Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving: Africa

This was a Thanksgiving to remember. 

Since Katie from Nebraska has joined us here, we decided the 2 of us needed to make a real American Thanksgiving, Turkey and all.  We had seen some Turkeys hanging out around Aru so we decided to find one.  Lydia went out for some reconnaissance and came back saying the turkey would cost something like $30, which is highway robbery because that’s how much a goat costs.  So Katie and I returned the next day with Sister Gracianna hoping she could lower the price a bit.  Well, the man wasn’t home.  So bright and early Thanksgiving morning we tried again and did succeed in a slightly lower price.

I came home triumphantly after breakfast with a turkey in tow.  Here she is, one hour before her death:

And here we are together:

I had a great plan in my head for Mama Marie (a local woman who cleans, gardens, and sometimes cooks for us) to come and kill/clean/ready the turkey for us (i.e. make the turkey more like you find it at the store).   Sadly, Thanksgiving was the one day Mama Marie was sick and didn’t come.  So that left us all standing around our turkey, who was tied to a tree in front of our house, wondering what we were going to do with it.  Stefano thought he could kill it, but had never killed anything before and we didn’t think a turkey was a good place to start.  Finally we decided to go to the convent to ask for some help.  This was a good move.  Raymond, one of the men who does various odd jobs for the sisters came over, took the Turkey out back and slit its throat:

Then he cleaned it:

Then he emptied out its insides and gave it back to us almost as you would find a store-bought Turkey.

Here she is, one hour after her death:

With the Turkey death out of the way Katie and I were able to concentrate on cooking our feast.  After lunch we set to work.  I made an apple pie from a can I had imported from Denver and Katie made her dad’s famous stuffing.  Clara and Matteo helped to finish the Turkey and we stuffed her up nice and big and put her in the oven.  Our oven is usually a disaster to work with because it has 2 temperatures: off and really, really hot.  Everything burns in this oven and it is always frustrating to bake.  We have now discovered the one thing our oven is good for: Turkey! Here she is going into the oven:

While the turkey was roasting nicely in our super-hot oven, I made my family specialty Grandma Noodlies and Katie and I made some delicious mashed potatoes.  As the turkey came out of the oven to rest I took the drippings and attempted to make gravy from scratch for the first time in my life.  The taste was good, but the consistency was a bit off, I’ll have to try again next year.

As the turkey rested the Italians broke out the salami and Parmesan cheese for Happy Hour before dinner (although I did warn them not to eat too much because we had tons of food just around the corner). 

After the turkey’s last nap everything was ready and it was time to eat!  The Italians took control of the carving…well, they didn’t exactly carve the turkey but hacked it into 8 huge chunks.  It wasn’t a nicely presented platter of turkey slices, but it added a lot of character to our International Thanksgiving.

We all stuffed ourselves with tons of food and shortly after dinner found that we were all exhausted, like there was some kind of chemical in all that Turkey we ate to make us tired…

So we left the dishes for the morning and lounged around until it was time to stuff in a little bit of apple pie and drag our overstuffed bodies to bed.

This was my second International Thanksgiving in a row (3rd if you count Guam as International).  It was great fun to introduce Thanksgiving to Stefano, Clara, and Maria and Matteo enjoyed his first Thanksgiving with turkey.  I encouraged all of them to come to America some day to experience even more food and family. 

I hope you all had a very Happy Thanksgiving and I hope that you all appreciate turkeys that come all nicely wrapped up and ready to go into the oven!!!


Thursday, November 18, 2010


I have just returned from a two week vacation with my community to Kisangani, a city on the Congo River smack in the middle of the Congo jungle. Let’s just assume that all the traveling over treacherous Congo roads went swimmingly and we arrived in Kisangani and returned to Aru without encountering any problems such as muddy roads, rivers without bridges, flat tires, or running out of gas and focus on Kisangani itself. 

We were in Kisangani for one week and I think we were able to see pretty much all there is to see in this moderate sized jungle city. Kisangani is located on the upper reaches of the Congo on the last navigable part of the river. It is about .01º above the equator and thus very hot. There are also lots and lots of mosquitoes. In colonial times it was known as Stanleyville (which is great because I went to Stanley British Primary School for kindergarten and as it turns out the city and school are named for the same guy) and was a major trading post for goods headed down the river to Kinshasa (Leopoldville) and onto Europe. Since colonial times Kisangani has fallen on hard times being the center of much violent conflict and even the setting for a war between Rwanda and Uganda. Being in the middle of the second largest rainforest on earth, Kisangani is not exactly accessible. Although the road we took from Bunia was passable it was by no means a high way, thus, the river is the main means of transport. Kisangani shows signs of once being a prosperous city and the potential to become a prosperous city again, but at the moment it’s nowhere. There are many beautiful old colonial building and many crumbling concrete buildings. There are some paved roads and many pitted, muddy, dirt roads. There are a fair amount of motorcycles and a few cars. There are some expensive places to eat and lots of cheap street food (like GIGANTIC larvae). It was a wonderful opportunity to see more of Congo and compare Aru, a town, to Bunia, a small city, and Kisangani, a larger city (the 2nd or 3rd largest in Congo).  

Day 1: We arrived from Bunia bright and early Sunday morning at 6 am. After waiting to officially register with immigration (Congolese LOVE paperwork) we made our way to a lovely hotel ½ block from the Congo river- Le Palm Beach. Palm Beach features a swimming pool, hot water from the tap, air conditioning, and a tv complete with CNN- in English! So it was a nice play to stay. Plus, the proprietor gave us a discount because we’re volunteers. I imagine it helped that we showed up to check in with a sister…

Everyone else went to the pool, but I got stuck on the bed, since I hadn’t slept so much on the 24 hour bus ride from Bunia. After a relaxing morning we decided to try out the hotel restaurant for lunch, and thus commenced our first of many nearly identical restaurant experiences. All restaurants in Kisangani have the exact same menu, but the all change the prices a bit depending on their perceived elegance. All restaurants in Kisangai are missing certain parts of their menu, so you sometimes have to ask for 2 or 3 things before you find something that the kitchen has. All restaurants in Kisangani take at least 1 ½ hours to bring you your food from the time of ordering. Okay, so we didn’t try ALL restaurants in Kisangani, but all the restaurants we did try were almost exactly the same. So much about restaurants. Now when I say we ate at a restaurant you know that we had to order 3 times and wait 1 ½ to 3 hours for our food. So, 1 ½ hours later we left the Palm Beach restaurant and took a walk down by the river and around the town a bit. It was great to finally see the great river of this country, and the 4th largest river in the world. It is indeed a large river, especially for me since I don’t have much to compare with in the way of rivers growing up next to the Platte and all. The Congo makes the Platte look absolutely pathetic. 
The Canossians of Kisangani invited us for dinner that night so we went out to their place, which happens to be an amazing old colonial building overlooking the Congo. I can easily imagine the old colonials sitting on the front porch, looking over the river, and sipping their gin and tonics. Here is the view:

I don’t know how, but the Canossians are able to get the best pieces of land all over the world, but I will have to explain more on that in another post. 

