Thursday, July 1, 2010

This is Africa- it is not safe. Not like America- not like home.

Sitting in my room late at night, writing about the leprosy center we visited earlier that day, when Peter comes in demanding our passports saying that there were fifteen men outside with machine guns. I could sense the fear in his voice. The fear that we were not be safe. His job, which is to protect us, was being jeopardized. In my room with all of my roommates, we devised a plan to escape if the situation got out of hand. With windows covered in metal bars and only one front door, we decided, if needed, to push a bunk bed against our door and crawl through a hole we have in our ceiling and escape, hoping to stay alive.

I pushed my ear against the door and listened intently to the yelling of the force that was threatening our well being. Yelling. The worst sound ever. Loud grumbling impaired through a wooden door. I was only able to make out certain words. “Leave...Tanzania...not safe...documentation...we are...police…” With our guard Babou hiding in a bush clenching a machete, sleepy eyed yet adrenaline pumped, the situation kept getting more frightening. As I pushed my ear against the door with my entire being, I juxtaposed what was happening to a Nazi invasion of a house hiding Jews. I don’t know why I made the connection, but I felt like I was living in that situation. Hiding. Praying for my life. Listening to the screams of a foreign language. Praying, and praying.

I peeked outside the window and saw a line of men with AK-47’s and began to feel my body coursing with adrenaline. As the men surrounded our house, window by endless window, I began to feel an overwhelming peace surround me. When I was the on the verge of not being able to physically stand anymore from fear, God spoke words of solace to me and clothed me gently with serenity...and then I waited. I waited for them to leave us alone to go back to whatever we were doing before they came and interrupted our lives. I waited for something, anything to happen instead of the stand off between us and them.

There is something unusual about being startled out of your comfort zone only to face a blood rushing, life threatening situation. It seems like the whole world has stopped. The tiredness of the night vanishes and you become more awake than you were in the middle of the day. The men finally calmed down after talking to the owner of our facility and in the last two minutes of their stay, they revealed that they were here to make sure we were safe. Safe from the other people of the town. Safe from the people of the city next to us. Safe. I feel like they could have revealed that tidbit of information a little bit earlier in the confrontation. No one actually knows why they came, but people doubt it was for our safety. The men agreed to come back in the morning and "check on us."

After we all sat in the hallway, bewildered and wide eyed, everyone resided to their designated rooms and went back to whatever they were doing before, as if nothing had happened.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Fourth Day:

Seen as a contagious plague, an incurable disgust, an ugly appearance, and an object without a soul, lepers are perceived as the ridicule of society, both in biblical times, and today. People isolate them. People are afraid of them. People try not to stare at them. People feel awkward when around them. I felt the same as any other person when we walked into the leprosy center: afraid, worried, nervous, superior.

I was greeted by a man with no fingers. No fingers to carry on daily tasks which is a vital attribute in Tanzania considering all of the men farm for a living. I forced a smile and shook his hand, making sure to wipe my pant leg afterwards. As I walked inside the center, Sister Maria, the German nun in charge of the center, gave us a talk about the condition of lepers and about the sickness. She said, with overwhelming passion, that “these people are not different from me or you, they are just plagued. They are not contagious here at the center because we have treated them. Don’t be afraid. People of the world judge them because they look different, but in reality they are just people." Her words calmed me. I was still on edge, but calm. Calm because I realized they weren’t contagious and I was in the clear.

As we began to walk through the center, door by door people began to come outside. Soon enough, the whole center was crowed with lepers. I talked to them in Swahili with my limited vocabulary and noticed their smiles. Not fake like my own, but genuine. I asked one man to take a picture of him and he said “No. No.” so I simply started to walk away as he skipped into his room. A few seconds later though, I noticed him hurrying back to his previous position, with a hat in hands. The man had run back into his room to grab a nicer hat than the one he was wearing so I could photograph him looking his very best- and soon after, the posing began. I took pictures of the posed hat man and made my way down the line of the people waiting to talk to me. Another man asked my leader, Peter, for new eyes to read, which was his favorite thing to do before he became blind.

