied me to the doorway of the abandoned room and pushed open the door.  The room was dark, of course, and, for whatever reason, it was very, very smelly.

Room 1:  The Scene of the Crime

“Wow,” I said.  “That guy’s stuff smells.”

“You’re good here?”  Asked James.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m just going to get a few pictures.”  I stepped into the room, alone.

I took a picture of a bed from the door frame, then moved deeper into the room to get a better angle on what had been my bunkbed.  I backed up against the drifter’s bed and into his wet towel.

“Ugh,” I said.  “That guy is so gross.”


Pillow people to be used as bait.  I was backed up against the drifter's bed to
take this picture.  In hindsight, that was not such a good idea.

That room smelled terrible.  Why hadn’t I noticed it before?

I knelt by the drifter’s bed to take a picture of the broken lock.  The light was dim, so I had to hold very still for a longer exposure. 

It was in that moment, the absolute silence in the length of a long-exposure shot, that I heard it. 

I heard breathing. 

I knew.  I knew then, but somehow, I denied it.  Slowly, very slowly, I ducked my head to look under the bed.  There, just inches from my own, were a pair of legs clad in black running pants. 

I don’t know why I did this, but I assumed that that could not be what I was seeing.  Some strange, numb sense of curiosity edged me onward.  I knelt lower on my left elbow.  I don’t know why I didn’t just run.  I actually took the time to make sure that I had just seen what I thought I saw. 

Staring back at me, from the dark space under the bed, were two white eyes. 

My next reaction was not exactly what I had expected from myself.  Our fear reaction is something that distinctly instinctual.  There is no choosing your response in a fight-or-flight situation.  It is a reflex so automatic that you become an entirely different person. 

The person I became was scared.  It occurred to me that this man was between me and the door.  I started to scream- this weird, guttural, gurgling scream- and I tried to run.  I was on all fours already, and in my haste, I slipped and fell onto my chin.  My camera jammed into my chest and my knees hit the ground, hard.  I continued to scream and scrambled to my feet, crashing into the doorframe and bursting into the hallway. 

Dan was already running towards me.

“The man is UNDER THE BED!”  I screamed.  “HE IS UNDER THE BED.”

Dan let out this crazy, bellowing yell and charged past me into the bedroom.  I saw a blur of black and red as he barreled into the man that was trying to escape behind me. 

“NO!”  Yelled Dan.  “NO!” 

I ran screaming down the hall, trying to get the attention of anybody.

“The man!  I yelled.  “The thief!  The man is in the room!  Dan is alone- please help!” 

It didn’t occur to me to run and get James.  I ran in the direction of the bar, searching for the largest number of people that I could find.  My mind was becoming clearer and I began to realize that Dan was alone in the room with a potentially dangerous criminal. 

“Please,” I said, running into the kitchen and finding a staff member.  “Please, please come.  The thief is in the room.”

I ran into the bar area, which was crowded with people.  In my panic, I didn't even think to mince my words or to try to make sense. 

“Please help!”  I cried.  My hair was in my face and my camera was hanging at a strange angle around my neck.  My knees hurt so much.  “The thief is IN THE ROOM.  THERE IS A MAN IN THE ROOM.  Dan is alone.”

It seemed like half of the people in the bar rushed past me, running towards the room.

Defeated and finally feeling the effects of the first painful adrenaline rush, I turned and ran behind them. 

Dan was no longer alone.  The owner and several guards had pinned the thief against the wall in the bedroom, where he was now whimpering quietly.  I was surprised by how small he seemed.

“I guess we should call the police,” said Dan. 

James just looked upset.  I realized that I hadn’t even thought about him during this whole sequence.  I had run the wrong way out of the room.  Or maybe it was the right way.  I had alerted the entire hotel, after all. 

The police came and took the man away.  My hands were shaking a little bit as I inspected the damage done to my camera.  It’s funny- my camera is my most cherished possession, but at that moment, that moment of fight or flight, I didn’t even remember that I was wearing it.  I had landed right on top of it when I fell.

Thankfully, nothing was broken.  Some small parts of the camera body were bent, but it still was capable of taking photos.  Shakily, I looked over the pictures that I had taken.  I came across the picture I had taken of the lock.  It was blurry.  I had moved at the last moment, when I heard breathing.

“He was in there the whole time,” said James.  “God damnit.  The whole time.”

Things started to become clearer.  The man was there, under the bed, when we discovered the robbery.  He was there when we left Dan alone, to guard our stuff.  He was under the bed when the owner checked the mattresses.  He was there when we made our pillow people.  He was there when I went into the room alone to take pictures of the broken lock.  It wasn’t his clothes that I had been smelling.  It had been him.

“He must have heard us coming,” said James.  “And hidden under the bed.  We never gave him a chance to escape.  There was always somebody in the room.”