Day 2: We slept in, late. It was amazing. And very cold in our air conditioned room. We spent the morning lounging at the pool, swimming and sunning. We had a picnic in our room with food the sisters sent us, watching tv:

In the afternoon we made our way to the famous Wagenia Falls where the fisherman have built big wooden frames over the river from which to dangle fishing net like things and catch fish. This is what it looks like:

We then took a pirogue (small canoe-like boat) on an expedition down the Congo to the convent to meet Srs. Daniela and Charlotte for dinner. It was a beautiful time of day to be out on the river, just before sunset so the temperature and scenery was perfect. It was very relaxing to be rowed down the river and take in the sights. The Congo is a huge river completely surrounded by dense jungle. The city and other small towns poke out a bit, but really, the jungle dwarfs all its surroundings, coming just to the river’s edge on both sides. Here are some photos of our expedition:

We met the sisters at a lovely place, but they didn’t have food because you need to call 1 day in advance, so we went into the city and ate at a restaurant- you know how that went.

Day 3: Srs. Daniela and Charlotte came to fetch us in the morning for in expedition to the Left Bank. We hopped in a pirogue with a motor and traversed the river in a few minutes. There is a small town on the other side of the river plus a railway station. The railway looks like its from the 1950s (which it is) and hasn’t been updated since (which it hasn’t) but it is still working. We then set off on a long trek around visiting Wagenia falls from the other side and tramping though a lot of very hot jungle. We ended in the town center where there is a huge church, St. Martha’s and ate our picnic lunch at the local convent where Sr. Charlotte has some friends. After lunch we headed back over to the Right Bank to experience the Kisangani market.  

The market in Kisangani is more or less the same as the market in Aru, but on a much bigger scale. There are more things for sale, more shops, more stalls, and more people. But the basic feeling is the same. It was fun to check it out and see all the goods one can find in Kisangani, but also tiring and a little overwhelming for someone accustomed to a small town market. Think what it would be like to go to Super Target after months of 7-11. Well, after the market expedition we were all quite tired so we headed back home for a short nap time.

After nap we headed over to the convent for dinner with the sisters. After dinner we went back to Palm Beach where I took advantage of CNN in English to follow the results of Election Day in America. It was a nice surprise to know what was going on in the world and especially my country, but it also reminded me how out of touch I often am in Aru. We don’t have television and the internet is so slow, who wants to waste time on silly things like news? So I usually have no idea what is going on in the world. Thus, I enjoyed very much watching Election Day news in my air-conditioned hotel room!

Day 4: We had grand plans to visit the hydro-electric plant on the river to the north of Kisangani, the Tshopo, but once there we were told we needed to seek permission from another office in the center of town. So instead we crossed the river and had drinks at a “beach” overlooking the falls, which are quite a nice sight:

We then walked over to the “zoo.” I think our guidebook describes the zoo best “…a sorry place with about three animals right now.” It was indeed sorry, but there were more than 3 animals, I think there were at least 7. But they were all in very small, plain, cages, and didn’t seem all that happy. There was also a wild monkey who hangs out by the caged monkeys, I don’t know if he’s comforting or tormenting his captured comrades, but it was an odd juxtaposition.

The plus side of this type of zoo (or yet another minus) is that you can pet all the animals, so here is Stefano getting groomed by Freddy the Chimpanzee:

And Matteo kissing the snake that they kindly took out of its cage for us

After the restaurant we retreated over the Tshopo and sought a place for lunch. This restaurant was the same as the others, but also special. Some of the food arrived lickity-split after one hour, but Clara’s did not arrived after 3 hours, which is the Kisangani restaurant record.  

We had a few quiet hours in the late afternoon and evening before heading out for a big night on the town. We went to one of Kisangani’s premiere night clubs “Dallas.” I am sure I won’t do this place justice in my description because it was something special, but I’ll try. In the middle of the rather broken down city of Kisangani we found ourselves in a very posh night spot. There was music blasting and laser lights beaming all over the place and every 5 minutes a smoke machine added to the bizarre atmosphere another layer of mystery. The music was a mix of African and American music from the 80s and 90s. I found myself dancing to the Macarana (but me and Lydia were the only ones dancing). And I can’t forget the floor to ceiling wall mirror that everyone oriented there dancing toward. I must say, I’m not sure I want to see myself dance, but in Africa, it’s all about watching yourself in the mirror. After awhile it this strange atmosphere we decided to move on to another place. We found another night club that wasn’t quite so posh (the beer was 1/3 the price). It wasn’t so fancy, but it too featured mirrors. In fact, I observed that people didn’t so much dance with each other as they did with themselves in the mirror. Very different from America. On the other hand, some aspects are the same in all night clubs all over the world. 

Day 5: I dragged myself out of bed early after our late night out so I could attend daily mass at the Kisangani Cathedral which was just a 2 minute walk from our hotel, overlooking the river. This is the Cathedral from the river (our hotel is to the left and ½ block back):

The mass was in Swahili so I understood even less than I normally do when mass is in Lingala. My favorite part was the 10 year old who was playing a gigantic drum almost taller than him.  

Later in the morning Sr. Roberta, the superior of the Kisangani Canossian Crew came to fetch us to visit a center for handicapped people run by a priest who was bitten by a mosquito on the spine and became paralyzed. He decided to devote his life to helping other handicapped people and in 25 years has built this center. People can go to the center for different therapies as well as educational opportunities. Most of the center is run by the handicapped themselves. It was very inspiring to see a sustainable and successful project.

The rest of the day we spent quietly at the hotel, enjoying the pool, the sun, napping, and so forth.  

For dinner we tried what the guidebook described as the best restaurant in Kisangani. And it did not disappoint. Now, to be sure everything was the same as all the other Kisangani restaurants BUT Psisteria had free appetizers. As it turns out the hour and half of waiting for food goes much faster when you have some bread and butter to munch on in the meantime. And there was just something different about the atmosphere of the place that made it seem like it was slightly better run than other restaurants. 

Day 6: Our last day in Kisangani. We started off by returning to the hydro electric plant on the Tshopo for our tour (we had dropped by the central office the day before to pick up our official letter). Apparently there was some miscommunication because the people at the plant were expecting 20 Belgians military personnel rather than 5 multi-national missionaries, but no matter. The tour was cool, but I don’t understand much about electricity and even less in French. My favorite part was the control room because it was right out of a 1950s film. Yes, the Kisangani power plant is still using the technology of the Belgian colonial period 50 years ago. But it’s still working…

After the plant we went to the sisters’ for one last meal. One of the sisters even made Tiramisu (or something like it) for us. Then Sr. Roberta joined us for a tour of the Primus brewery. Primus is the premiere Congolese beer. In Kisangani, this beer is actually cheaper than water. Usually factory tours take you through some displays on the process and then maybe you get to see some of the real factory through a window. But this was not your usual factory tour. Our guide took us right through the real factory, where everyone and everything is actually working to make the beer. It would never fly in the U.S., but it was a pretty cool experience. At the end of the tour we got to taste some Primus straight from the vat, before bottling, and it was good. Much better than the bottled stuff in fact. Another hi-light of the tour was the view from the roof of Kisangani:

This picture is odd because while on the street I never noticed many trees, but from the roof I could hardly find the city.  