I was surprised. Surprised of their happiness. I felt like they were laughing more than I ever have in my entire life. At that moment, I realized they were the happiest people I have ever met. They had a disease, but after my realization, I didn’t see them for their missing limbs or contorted faces, but as regular people who love to laugh; people who aren’t plagued with leprosy, just unfortunate. All of the pictures I took at the leprosy center were of the people laughing, except for the posed hat man.

Leprosy: something that is seen as a desolate and lonesome disease. With camera in hand, and mind full of roaring thoughts, I walked out of the leprosy center with a new outlook on life and the people in it. People are all the same. People, no matter what race or circumstance, all have the same ability to feel. All people have something they want to say to the world, whether it’s a plea for new eyes, or simply a cry for attention. Everyone suffers, but not everyone allows that hardship to control them. Some people let laughter wash away their troubles.

Fifth Day:

There is something majestic about getting lost. Not knowing where to go and relying on the sun for guidance. I have found that whenever I get lost in Africa, I actually become the most found. Lost in Africa results in beauty. With the students from the special private school in Tanzania guiding us through shortcuts on our way back to our house, nerves began to flood through my body. The sun was setting and we were supposed to be back before dark, but judging from where we were, that was not going to happen. No one to help us. As we passed drunk shops, the sun continued to sink and the dangerous people began to emerge. I picked up my pace and held my camera to my chest as I walked on the heels of the person in front of me. Shortcuts. At first the scariest thing that has ever happened to me, but as I began to relax and get used to the yelling drunkards, I noticed the view around me. The fiery orange sun setting over the crest of two mountains kissing, resulting in a red streaked sky making bright shadows across the multitude of corn fields surrounding me. After I took a moment to realize what I was surrounded in, I began to appreciate the aspect of being lost. When you are lost, your emotions are at first all over the place, but after a while you begin to calm down and are surprised with the setting you find your self in. Another time that I was lost, I was walking with a student from the private school in Tanzania, Babou, and my friend, Jacob. We began to find ourselves on an endless dirt trail that was unfamiliar. We kept on walking and a few hours later realized that we didn’t know where we had wandered to. As we kept walking, my nerves kicked in. Like any other time I have been lost, I was afraid. Afraid that I would not make my way back home. But as we kept walking, I looked at my surroundings and saw a small village with red brick houses surrounded by massive mountains and numerous amounts of livestock. One of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed. I have found that, when in Africa, becoming lost is in fact a blessing in disguise that leads you to the most surprising places. 

Seventh Day:

Persistence, something that I thought I knew the definition of before I came on this trip; I was wrong. Persistence, something that has the power to drive a sane person crazy. Persistence, the annoyance of the world. If you think you know persistence, then you are wrong, unless you have been to the market in Arusha, Tanzania. Right as we entered the market area, we were bombarded with store owners making us follow them to their shop. My favorite move that some of the owners pulled was stepping out in front of us in the narrow walkways and blocking our paths, forcing us to enter their store, which looked the exact same as the other hundred stores (even though they all promised that their store was “special and unique”). I was shocked at how blunt these people were with making me buy something. They would put something in my hand and name a price, after the first few forced bracelets that I bought, I realized how to say no. I personally think I am an expert at rejecting people now. “Come see my store! It has everything for you!”. “No”. Who knew it was that easy? After having my personal space invaded several times by overly eager store owners, I began to feel like I needed to do something. And so the bargaining began, resulting in some extraordinary bargaining skills. In one situation, I was looking to buy one bracelet, and ended up buying three bracelets for the asking price of one. Another example, I was buying a bracelet and I refused to pay anything more than half of the asking price, so they raised my request by 1,000 shillings (about 1 dollar) and then threw in a free bracelet of my choice. Awesome, right? My Dad would be so proud. I felt bad for being rude, but sometimes that is the best option. Thank you Tanzanian market, you have taught me to be cheap and let people down by rejecting them. I feel like a completely new person.