Carlos came to talk to us.

“Listen,” he said.  “You had better head down to the police station.  If the thief has the money on him, the police might take it.”

Dutifully, we headed back out into the night.  At the police station, there were fewer officers than before.  The suspect was nowhere to be found.

“We’d like to inquire about the suspect,” said James.  “Did you find any money on him?”

“We found 6,000 Kwacha,” said a policeman, ambiguously.  He pulled out his night stick and twisted the tip of it into the floor.  “But we are still interrogating him.  Come back in the morning, and we will have more information.”

Feeling hopeful, we went back to the Lodge.

“Do you think the police stole the money?”  Asked James.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t think so.”  I wanted so badly to trust the police.

Back at Doogle's, we requested a room change.  I, specifically, was not willing to stay in an unlocked room after what had happened.  Thankfully, the owners were understanding.  They gave us the key to a chalet and helped us to move our bags out of the dormitories. 

It was hard to fall asleep that night.  We were all sleeping in individual twin beds, and I was wishing that I could curl up small next to my husband.  I was very impressed with what Dan had done that night, but I was also fighting the urge to yell at him.

“What if he had had a knife?!”  I wanted to say.  “What if he had had anything?”

Even so, I had been stupid, too. 

I lay away, staring at the ceiling.  I tried not to look at the shadows on the curtains and tried to ignore the scuttling that I was imagining in every corner.  I kept picturing two white eyes, staring back at me from underneath that bed. 

“THERE IS A MAN UNDER THE BED!”  I had yelled, when I had finally regained my words.  I made the transition from guttural screams to one simple, repetitive statement.  “THERE IS A MAN UNDER THE BED!”

I fell into a fitful sleep.

The next morning, we went back to the police station.  We were surprised and put out to realize that no one was there who had been there the night before.  In fact, no one seemed to know anything that had happened.

“My name is James,” said James.  “I filed a police report last night?”

The woman at the front desk shook her head.  Sorry.

“A man was arrested last night,” I said.  “Is he still here?”

The woman shook her head.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “I don’t know anything.”

Eventually, another policewoman approached us. 

“Come with me,” she said. 

I was feeling hopeful, but that hope was quickly starting to erode.  It became apparent that she didn’t know anything about the events of the night before, either.  She did not have a copy of the handwritten police report, and suggested that it would be hard for her to get.

“Can we call the man who was on duty last night?”  Asked James.  “He can tell you what happened.”

“Yes,” said the policewoman slowly.  “Can I use your phone?  I don’t have any air time.”

“Sure,” said James, “Whatever.”

The woman called the officer who had been on duty and then, glancing at us and switching to Chewa, left the room to talk in the hallway.

When she returned, she looked at us gravely.

“There was no money found on that man,” she said.  “He is not the thief.”

I almost exploded.  “He’s not the thief?  Why was he hiding under the bed?  And what happened to the 6,000 Kwacha that the police found last night?”

The policewoman looked at us sternly.  She spoke slowly and carefully.

“I don’t know anything about that,” she said.  Her tone of voice made it clear that our meeting was over.  There was nothing left to talk about. 

“I will show you to the door,” she said.

And that was it.  We walked out of the police station feeling dejected and confused.  I had wanted to badly to believe in the police. 

“No,” I had said the night before.  “I’m sure that the police didn’t steal your money.”

We wandered back into the city, but our feelings towards Blantyre had soured.  The downtown area was a little less pretty today.  The air was a little more stifling and hot. 

We got some pizza and an ice cream cone, then boarded a mini-bus headed for the border.  Dan and I hadn’t gotten robbed, but we were also out of money.

I could hardly believe that that was the ending to our adventure.  It felt so open-ended.  So unsettled.  I was disappointed and sad. 

“We caught the thief,” I kept thinking.  “Dan caught him.  He pinned him against the wall.  Why didn’t we just search for the money then?”

The three of us were quiet until it was time to drop James off. 

“Thanks for sticking around for that whole thing," he said, sliding out of the mini-bus and out the door.  "It was really helpful to have you there.”

"I was kind of a big adventure," I said, truthfully.  "Thanks for inviting us."

Then, Dan and I were moving once again, headed towards our home in Zobue.    Quiet, peaceful, loving, happy Zobue.  It's nice to travel, but it's even better to come back home.


The thief was hiding under this bed.  Photo taken the next morning.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

If You Give a Kid a Condom...

When we woke up this morning, we had no fresh water.  Our water boy was nowhere in sight, so Dan decided to go and fetch water himself. 

“How hard can it be?”  He said.  “Our landlady has a well in her yard.  I don’t know why we’re paying Romao 60 Mets a week, anyway.”

30 Meticais = 1 US Dollar
60 Meticais = 2 US Dollars

“Because we feel obligated to, honey.”  I gave him a fond pat on the head and sent him out into the yard with our largest bucket.  “Go find some water.”