After Primus we continued our touring by visiting a house for Street kids just outside of Kisangani. It was a very simple place and over crowed. Over 50 small boys sleep in one small room on make shift beds. It is better than being on the street, but it is a project that needs a lot of work. There are currently 2 Italian volunteers helping to run it now so hopefully it can become more organized.

By now it was getting very late and the sun was setting on the final day in Kisangani. We hurried to the Hotel Bamboo out of the city on the Congo for a nice view of the sunset and we hoped dinner. We did get the lovely sunset, but dinner no:

So we returned to our favorite restaurant for one last restaurant meal before going back to Aru and cooking for ourselves and doing our own dishes.

This post is getting mighty long, but that is the end of our Kisangani vacation. I will write more updates soon on what is going on in Aru.  And just so you know whose blog your reading, here is a picture of me and the Congo river:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Meat Grinding, Mouse Hunting...

I love tacos. Especially in Congo where Mexican food is a rare treat. This Saturday night I decided I wanted to make tacos for dinner. I had my imported spice pack of taco seasoning, a fresh avocado for guacamole, tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese (not cheddar, but one must not be too picky). All I needed to do was whip up some home made tortillas. Oh yes, and meat, I needed meat. Clara had gone to the market earlier and bought some lovely chunks of cow meat. But the best tacos are not made with chunks of cow meat, but with ground beef. Therefore, I endeavored to grind the meat myself. I went to the convent to borrow the sister’s meat grinder and cut up all the meat into reasonable sized chunks. I put the machine together and started grinding. Well, grinding meat is hard. I didn’t get too far by myself. As is turns out it is VERY important to remove every bit of non-meat (fatty stuff) from the beef in order for the grinder to grind smoothly. I had about ¼ inch of ground beef and was struggling for more when Matteo came in offering to help. As much as I wanted to grind beef all by myself, I didn’t put up much of a fight and he took over. Well, Matteo was not afraid of the fatty stuff slowing the machine down, oh no, he just powered right on through. Do you know what happens when you power through with the meat grinder? A cow explodes in you kitchen. I mean, cow blood everywhere. All over the floor, the table, everywhere. It was awesome. All the carnage was worth it in the end when we had delicous tacos for dinner.

After Saturday came Sunday. We eat breakfast a little later on Sunday mornings (I enjoy sleeping, others go the early mass or do other stuff that I don’t know about because I’m sleeping). We all gathered for breakfast and were having a pleasant time when something ran across the oven and behind the cabinet. A mouse!! **Side note: we had seen this mouse before but had been unable to catch it. You might wonder why we didn’t put our cat Etienne on the job. As it turns out, in Congo the cats are afraid of mice. Furthermore, our dog is terrified of our cats.** Matteo, who loves mouse hunting (it seems Matteo enjoys the nastier parts of Congo life) sprung into action with the broom and Clara followed closely with a shoe ready to spring. They chased the mouse around the room a bit and finally succeeded in stunning it into oblivion. Matteo then gave it to Etienne who devoured it with joy (He’s not afraid to eat it if it’s already dead). It was really lovely entertainment for Sunday morning breakfast. So you can get in idea of what a Congolese mouse looks like, I will leave you with a picture of Sr. Angela with a mouse:

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Cyber Days

So what is running a Cyber Café in Africa like? Now that I work at Cyber 3 mornings and several afternoons a week, I’ve learned a lot about the Cyber business. My first observation is that things usually don’t run as smoothly as they do in your typical Cyber in America, but we muddle through somehow and the Cyber often does a brisk business of Internet, printing, scanning, photocopying, typing, and various other computer related things.

First the set up: We have 2 computers for internet and 2-3ish computers for other business such as typing, scanning, printing and such. We have one color printer/copier/scanner and two black and white printer/copiers. However, one of these has been out of toner for over 1 month and the other refuses to talk to computers. So in reality we have only one black and white copier. *Update: We got a new printer/copier/scanner. **Update: We got the toner for the copier. Now we have something like 4 machines for doing various jobs usually done at Kinkos (or is it Fedex office now?) Here is the main room of the Cyber:

During the morning when the generator on, there is another room of desktop computers for people to use for individual work as well as for classes. The Cyber offers classes in basic computer skills, Word, and internet navigation and is also used by the local schools for a computer class. Here is the back room (I took this picture when we were already closed for the day so the computers have been tucked into their blankets for the night):

Now, onto our services. First, of course (because it’s called the Cyber) is Internet. But sometimes (a lot) the Internet doesn’t work. This is because it isn’t catching the signal, or it’s expired, or it’s cloudy, or it’s sunny, or it’s daytime, or it’s a day that ends in y. However, when the internet does work, both computers are often in use and sometimes there is even a line of 2 or 3 people. The line might not get so long if it didn’t take 20 minutes to merely sign into email, never mind actually read or send an email. I always feel bad that most of the time the customers pay for is them waiting for the internet to work and not actually using it.  

One of our most popular services is photocopying. We make lots of photocopies. As I mentioned there are two copiers, one for color and one black and white (and now 4! But the 2 new are redundant as they offer the same services and problems as the old). The color is very slow and the ink is expensive, so we can’t make more than a few copies. The black and white is big and can make lots of copies, but can only be operated when the generator is on. Thus, we can only make lots of copies in the morning. So when someone comes in asking for 5 copies of a 200 page book at 4 in the afternoon, we have to say, “sorry, come back tomorrow between 10 and noon.” Or if the copier is out of toner and we haven’t figured out how to use the other one, we have to say, “Sorry, come back in several months when we can get toner from Kampala.”

The last major service is my specialty: typing. I’m a lightning fast typer and can do pages and pages in a single day. This is why I went to college and spent hours hammering away at the keyboard. The first few weeks I was here I typed 3 English reports (those were easy) plus a bunch of different things in French (not so easy). I typed for hours each day, until my fingers were sore. I hope no one ever thinks that working with computers doesn’t involve hard labor; it was certainly hard labor for my fingers!

Some of our smaller services include scanning pictures or documents and emailing, charging telephones, printing documents, and searching the internet. The other day I attempted to search for information on Congolese contract law. Searching in French on a subject that would be difficult to understand in English…that went well.

