(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Wild West

I've never thought Kigoma to be a tough town. It has dirt roads (though bisected by a 5k stretch of tarmac), ditches full of garbage, loads of poverty, etc. but the inhabitants are generally a rather sedate bunch of people. It's perched on hillsides overlooking the beautiful Lake Tanganyika and, when clear enough, the hills of the Democratic Republic of Congo across the water. Traffic is generally slow and relatively orderly. There are a few beggars but they generally just sit there and hold out their cupped and hopeful hands. Sellers, for the most part, wait for you to come to them rather than following you around as they do in Zanzibar.

Generally it's not a threatening place. Yesterday, however, was a different story and it's quite possible I've been missing the seamy underbelly of Kigoma town. We were sitting at our hotel eating our much delayed dinner overlooking the lake. The sun had set and it was rather a business-as-usual evening. One other Tanzanian couple sat across the way, finished with dinner and sipping on sodas. Suddenly a very large man enters the circular eating area, approaches the couple and starts scuffling with the much smaller, seated, younger man. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the movement but it initially seemed to be the jostling of friends rather than the commencement of a bloody fight. It actually shouldn't be considered a fight which implies that both sides were engaged. It was basically one tall, muscular guy pummeling the smaller guy until a large group arrived to break it up.

Carmen, Priya and I rose to our feet as we began to realize what was going on. Things were happening quickly and I wasn't sure what to do. There are no clear patterns for how these play out. Sometimes they flare up and then calm quickly once a point has been made. Other times they flare up, others join in and true chaos ensues. This was somewhere in between. Though they were able to separate the big guy and eventually get him out of the gate of the hotel compound, he returned occasionally looking for the younger man (who had subsequently been hidden somewhere within the compound behind the hotel) and before again being forcefully escorted back out.

From the time I realized what was going on, my mind was immediately taken back a few years to when we lived in Dar the first time. I think it was one of my early blog postings where I described an incident when, awoken at 2am by the sound of a woman screaming from within our apartment compound, I descended the stairs and went to an adjacent house to find a woman being punched in the head by a fairly large man. I entered the room, past a motionless guard, to try to break up the fight. Long story short, we found out later that it was a prostitute apparently trying to get a higher price that was initially agreed upon. He refused. She screamed to pressure him to pay. He started beating. Hard to know whether or not to get involved when something like this happens – especially when you don't know exactly what's going on and you are in a culture other than your own. In the case of this woman, it was probably the right thing to do regardless of what we found out later.

In the case of the big guy and the little guy, I'm still not sure. He was pretty well smacked around before we realized what was going on. After it was broken up they took him behind the hotel (within the compound) to hide him. The big guy and is posse continued to wait outside the gate. It eventually ended with the little guy apparently being escorted out by police a couple of hours later, possibly for his own safety. Not sure what would have happened if the big guy got his hands on the little guy since, even after sending a bold message by messing the guy up pretty badly, he was determined for more. I'm thinking he might not have stopped. It was sort of a sick thought for all of us as we did our best to finish our dinner a few feet away from the blood-splattered floor.

The same evening in Kigoma there was a fight in a bar where one of our colleagues was having a drink and earlier in the day a man killed his wife with a machete. Don't know Kigoma well enough to know if this is common. No full moon. Maybe it was just a bad day out in the West.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Elections

I arrived in Kigoma several days ago. The driver was waiting for me at the airport as is customary. He tossed my bag into the Land Cruiser and we headed off towards town. As we approached the main street, he took a sudden right turn down a rough dirt road. I looked at him with a bit of surprise (similar to the one I gave the lady next to me on the plane who decided to use her complimentary toothpick to work out the dirt in her toenails; things like that generally don't get a rise out of me here but on this particular occasion I was in the process of eating my airplane breakfast of dry bread and marmalade – a tragic British colonial legacy).

I didn't know this driver well and he was putting my pathetic Swahili to the test. Either his English wasn't that great or he just felt that I could use a language lesson or both. So I began to inquire about his taking of a side road when the main street, though not great, is far from the spine-jarring experience I was currently getting. I eventually understood "road construction".

"Ahh," I said in brilliant Swahili to communicate that I finally understood (actually, it does sound different. It's more of an "eh heh").

He smiled and this time spoke in English. "Erections," he said. Knowing of course that people here have similar phonetic troubles with the English "r" and "l" as many other countries, I drew the conclusion that he was making between the road improvements and the upcoming elections later this year. At least I hoped so.

Though people seem to be making a big deal of the elections here this year, the ruling party is virtually guaranteed another five years in office. Though there are other parties, and even some dissent within the ruling party, it will likely not stand in the way of the current president's re-election.