Safari Days:

It’s weird. The closer you get to the sun, the more beautiful your perspective of the world becomes. Being on top of a mountain translates into seeing nature in a whole new way. Life is great...until you fall and sprain your ankle. Beginning our decent, I stepped off of the side of the mountain (there was grass camouflaging the edge). Although I was wearing my trusty hiking boots, gravity still won the battle. I guess this means I can add hopping on one foot down a mountain to my storybook. Even though I hurt myself, I’m still glad that I experienced the hike upwards. I would never imagine myself scaling a rock wall, rock climbing with no safety, and using only my strength to hold my body in the air as I walked in between two steep cave walls using only my legs stuck against a wall and my hands for support (I felt like spider woman, and also, we were being very safe...ha, sarcasm). The feeling of accomplishment after I maneuvered my way through the cave is indescribable. I never thought I was strong enough to hold myself up for long enough to safely get across walls by scaling them. Hiking is experiencing. Experiencing the world from a new perspective, a beautiful one.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

There is something character revealing about a person that carries on a conversation running on merely 45 minutes of sleep throughout an entire 10 hour flight, eating only candy due to airplane food being inedible, attempting to lay down in seats that don’t recline, being interrupted every half hour with announcements in Dutch (which, in the right state of a grumpy mind, sounds like an villainous dictator yelling orders into my dreary ears), and frustrating airplane electronic games that don’t want to seem to cooperate. But, at the same time, there is something character revealing about a person that experiences a blue green, starry filled sky with planets starring you straight in the face, synchronizing a movie on both individual screens in order to share the laughter of a comedy (sorry people sitting around me and my buddy trying to sleep), watching the sunrise over the horizon with red and orange streaked clouds surrounding the perfect sphere that was the rising sun, and sharing in the interpretive dancing (and unfortunately singing) of classic tunes (once again, sorry neighbors). All in all, my plane partner was surprisingly wonderful. Without knowing the person who I would be spending the next half day with beforehand, a character was revealed, and to my happiness, was discovered. I am overjoyed in the fact that I have another companion to share the next three weeks with in Tanzania, and hopefully experience even more sunrises and starry night skies with.

As I sit here in the airport of Amsterdam, extremely tired and sleep deprived, I cannot help my overworked mind from thinking about the nerves that revolve around this trip. So many things to ponder, so many things to worry about, so many things that can go wrong. I am not worried about a lion trampling over me, but rather a Maasai Warrior sacrificing a goat for our group and not being able to control my emotions, and in return showing disrespect. I know the honor that comes with the goat being slaughtered, but in all honesty, I am not the type of person to stare at the innocent animal and not want to do something to keep it’s blood from spilling for me. Blood spilling for a person who does not want it to be spilled, for a person who might cry at the sound of the animal’s last cries, for a person who will have to force herself to eat the feast with a crooked smile, and for a person who will shed tears as the animal sheds blood. I might sound redundant, but the only thought running through my, once again exhausted mind, is the goat. The goat who doesn’t want to be killed, and the girl who has to watch, but will forever be plagued by the sight.

On a happier and more exciting note, the toilet paper in the Amsterdam airport is neon orange and scented as, I’d like to say, lilies or roses (same thing right?). This pleasant surprise provided entertainment to the group for quite a while. There is one problem though, all of the bathroom signs are in Dutch, which like I said before, is a dictator sounding language to the weary minded (and probably to the awake minded as well, but I wouldn’t know at this point). The result of this debacle was extreme confusion upon entering the bathroom because I didn’t really understand which entrance was women and which was men. I took my wildest guess judging on the look of the word (thank you Spanish classes?) and attempted to go with the direction that looked the most feminine, which to my excitement, was the right one. I said a quick thank you to God for allowing me to dodge the embarrassment of entering the wrong bathroom, and continued on with my discovery of the Cheez-It colored toilet paper in perfect peace and wonderful bliss.