When explaining the Cyber it is very important to mention the difficulties of power. Computers need electricity. So do printers and copiers. Electricity is therefore essential to running a Cyber. Electricity is a bit of a problem in Africa. For 2 hours in the morning we have generator power, but we operate for another 4 hours each day without the generator. That’s where the sun comes in handy. There’s a lovely solar panel on the Cyber roof powering all our electronics when the generator isn’t on. However, the sun is unable to power more than 2 laptops and 1 small printer at a time, which means we are constantly taking turns running down the battery for the different laptops. And you can imagine what happens when there isn’t any sun for several days. 

As it happens, Cyber is a bit of a misnomer. Now you can see a better name is “Place where there are computers and related equipment that sometimes works.” But I’m not sure that would bring in customers. At lease with the name Cyber we can bring in customers, even if we have to turn them away when they want something that doesn’t work at the moment.  

I think with all this computer experience I might just try to get a job at Geek Squad when I return home!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I’m Back! Featuring Little Italy: Congo Addition, and The Start of a New Era

It’s been quite awhile since I last wrote. Mostly this is because I was at home for a visit in July, and who wants to read about my life in America? Basically I took lots of hot showers and ate lots of ice cream for a month.

When I returned to Congo I found myself in the middle of the Italian Invasion. 10 Italian volunteers were here for the month of August as short term volunteers. They were working on building a volleyball court, at the farm, and helping me with the library. They spoke lots of Italian and brought lots of Italian food with them, so it was just like being in Rome again, but this time with cold showers. The girls did a ton of work covering most of the library books with plastic, stamping the inside covers, and entering a few into the computer. Now all the books have been packed up in boxes and are awaiting the opening of the library…hopefully coming soon! After two weeks of Little Italy, the Italians headed back to Big Italy, and although it was fun to have some new people around, resuming the normal schedule with a little more peace and quiet was very nice.

The Italians left early in the morning, and we quickly got to work taking out all the extra beds, chairs, and kitchen table; sorting through what was left behind, and staring at the gigantic mountain of household laundry that needed to be washed. In all the upheaval I found myself occupying a new bedroom. I am now in Room #1 and Matteo has taken my old Room #3. The room in actually exactly the same, with a few minor changes in furniture, but it is closer to the kitchen.

The room change is the first major change, and thus falls under “The Start of a New Era.” In other news, Tomas went home to Czech Republic while I was home, so now we are a community of 5. Lydia will be spending 3 days a week in Ariwara working at the hospital, so then we are a community of 4. In the next few weeks, Stefano will head to Bunia for an extended stay to oversee the building project there, so then our community will be 3. And as I write, 2 American girls are starting their formation period in Rome and will be joining us in a few months. Changes abound for the community!

Another major change is my work here. I will not be teaching at the high schools anymore, but focusing more on the library. Right now, that consists of entering hundreds of books in to the cataloguing program (very exciting work, I assure you). In the next few months it will consist of moving the books to the library, setting everything up, and opening for business. It sounds easy! My other task is working at the Cyber with Matteo and Sr. Alba. In Africa, I find myself as some kind of computer expert. I am a very good typer. Everyone is amazing that I can type without looking at my hands. So I type lots of stuff in French (and a little in English) and make photocopies and pretend I know how to fix a computer or printer when something goes wrong. The whole thing is complicated by the computers all being in French, so if I maybe were able to figure out how to do something on my computer, I have very little change of finding it in French. The Cyber is usually very busy in the mornings, so it keeps me working here. My third job is taking an afternoon shift at the bakery. I was never able to work much at the bakery before because I taught in the afternoon, but now I am free to sell bread to the people of Aru two afternoons a week. Those are my major tasks for now, and we shall see how things develop with the library and the coming of new volunteers!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Safari Adventure

A few weeks ago the community decided to go on a little safari. It has taken me so long to write about it because it ended up being an adventure including car crashes, tse-tse fly attacks, and traversing the hippo infested Nile in a tiny boat. I have just recovered from the 2 day experience and now I share it all with you.

We left Aru bright and early to travel to Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, about 3 hours from Arua, which is about 1 hour from Aru. The sisters dropped us in Arua and we went in search of a van willing to take 6 muzugus to the Park. We found a willing driver and felt it was a good decision since his van was labeled "The Good Guyz." Can't go wrong with good guys, right? So we piled in and off we went on our Safari Adventure. Well, first we stopped for gas. Then the driver needed to buy some water. Then we stopped by the driver's house for his overnight bag. Then we were off on our Safari Adventure. We drove to the Park's entrance where we paid up (a recurring theme in the park, anything you want to do, for example breathe the park's air, costs extra). And lo and behold there were elephants under that yonder tree. We had only just entered the park and we saw elephants!!! This was going to be good. Can you see the elephants? There are really there, I promise!

After we had entered the park we had another 20 km to get to the main center for information and the only place in the park where you can cross the Nile ($$). As we were driving along we started to see lots of animals: tons of grazing types in all different sizes from teeny tiny to rather large, water buffalo, and warthogs. We finally arrived at the Nile (the Victoria Nile, specifically) and came up with a plan. We decided to drive around to see the animals for the rest of the afternoon and take a boat up the Nile to Murchison falls the next morning. We had a quick lunch while our Park Ranger guide ($$) got his rifle and then we were off. We saw more grazing type animals and then ran into a herd of elephants. These elephants were much closer than the ones at the entrance so we could tell they were actually elephants. Then we saw more grazing type animals. Then we drove into giraffe territory and saw many of these tall, elegant creatures. We were slowly driving towards the Nile and I had great hopes that we would be able to see hippos and my lifelong dream would come true. And heart be still, it happened! We stopped by the river and saw a herd lounging in the water, just yards away!! Then things got really exciting (more exciting for everyone else, but for me, wild hippos is as exciting as it gets) when we left the road and drove into the tall grass to see a lioness. She was just waking up from her all day nap and was looking around with dinner on her mind. Here she is:

After seeing the lion we had seen most of the animals in the park (there are no rhinos or zebras, and hyenas and leopards are hard to see). So we made our way back to the Nile where we needed to cross ($$) for our night's accommodation. As we were driving along it started to rain a bit and the dirt roads started to become a bit slick. Out Good Guy chauffeur was speeding along these rain slickened roads when all of a sudden we were flying through the air in a direction decidedly away from the road. After a few terrifying seconds we came to a stop with a thud several yards away from the road. We got out in the now pouring rain to assess our situation and found that the front tires were neatly parked in a muddy ditch making the possibility of moving the van anywhere very slim. Plus the back tire was flat and we couldn't jack up the van enough to put the new tire on. Plus the last ferry for the other side of the Nile, where our beds were, left in less than an hour. Here we are, in trouble:

Just when things were looking the most dismal, salvation appeared. The rain stopped and a truck load of Park Rangers arrived on the scene and took over. They swarmed the van, changed the tire and lifted the front end out of the ditch so the van could back up and make it's way onto the road again. Then then sped off, promising to keep the ferry for us. We all piled back in and were on our way once again feeling that we might actually make it to our beds for the night. The roads were in bad condition after the rain so we were driving slowly to avoid another stuck in the mud situation. However the roads were also narrow, so when another van was coming towards us our driver kindly tried to make room and edged to the side of the very muddy road. The van passed us with plenty of room to spare and then drove off, leaving us stuck in the mud. So we jumped out again and pushed our van back to the road. This was the last adventure and we finally made it to the Nile where the ferry was waiting for us. Our Ranger friends were there too! Here is Stefano with the Rangers and our driver:

So we arrived at our accommodation for the night, tired but happy with our adventures of the day. The camp featured a restaurant and bar so we finished our day with plenty of good food and drink.