His comment made me think, though.  Why were we paying Romao?  We inherited him, like everything else in our house, but unlike most of our things (the mini two-burner stove, the miniature oven), Romao has simply stopped working. 

At first, he was over at our house every minute of every day, trying to impress us. 

“I will wash your floors,” he would say.  “I will make food for the dog.”

As the days have gone by, though, Romao has gotten lazier.  Most of the time, he just sits in his yard, listening to the radio.  From time to time, he will barge into our house and ask to charge his telephone.  On rare occasions, he will bring us one or two buckets of water.  Most days, though, he just doesn’t feel like doing anything.

The funny thing is, I never expected to hire help when I moved to Africa.  To be honest, I felt like that was such a snobby thing to do. 

“I can do my own dishes,” I argued.  “I did them every day in the states.”

Things are different here, though.  Food has to be made from scratch, three times a day.  The market is at least a full hour’s walk away.  Laundry gets worn and sweat through, and it all has to be washed by hand.  Dust blows in through the windows and settles on our floor in a layer of fine, brown sand.  Often, we lose power just as we start cooking lunch or dinner and need to rush outside to start the charcoal stove.  All of these things become exhausting when practiced day after day.  Here in Africa, looking after the house is a full-time job. 

It’s like we are living in 1950's-era rural America.

My grandmother grew up in rural Arkansas, and her mother was a housewife, tasked with all of these same household chores.  Unlike me, of course, she had children, too.  I just have a dog who eats a lot of scrambled eggs. 

But I digress.  The problem is this- Romao has gotten lazy, and we can’t keep up with our housework. 

We mentioned this problem to Adrienne, who tsk-tsked and shook her head.

“You know,” she said.  “Good help is so hard to find.”

I think her ironic comment really encapsulated our situation.  Dan and I want to be self-sufficient (in fact, we are a little embarrassed to be searching for "hired help") but the workload is piling up.  We will need help, and that’s all there is to it.  Unfortunately, Romao is a teenage boy and can’t really be trusted.  He sees us as an easy source of income, and has no interest in actually working. 

So Dan set off down the path, lugging a giant bacia at his side.  He retrieved the water quickly (the well is next door, after all), and started walking home.  As he was carrying the bucket back to the house, one of Romao’s little cousins offered to carry it for him.

She did this wordlessly, of course.  She doesn’t speak Portuguese.  In exchange for her help, Dan offered her an expired condom to use as a balloon.  Thankfully, this was enough incentive to bring her back, five minutes later.

“Jeito?” Condom?  She asked, peering inside our house and swinging on the grate.  “Jeito?”  Condom?

We handed her a second bucket, which was probably large enough for her to crawl into.  She could have at least stood in it up to her thighs.  She clunked off down the path, the bucket bouncing off her legs.  My goodness, the things these little kids wouldn’t do for a balloon.

Unfortunately, this started a rush on our porch.  Before we knew it, half of the neighborhood was crawling onto our front stoop. 

“Jeito?”  Condom?

“Jeito?”  Condom?

“Lee-zahhh…”  Lisa?

“Dah-neee…”  Dan?

We only needed one more bucket of water, which we gave to another one of Romao’s cousins.  The rest of the children we sent away.  They continued to hang about on the fringes of the yard, calling out- “Jeito?  Jeito?”

CondomCondomCondom?  Please-can-I-have-a-condom-to-play-with?

Unfortunately, this system would not be sustainable for long.  We have hundreds of condoms (thank you, Peace Corps!), but only about ten of them are expired.  The rest of the condoms, the newer ones, could be put to better use, I’m sure. 

I took a few pictures of the little ones with their condoms.  They are quite resourceful, actually.  First, they will take the condom out of the packet and rub it in their hair (for the oil).   Then, they will blow it up and tie it at the bottom.  After that, they either chose to tie a string to the bottom and bop it around as a balloon or to wrap it in plastic bags and create a makeshift soccer ball. 

In my head, I started writing a poem:

If you give a kid a condom,
He will ask you for another.
If you give a kid a condom,
He will want one for his brother.

We learned something from all of this.  Romao might be lazy and unwilling to work, but the little ones are extremely motived by trinkets and toys.  This realization marked a sad day for our waterboy.  After six years with the girls (and boys) of Peace Corps Zobue, he is finally getting the sack. 

We are going to hire children to do our work for us.  In exchange for condoms. 

What a crazy world.  

Blowing up a condom balloon, the old-fashioned way
A hand-made soccer ball with a gooey condom center
My favorite little girl shows off her new condom balloon.  When the condom
 pops,  it will be blown up for a second time, and re-tied, higher up.  The
 lifespan of a single condom balloon is extended in this way until the
 balloon itself is the size of a grape.