First Day-
The result of an hour long walk to a desolate church surrounded by fields of sunflower seeds is one of amazement. With little children running up to our group and holding our hands as we made our long walk to and from the church, the culture of Tanzania was further revealed to me. The genuine attitude of the residents is astonishing. Astonishing because they attempt to carry a conversation with us even though there is a language barrier between English and the native language of Swahili. Although we have been taught simple phrases in Swahili to say as we pass people, the barrier is still large and inflicting. There is one way to converse with the kids of Tanzania where emotions are shared and there is no barrier that needs to be broken: soccer. With moving feet scrambling around the cow dung filled pasture, a soccer ball unites two opposite cultures. After a few hours of, in my eyes, unification, the barrier was nonexistent as our lack of words turned into an overflowing understanding of each other through simply a flying soccer ball.

The language of Swahili is, unfortunately, very complex and difficult to learn. Even though we have a native teacher in Swahili giving us lectures every day, I am finding that learning the language is not the hard part- when I am pressured to talk to a native my mind goes completely blank. One phrase I will never forget is: poa chacheezi cama indizi friti bariti, which means “I’m cooler than a banana in a fridge” (even though that makes no sense, I think it is popular with the children of the town because it rhymes).

The town that we are in is simply majestic. With donkeys drinking from lily ponds, baby chickens surrounded by their mother, or baby goats just learning how to walk, this town is going to drive me crazy. Crazy due to extreme fondness with the baby animals, which I can thank my sister for (baby animals are her weakness).

This morning, although tiresome, was a once in a lifetime experience. We walked for about an hour and a half through rolling hills and mobs of children yelling “Yambo!” (which means hello). Our long walk ended with a small church. A church with barely anyone in it when we arrived. As we sat down, gospels began to chime from the Tanzanian’s kindred hearts. Because I had no idea what they were singing, I just mouthed random things and hoped that they were right. One odd thing that happened was there was a speaker system and an electronic keyboard that a man kept randomly making beats on. Although hilarious, the beat maker was somewhat annoying. During prayer, all of the sudden we would hear “Dum Dun Bum DaDum”, which was ridiculous but entertaining nonetheless. He also added a few siren sounds into the songs and the prayers, which in my opinion was quite a nice touch. Another note about church is that I sang a solo in Swahili. Who knew that church choir in Houston would pay off? (the song was “Seed To Sow”, and I also know for a fact that we pronounced it completely wrong, courtesy of the blank stares I got in return)

Second Day-
Exertion. Toil. Elbow grease. Sweat. Slog. Putting one’s back into it. Drudgery. Putting one’s nose to the grindstone. Labor.
Whatever you choose to call it, it all means one thing. Work. An action that, in the right circumstances, is impossible. Work is work.
It is never appreciated when it is manual. Work is dreary and tiring. But, work also means satisfaction. The satisfaction after digging a ditch in the dirt from nine to five, from using a pick axe to break up rocks, swatting bugs away from your eyes, shoveling loose dirt away from the trench that had formed from simply a green pasture, attempting to dig for eight miles, the overwhelming feeling of appreciation when coming back from a lunch break only to see the natives digging with uncontainable passion, satisfaction.
Gratification. Fulfillment. Happiness. Contentment. Pleasure. Enjoyment. Pride. Smugness. Complacency. Merriment. Glee. Exuberance. Exhilaration. Jubilation.
Whatever you choose to call it, it all means one thing. Work. An action that, in the right circumstances, is wonderful. Work is work.

Bugs. Something that, back at home, make me cringe. Cringe in disgust and fear. Here, in Africa, something is different though. Something has changed. I wouldn’t say it is an extreme change of heart or of mind, but it is a change nonetheless. Bugs. Something that, here in Africa, make me simply turn away. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here though, I am nowhere near to the point of picking up a beetle and disposing of it, but hey, I am progressing. Baby tarantula crawling up my wall? No problem, hurl my shoe at it. Beetle hitting me in the face while brushing my teeth? Ouch, but, alright beetle I respect your efforts (I still won). Mosquitos buzzing in my ears through my net as I try and fall asleep at night? Annoying, but, solvable by simply burying my head into my sleeping bag. Big gecko chilling in one of our rooms? No big deal, let’s name it Alfredo. All of Alfredo’s mistresses also chilling in one of our rooms? High five Alfredo, let’s name them: Daisy, SugarBaby, Honey, and SweetHeart. I feel like a new person, one who can overcome any obstacle. Even if that obstacle is a maggot worm crawling up my hand while shoveling. Welcome maggot, now meet the merciless side of my shovel and prepare to die.