Bright and early the next morning we were off again for our second adventurous day (or half day because the park charges admission by 24 hours ($$) so we had to be out by one). We ate a quick breakfast and went down to the Nile for our boat trip ($$) up to Murchison Falls. The falls is at a point where the Nile goes from very wide into a narrow gorge, making it one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world. Plus the boat ride promised viewing of lots of hippos, crocodiles, and other wildlife. Well, I was not disappointed by my Nile boat ride. There were TONS of hippos, a new herd every few yards it seemed. I was able to take lots of pictures and just enjoy viewing my favorite animal in the wild:

We also saw a bunch of crocodiles, lost of birds, and a plenty of beautiful scenery as we peacefully floated up the Nile. Near the falls, we left our boat and met the park guide ($$) to continue the trek overland on a beautiful hike to the top. It is a bit hot hiking at the equator, but the views of the Nile and falls were spectacular. Here I am in front of Murchison Falls:

After the hike our driver met us at the top to take us back to the ferry where we would cross and leave the park. As we were getting into the car he told us we needed to close the windows because we were driving through tse-tse fly land. Even through we were all hot from the hike we thought this was a good idea because it is generally not recommended to get bitten by a tse-tse fly, lest you get African Sleeping Sickness. Stefano and Clara closed the back window, and then...thump. The whole back right window fell out, completely out of the frame onto the ground. So we commenced to drive through tse-tse fly land with a gaping hole in the van. And sure enough the van was swarmed with flies and we spent the whole ride swatting ourselves and each other. I think we made it okay because it's been a few weeks and none of us are sleeping. Our 24 hours was about to expire ($$) but we talked to the ferry driver and he called the gate people to clear our way. On our way out we picked up a Uganda rapper and his film crew making a music video with a flat tire who needed a lift out of the park. I can't remember his name, but you could call it a brush with fame. After all this adventure, I was exhausted and slept most of the way back to the border where the sisters picked us up. Our safari may have been only two days, but it was packed with adventure and animals, what more could you ask for?

Besides a fun break and a great chance to see African animals, the trip was a bit of a farewell for our 6 person community. I am now home in Denver visiting for July and when I return Tomas will have left after completing his 1 year of service. In November Lydia will also leave. Then we will most likely be getting two new community members from Rome in the fall. Since the community is changing, this was a great experience for the 6 of us to have together. Here we all are at Murchison Falls:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Picture and Thoughts on Life in Congo

I thought it was about time I gave you all a few thoughts and posted some pictures of general life here in Congo.

First up is the market. The market is a fun, vibrant place. Loud African music blares from a loud speaker as the mamas chat with each other and their small children crawl around. All the mamas go to the market each day to sell there wares- fruits and veggies and such. The sun is usually blazing hot, but these mamas sit there all day selling food. It's kind of like Safeway, but completely different in every way. A trip to the market goes something like this: when you get to the market you look around for what you want (or don't want but are forced to eat because of a lack of other options) i.e. whose selling the best eggplants this week? Once you locate the preferred (or necessary) item you ask the mama how much. If she speaks French she tells you, but sometimes the mamas at the market only speak Lingala in which case it's a kind of pantomime/attempting to speak Lingala transaction. In any case, you choose how much vegetable you want and then throw in an extra as a "cadeau" (gift) and pay. Then you pick your food up off the ground and go on to the next mama until all the shopping is done.    

This is the main drag of Aru. Our house is just a bit down the road from here. The market is about a 20 minute walk, but we are able to buy a few necessities such as bananas and peanuts from the boutiques on the main drag. While all the mamas are at the market, all the papas hang out around the boutiques here.  

This is our parish church, Our Lady of Congo.  We live directly across the street, which is great because mass is a 1.5 minute walk away.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What's Teaching in Congo like?

Now that I've been teaching here for about 6 month I would like to share a bit of what it's like.

First, I'll start with a few general observances:

1) Children start learning French in primary school (except for the rich ones who can go to the nursery school). By the end of secondary school, the students’ French is good, but not all that good. I often ran into vocabulary words in English that my students did not understand even when translated into French. Also, I found it challenging to teach certain aspects of grammar, such as the Conditional when neither me nor my students know how to use the conditional tense in French.  

2) Corporal punishment is okay. Students coming to school late are forced to kneel outside school for an undetermined amount of time and the principal's office can often be found full of naughty, kneeling children for long periods of time. I have also witnessed actual spanking by the principal with a wooden rod. One day when my 1st form students were particularly rowdy, one of them offered me a similar wooden rod to which I said "no thanks."

3) High school seniors all around the work hate going to class. I remember this well from my own high school, as the end drew nearer less students managed to make it to class. Here it is no different. I didn't see several of my 6th form students for months. Until they all showed up for the final exam!  

4) This is Sr. Daniela speaking with my principal at Aiti:

Now, I will attempt to describe my classroom. Imagine the classroom you had in high school. Now take away all the supplies, the glass windows, the little thingy that holds the chalk, the teachers desk and chair, and the lights. Now add holes in the floor and a giant termite mound under the chalkboard. That is my classroom.  This is what it looks like:

And I have come to really like my classrooms. It’s a real challenge to teach with absolutely nothing. I have done some research on ESL teaching on-line and they all suggest things like visual aids, overheads, videos, worksheets, etc. But what I have is a chalkboard, a bit of paper, and me, so I have to be creative to make it work (although most of the time my lesson comes out boring rather than creative).  

Now that you have an idea of the general school and what it looks like I will describe what a day in the classroom is like.  I come into the classroom and all the students stand up and greet me with “Good afternoon, teacher.” It’s very polite and makes me feel quite welcome. Somewhere along the way the students started to figure out that I don’t really care if they all stand up, so by now it’s kind of a half-hearted effort on their part. So anyway, I come in and decide where to put my bag down; my first choice is on the front desk in the middle or the left side if no one is sitting there. But sometimes I’m stuck with the “teacher’s desk” which is a student’s desk turned around. But it’s covered in chalk dust and kind of rickety so I try to avoid it. In one of my classrooms the “teacher’s desk” is in a giant hole that I’m scared of tripping over and hurting myself, so I never go near it if I don’t have to. Once my bag is safely stocked somewhere I take out my book…the one and only book for the class. Then I hunt around for chalk. If I’m lucky there is some nicely waiting for me on one of the desks. Sometimes, I have to look around on the floor and find some. If there isn’t any visible, one of the students will magically come up with a piece from on top of the windows, or go to the office to fetch some for me. While I’m doing all this the students are usually finishing copying for the previous lesson and then they erase the chalkboard for me. So now I have chalk, I open my book and I’m ready to teach. Well, first I have to copy the lesson on the blackboard (reading, grammar, exercise, etc.) I have the only student’s book, so anything I want to teach from a book I must copy onto the chalkboard. This can take form 5-30 minutes, and then I have to wait for the students to copy which can take from 10-60 minutes.  When I’ve finished copying I turn around and finally begin teaching. My lessons are 45 minutes or 1 ½ hours when I have a double period. I am quite pleased that I have learned very well exactly how much I can teach in this time, plus budgeting for chalkboard writing and copy time and sometimes I even have time for review and extra speaking practice.  

Every few weeks I have a quiz, which I have learned is terribly boring for the teacher. I write everything on the board then walk and around and wait for them to finish. No matter how long the quiz is it always takes them the entire period. A short quiz will take 45 minutes if they have 45 minutes or 90 minutes is they have 90 minutes. A long quiz will take 45 minutes if they have 45 minutes or 90 minutes is they have 90 minutes. The worst part of quiz day is that there is just nothing for me to do while they take the quiz. I usually walk around and sit on a desk in the back on the left side, then a desk in the back on the right, and then I walk to the front and lean against the door and look wistfully outside. Here is my view:

Then I lean on the window on the opposite side and look wistfully outside (but this window has a view of the toilets so I prefer to look wistfully out the door). Then I sit on a front desk, but I have to sit turned around so I can watch the students and it’s terribly uncomfortable to sit like that. So then I walk to the back and start over. Every once in awhile they will ask me a question and that breaks up the routine and brings some excitement to quiz day. But then everyone asks me the same question 10 times and it gets boring again.  

That, in a nutshell, is teaching in Congo.  

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Rainy Season has Arrived

It’s the beginning of the rainy season. Torrents of rain have been falling all day. The road has turned into a lake with a class 5 rapid section down the hill. The entrance to my school is now a small in-land sea. A few bricks have been placed as stepping stones to cross this Sea of Aiti, but I am not nimble enough to make the leaps from brick to brick, forcing me to walk around the building in order to access my classroom. Once in the classroom, I wonder why I have bothered since no one can hear my English lesson over the drumming of rain on the corrugate metal roof. Going home the rain has stopped allowing weak sun to filter through the clouds. Even so, I am muddy, tired, and discouraged from the difficulty of travel and work during the rainy season. I am looking forward to a comfortable night at home, safe and cozy. As I walk I notice a buzzing sound in the air, in fact the air looks to be alive. Millions of baby termites are flying around. These are not the termites of home, no, these are flying termites. They fill the air with their incessant buzzing flying around in endless circles. I make it safely home and darkness falls. As usual, we turn on the kitchen light. Within minutes, baby termites are flying around our kitchen. How do they get in? They are all flying straight to the light and committing mass suicide. The fall into our dinner or crawl around the floor, now wingless, pathetic creatures trying to live a few more minutes. Hundreds are in the room. Two hours later our kitchen floor resembles a cemetery- a cemetery of unburied baby termite corpses.  

The next day it rains once more. The sky unloads a waterfall for hours and hours. Mud is everywhere. Once again the rain ceases in the evening. Once again we turn on our kitchen light. I look over to the window and see a wall of termites on the outside of the screen. But wait, they are not on the outside of the screen, they are on the inside and the windows are open. They are getting in! Close the window! But it is too late. And this time it is not baby termites sneaking through the hole in the screen. This time our house is filled with gigantic, full grown, flying termites. They are the size of dragonflies and the zoom around our room in droves. Some fall to the floor and loose one, two, three, or four wings. Then they walk around looking much more like normal termites. Termite wings and corpses are everywhere. One is stuck on our salad oil bottle. His wings have been glued to the oil and he kicks, valiantly trying to free himself from certain death. We bring Etienne in and tell him to eat. He runs around excitedly catching termites and eating as many as he can. Two African boys come asking if the can have our termites. They know we have electricity and the harvest will be plentiful around the lights. We say yes, take them. In 5 minutes they scoop up hundreds of termites to take home for dinner. All of a sudden, there is darkness. After 2 days of rain the solar panel has given out and we are left with hundreds of termites in the dark. We light a few candles and place them away from the dinner table. We watch all night as termites die around the room, some being consumed by fire when they fly into the candles, some being consumed by Etienne, some just giving up the fight to live.  

 The next day our floor, and in fact, all the ground outside is covered with termite wings. As we walk around Aru going about our business, the wings are everywhere. Thousands, millions of termite wings litter the ground. But there is not one termite body. The rainy season has arrived.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Avocado Tree Update

Several months ago I wrote of the great tragedy involving the death of our avocado tree. Well, happy times are here again. Although all the lower branches were brutally cut off and burned, the upper branches were left on the tree. This didn’t do us much good because the tree branches were too high to get the avocados from so we could only pick up a few from the ground. Last week, it was rather windy here. So windy that one day a massive branch from the avocado tree fell down, raining avocados. All of a sudden we had more avocados then we knew what to do with. We kept some for ourselves and gave away a bunch. Slowly, the avocados began to ripen. First there were 3, then 5, then 7, then 23, then more ripe avocados. And one must move quickly when an avocado becomes ripe lest it become over ripe and turn into mushy green gross stuff. Over five days four people ate something like 18 avocados (four because Stefano and Clara were out of town). One meal alone featured an astounding 6 avocados. That’s a lot of avocados. I like avocados, but unfortunately, I think I like avocados the most in the community. Imagine eating avocados for five straight days with every meal when you really don’t like them. Imagine eating avocados for five straight days with every meal when you really do like them. It has been a test of creativity and trust in the California sponsored avocado website to come up with new and excited ways to present avocado at every meal. I have enjoyed testing the culinary boundaries of avocados and I have quickly learned there is so much more than I ever imagined to this delicious fruit…Avocados: they are more than guacamole!

Let me share with you some of the culinary delights of avocados: 
-rolled in cornmeal and fried (my favorite),
-in a pie mixed with lemon juice and sweetened condensed milk (reminiscent of key lime pie)
-soup (not so good, I felt like I was drinking Spock’s blood, a sort of Vulcan Vampire)
-cooked with tomatoes served over rice
-in potato salad
-in deviled eggs
-rolled in sugar and fried
And of course

Monday, April 19, 2010

Meet the Community

It has been several months now since I dedicated one blog to introducing you all to my community member Tomas and I figure it is time to tell a little bit more about my other community members. 