Third Day-
Nature. Sounds. Loud sounds. Not comforting. Not soothing. Not relaxing. Keep me up for hours types of sound. I’m not talking about the outside of my window at night, but instead my roommate's snoring. I have four roommates, and out of all of them, four snore. As I sit awake in bed at three in the morning, I can’t help but think of a plan to wake them up so I can get some sleep in before I have to drag myself out of bed at 6:00 to make everyone’s breakfast (my eggs are phenomenal beyond compare). I might be crazy from the lack of sleep, but I’m beginning to think that their snoring is in an actual harmony. Not a melodious harmony, but a harmony in synchronization. Each roommate at a different pitch. I actually think I could make out Beethoven’s 5th sympathy during long periods of uproar. Sorry if I shined my flashlight into your faces on my way to the bathroom roommates, I didn’t mean to wake you guys.

I met a man today. An old, wise man. A man who had a certain aura about him. He spoke English but was at the same time was a true native. As I said “Shikamoo Baba”, which means “Hello Father”, he stopped and told me something. Something that as I was hearing it, I thought to myself that I can never forget what he is saying. It was one of those moments that make you feel united. United in the world with each other. I opened my ears, and in a cliche way, my heart. I experienced one of the moments in life that can never be replaced. The man, as I began to talk to him more, said something simple, but at the same time, memorable. He said “Like God and Son are together, we are all together. Africa and America are one. We are one. Missionaries came to colonize, but you have come to Africa to just help. I can tell your heart is pure and you mean well. Come back because you are the difference that can change Tanzania. We are one.” As he spoke, I went over each word in my head numerous times to make sure I didn’t forget them. Right as I got to my room, I wrote down what he said. I will never forget that man. I didn’t catch his name, but when someone asks me if I have ever had a life changing moment, I will refer to him as “Rafiki”, meaning friend.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Many months of planning and buying different necessities has boiled down to this moment. This moment of worry yet excitement. A mix of emotions, counteracting with a mix of responsibilities,  leaving me with nothing but nerves. Nerves because of flight. Nerves because of location. Nerves because of lack of experience with photography. Nerves because of nerves.

I have been told, many times, how much I will change during this trip to Africa. People say that I will come back different. With much anticipation, I embark on a “trip of a lifetime” as it has been called. I have researched Tanzania- half to know what to expect, and half to steal some ideas for pictures- and have come to the conclusion that it is the most beautiful place in the world. Without even being there, I can already picture the sunset filled skies and elephant infested plains. In my wildest dreams, I imagine a scene somewhat similar to the Lion King movie. With insane monkeys raising a lion cub into a initiation to the wild and wildebeests trampling over the King of the Land. My concocted trip to Africa is going to be one of extreme excitement, hopefully longer than just an hour and forty-six minutes.

I can’t help but feel scared. Even though I know the safety of this trip is inevitable, I cannot control my emotions of extreme petrification. I don’t know the extent of what I will see or experience. I am afraid that I will witness what I see in the heart-wrenching commercials on television. The commercials with the children named either Mashubu or Volandi, both with long, sad, frowning faces and in-caved stomachs. The commercials that also make me change the channel because I feel like a horrible person. I wonder what will happen when I find that the commercial is unable to be changed and I cannot look away because I am seeing it through my own eyes instead of a glass screen. How will I react? How will I help them? I know I cannot merely leave them with a glance and a smile. We are supposed to bring pencils and animal shaped rubber-bands to distribute to the children, but I honestly don’t know how long that will leave them with happiness. Personally, a pencil and a rubber-band shaped like an animal would provide about 1.45 minutes of my attention, if even that.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My first picture that I attempted to make "professional" looking in my photography class before I head out to Tanzania in a few days. This is Ginger, she is a diva and wimp beyond explanation, but adorable nonetheless. Although she looks it, she is not a poodle, but instead a miniature labradoodle. Annoying but comforting, bratty but loving. This is Ginger, my precious pup.