I will start with Lydia since I have known her the longest. Lydia is a year younger than me and is from Vancouver, Canada. Being Canadian, she is, of course, very nice unless someone (like an Italian for example) tells her that Canada is just an extension of the United States. She doesn’t think it’s a funny joke (even though us Americans know it’s not really a joke ;)). I will say this about Canada: their postal system is far superior to ours. It has taken three months for one package from my parents to arrive here. In that same time, Lydia has received 5, yes FIVE packages from Canada. I wish the U.S. were really an extension of Canadian postal system. Lydia studied kinesiology at University which means that when she came here to Aru she was a qualified physiotherapist. When we first arrived here in December she was told she could have her own physiotherapy clinic at the Canossian run health center. She was very excited to get started and to see the clinic take shape. One week later she was still waiting for the door to be opened. 2 months later she was still waiting for a fresh coat of paint. In fact, her clinic opened about 2 weeks ago, four months after it was first proposed. In Africa is takes all of four months to put together a room with a bed and a desk. This ordeal was an incredible test of patience and a wonderful cultural learning opportunity for Lydia. Now her clinic is up and running and she is bringing physical therapy to the people of Aru. Lydia has an abundance of energy for all things, she is always willing to go for a bike ride, a walk, a hike, a run, or play with the neighborhood kids. Her energy is so abundant that she doesn’t even take Sunday naps, whereas I look forward to my Sunday nap with great anticipation all throughout the week. There is, of course, much more to say about Lydia, but I think that is adequate for now!

Next, I will attempt to describe Stefano. Stefano is my age and hails from Brescia in Northern Italy. He came to Congo for one month last year and after decided to leave his lucrative job in the construction sector and spend a year in Aru. He is in charge of various construction here including a new convent, the library (which I will set up once he is finished building), and other small projects such as building a brick oven for the bakery. Stefano, like Lydia, possesses boundless energy and he is often zooming about from one place to the other on one of our many bikes. However, unlike Lydia, Stefano has an almost uncanny ability to take naps. He falls asleep on the couch in about 2 seconds. One day, he actually fell asleep in the brick oven he is building at the bakery. That’s right, he fell asleep in an oven. That is talent. Stefano also eats a massive amount of food. For the average meal, he probably eats about 4 times the amount I eat. He has a large first helping, then a large second helping, then a massive third helping, and the finishes by eating whatever is left on the table. When I had malaria I ate one piece of bread per day. When Stefano had malaria he ate like a normal person. That’s how we knew he was sick. Stefano is also a very talented photographer and musician. He loves to make videos of himself and the community cooking, eating, washing dishes, etc. and then shows them to us. During these videos we usually die from a combination of boredom and laughter- they tend to be about 20 minutes of boring daily life activity interspersed with 5 seconds of absolutely hilarious happenings. It’s the closest thing we have to watching to TV. Other than video making, Stefano has offered the community many other entertainment ideas. For example, shooting spit balls at the world map on the wall (in the dark no less because the power was out). I could go on for some time about Stefano as a source of entertainment, but suffice it to say our community is greatly brightened by his presence.

Now on to Clara. Clara is Superwoman. She cooks, she cleans, she drives the tractor, she feeds stray cats and children…she does it all. Clara is also from Brescia and after her experience in Aru last summer decided to leave her career as a veterinarian and come to Congo for an indefinite amount of time. Besides her official task of running the farm, she is always doing something or another around the house. She cleans things I would never think of cleaning and does chores I would never think needed to be done. Our house is now clean and tidy because of her. Clara is also a wonderful and experienced cook. She is able to make amazing meals from nothing. Last Sunday the only food we had was 6 small tomatoes, a few potatoes, a bit of fruit and leftover meat (the gross meat that I had refused to cook the day before). From these meagre ingredients she made a fantastic feast featuring two kinds of pasta, a delicious potato and meat pie, and a fresh lemon cream tort topped with fruit for dessert. It was a miracle. It’s really a wonder we survived 2 months without her.

The last member of the community is Matteo. He is from Treviso in Northern Italy and joined up for one year after spending one month here last summer. Matteo is like the UN. He is very busy here, but I’m not entirely sure what it is that he does. I see him going here and there, but I don’t know where he is going or what he is doing. I feel the same about the ubiquitous UN vehicles that drive up and down the country all the time. Matteo is trained as an electrician so he fixes our broken electrical stuff and all the broken electrical stuff of people around here. He does various odd jobs and finds himself quite busy with…whatever it is he does. Matteo tips the scales of the community for those who like to nap (me, Stefano, Tomas, and Matteo) versus those who do not nap (Lydia and Clara), although he has yet to fall asleep in the oven or while working on the solar panel on the roof.

So that’s my community for now. Since I am here for 2 years and everyone else is here for one, I will have an entirely new community in the future. Even those who came several months after me will depart long before me, so you can look forward to a future installment of “Meet the Community.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

My First African Wedding

Remember in high school when one of the teachers got married and you got the whole day off of school so that all the other teachers could go to the wedding? Neither do I. But here in Africa, this is what happens.

Last Saturday one of the teachers from Aiti got married. Since I am also a teacher from Aiti I was invited by default (I actually have never met this man and don’t even know his name, but I was at his wedding). The church ceremony took place at 6:30 am, sadly I slept through mass that day, so I did not get to see it. The reception was at the more civilized hour of 1:30 in the afternoon, although this being Africa it did not actually start until 3:00. Luckily, I had shown up fashionably late (and yet at the same time unreasonably early) at 2:00 so I only had to wait around for an hour. But let me start at the beginning.

As I mentioned, I slept through mass last Saturday morning, but my early rising community members informed me that the marriage of an Aiti teacher had taken place. Even though my class had been cancelled several weeks earlier for another wedding, I naively assumed that my afternoon class would go off as usual.  I set off to school at the regular time only to be intercepted by the other English teacher who informed me that there was no class because ALL the teachers were going to the wedding. He invited me to come along, a suggestion to which I readily agreed. So off we went over hill and dale to another part of town to join in the wedding festivities. We arrived and were seated with the other Aiti teachers. I quickly noticed that all the teachers were wearing the same shirt, or a dress from the same material for the lady teachers. Apparently, Aiti teachers have some kind of wedding uniform that I knew nothing about. By pure luck I was wearing the correct color scheme. However, the lack of the Aiti uniform did not make me feel like I stuck out so much as being the only white person there did. So anyway, as I have mentioned the bride and groom were about an hour and half late so we sat and chatted and waited for them to show up at 3. The reception was held in a tent made out of branches and tarp with flowers and greenery decorating it. The bride, groom, and family sat in the middle on couches and the rest of the guests were arranged around the center, facing inward on plastic chairs. When the bride and groom arrived they were greeted with singing and danced their way into the center of the tent. The reception began with prayer and then the cake cutting. Just as in America, the bride and groom cut the cake together and feed each other the first bite. Then everyone else gets a small piece. After the cake it was time for the feast. Gigantic bowls of the African staple food foo foo were brought out along with rice, beans, and bitter green stuff that is kind of like but not nearly as tasty as spinach. And here is where I ran into my first social difficulty. It is, of course, impolite to decline food. However, foo foo is, shall we say, not my favorite food. In addition, I was not feeling so good with what I eventually found out to be a second case of Typhoid/Malaria. So I really did not want to eat. What to do? I worried about this for some minutes and finally decided to go up to the buffet line, but only take a drink. This strategy only sort of worked as several people asked me why I didn’t eat. I gave the excuse I wasn’t feeling very well, but I fear they saw through this façade and know that I do not like their beloved foo foo. Well anyway, after the feast it was time for gifts. And here is my second social difficulty, and this was a major blunder. What kind of person goes to a wedding without a gift?! I mean, come on, what was I thinking?! The gift giving is actually a really fun part of the reception because everyone dances up to the table, gives the gift, and dances away. Everyone else is dancing and singing along and it makes for a jovial atmosphere. The guests are called up by groups: the bride’s family, the groom’s family, the teachers, and so on until every one is called. So when the teachers were called, I was in a bit of a pickle, not having a gift and all. I was saved by the kindness of the other English teacher (the one who had stopped me along the road and asked me to come along to the wedding with him); he palmed me a 500 shilling coin (something like 25 cents) and I joined in with the teachers in the gift dance. 25 cents may seem a paltry sum (and in fact, it is), but here the thought is truly what counts. Many people are not able to give more than a tiny coin, but the important thing is to give something. Rest assure I was not the only one to give a small coin. The gifts were quite typical of weddings: money and household items and such. After all the guests had danced up to the gift table the festivities were over and I made my way home.

It was great fun to participate in a wedding and I hope I have a chance to go to another one someday…I wills surely not forget a gift a second time. Much of the wedding was very similar to American traditions with the cake cutting and feast. But a more important similarity, as in any culture, is that weddings are a time for communities to be together, enjoying each other’s company and celebrating a joyous occasion. Sure, I had my awkward moments with being the only white person in sight, not knowing the name of the bride or groom, not eating, and not bringing a gift, but still I am so happy I was able to share in the occasion and I feel like I am a little bit more a part of the community here in Aru.  

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Few Thoughts


My entire community has been in residence at Chez Voica for one month now. Actually it’s been less than a month because we were recently joined by yet another member. His name is Etienne (French for Steven) and he is a kitty. He’s really cute, as you can see from the pictures. He’s fun to play with and I enjoy watching him romp around pretending to be a lion. So here we all are: Lydia, Matteo, Stefano, Etienne, Tomas, me and Clara and below is Etienne.

The new community has brought a significant improvement on the food front. As is turns out, Italians know how to cook. We still eat eggplant, potatoes, and eggs everyday, but the Italians have a knack for making these things new, exciting, and tasty. Italian cooked food comes out delicious all of the time. This is in contrast to me when the food comes out delicious maybe ¼ of the time. They make things I have never thought of or don’t know how to make. Hopefully I can pick up a few ideas from these Italian master chefs and come home knowing how to cook delicious eggplant!  

Communication in this multi-cultural community continues to be an interesting challenge. Most of the time we speak what I like to call Fritalingalish(Czech). That’s French-Italian-Lingala-English (Czech). We don’t really speak Czech, but I threw it in there because Tomas speaks Czech and you know he reads this. This makes conversations around the dinner table alternatively hilarious and confusing. And that brings me to my next subject:


My time in Congo has taught me something very important about myself. I have NO talent for learning languages. Some people are able to listen a bit and after one or two days can miraculously start speaking a foreign language. Not me. I’ve been here for nearly 4 months and French still bewilders me. I have been told that it is easier to understand then to speak and most people can understand a lot more than they can say. If this is true, I’m in big trouble because I understand virtually none of what people say to me. My favorite phrase is “Je ne comprends pas” or “I don’t understand.” I use it every day, every hour, in fact, I use it whenever someone says something to me in French. And if someone is saying a lot in French I sit there trying so hard to listen but really panicking because I have no idea what this person is saying. I’ve missed a few community decisions because I don’t understand what anyone is saying. I’ve decided it’s time to renew my efforts to learn French and I’ve broken out the old French books. I hope more study will help because the you’ll-learn-when-you’re-there-and-everyone-speaks-French method has so far been a failure.  

The End of Something from Home

This week saw the death of two imported food items. Whenever an imported food is finished it’s a bit sad because there isn’t going to be anymore, and it’s especially rough when 2 items go in one week. Both the balsamic vinegar and Jif Peanut butter ended their lives in Congo this week. This has been particularly difficult for me because I love both of these things very much. And there isn’t going to be anymore Balsamic vinegar or Jif Peanut butter. It’s just gone. When we run out of, say, Glucose biscuits (some type of food that holds a rough resemblance to a type of cookie or a graham cracker) it’s no problem because we can easily get more. But not so with Balsamic vinegar or American peanut butter. It makes me realize that I am far away from many familiar things and truly living in a very different place.  

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Floppy Carrots

You know how when you bite into a carrot it gives a satisfying snap and then you crunch, crunch, crunch it? Carrots here don’t do that. They are floppy. Floppy carrots don’t crunch, they sag. Imagine what would happened if a carrot went to a yoga class. It would get all bendy, right? African carrots take yoga. This creates a major problem when it is time to peel a carrot. It is virtually impossible to peel a yoga-going carrot. The peel is either non-existent or and inch thick. So we end up eating half peeled, mutilated, floppy carrots. But there is hope. The other day as we were leaving the convent, Lydia and I spotted a Mama selling what appeared to be crunchy, snappy, carrots. Lydia literally ran home to get some money as I kept watch over this Mama with her carrots. We jubilantly bought a whole pile of them. And we were right to be so jubilant, because these carrots were a joy to peel, a joy to cut, and a joy to crunch. Unfortunately, we bought so many carrots that we could not eat them all in one day. There must be a yoga center around here, because the following day our carrots had taken on a decidedly bendy physique. The next day, they were downright floppy. Next time we find some un-floppy carrots, we will eat them all right away. Or we’ll root out the nearby yoga center and shut them down. That is all I have to say about carrots, and congratulations to everyone who was actually able to read an entire post devoted solely to carrots.  

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

For Your Viewing Pleasure

Finally, a few pictures of Congo.  Enjoy!!

The Avocado Massacre.  This is what's left of the avocado tree in our backyard :(

Views of the farm

This is Clara measuring the farm.  She is 50 meters away from me here

On the Road to Bunia with Sr. Carmela, Madre Tina, me, and Tomas

Bunia- Lydia and Tomas on the roof of the youth center and library

On the Road to Butembo, Here we are in the land of mud


Lake Albert