Unlike in Argentina at the end of 2002. That year, due to some bizarre experiences, they apparently had three different presidents over a ten-day period. The running joke at the time was something to the effect of, "So what did you do over the holidays?" "I was president."

Though the outcome of the elections in this country could have some effect on our work here, it's nothing compared to the potential impact of elections across the border in Burundi in June. There the outcome is far from certain and the chance for instability greater. Most feel that though there may be some isolated trouble in the run up to the election, chances of large scale civil war that drove these people into refugee camps are small. All eyes (around here) will be watching.

Monday, January 11, 2010

To the "I" States

The holidays have passed. The party's over. Time to go back to work.


January has sort of a bad reputation and to some extent it's deserved. My family generally has a tradition of having a good time with each other (Priya's is the same and we've been combining them over the past few years). January presents us with the post-holiday blues combined with tough weather (here it's the dead of summer and in the US it's the dead of winter). And it's generally a long stretch before the next vacation.

There are a couple of things that have made the transition a bit easier this year. One is that upon returning to Dar we've been presented with strangely rainy and (relatively) cool weather. There are rumors that this is El Nino induced but whatever the reason, it's more pleasant for us.

Another thing that has eased the transition to some degree was that I opted to stay on top of my work a bit more than in previous years. It put an occasional damper on the holidays sometimes but the normally overwhelming barrage of emails and work, though daunting, is not as bad as it could have been.

Finally, I have to say, I do enjoy what I do for a living. Not everyone can say that. It's by far the most difficult job I've ever had and it deals me more massive blows on a daily basis than you could imagine. Even so, it's a fascinating world that I live in. I have an excellent team of staff to help fend off these blows and, I also have to say, we do a good job.

So now we're in the office for about a week before heading out to the field for an extended period. This is a new year in a new camp with some new staff and it's important to make sure that we get things started off right. I won't be back in Dar until the second week of February, Priya a week later.


Indiana


The holidays began with a week in Indiana, north of Louisville. I had never been there before so it was a new experience for me. The first few days were spent primarily detoxing from the tumultuous period just prior to the break. We ate, had a lot of interesting discussions, went to a Louisville University basketball game, shopped, played with the kids (extended time watching little Isabelle do whatever it is that toddlers do), etc. They're in a rural setting so we took advantage of a nearby state park to go for runs in the hills. We also spent a day hanging out in the city of Louisville and I have to say that I was impressed. It's definitely a livable place and I look forward to seeing it in a different time of year.

City Hall, Salem, IN


Christmas Eve we went to Priya's parent's Presbyterian Church in a town nearby. It was very similar in many ways to services that I attended when I was a kid with a Christmas message, carols, dimming of lights and lighting of candles. Eight-year-old Matthew, not unlike the way I was at his age, was successful in torching the front of his hair with his candle. The service, combined with the musty smell of an old church building, made it a wonderful reminiscence of the old days


Christmas Day the children tore into their gifts, albeit a bit less savagely than I did as a kid, and then we again ate like kings.


 Little Isabelle


 Basking in the glow of the laptop



 
Fantastic Dinner at Steve and Cathy's

Idaho
The day after Christmas we headed to another "I" state. To the confusion of most geography-challenged Americans, Idaho is not in the Midwest and it does require at least a couple of hours in a jet to get there from Louisville.

 The amazing Shoshone Falls, Priya and Curtis on the right


Weather cooperated and we arrived in Boise without incident. We were able to hang out with my sister Lisa and her husband Brett bit before heading south to spend a couple days with my parents and my brother Curtis who'd arrived a couple days before we did. It's always a wonderful low-key time there and I always look forward to it.


We also mixed in a chilly run along the Snake River canyon affording some spectacular views. Our turnaround point was the top of Evel Kneival's jump site from his failed attempt to jump the quarter mile distance across the canyon in a rocket motorcycle in 1974.

Curtis overlooking the canyon and Pillar Falls


Then it was on to my sister Cheryl and Pat's house in Inkom, near Pocatello. The traditional massive snow drifts were non-existent due to the lean winter precipitation. Eventually, not long after settling in to their log home (one of my favorite houses in the world), the weather changed and it ended up snowing most of the time we were there. It raised hopes for ski conditions for the upcoming trip to Sun Valley. While in Inkom we ate the traditional amazing steaks, took a dip in the hot springs and had a great time just hanging out.

Lava Hot Springs in the cold and snow

Sun Valley
Then it was off to Sun Valley and our two nights at the famous Sun Valley Lodge.


Baldy Mountain


Cheryl had tapped into a good deal and we were able to enjoy the luxury for much less than what it normally would have been. Within a couple hours of dropping off our bags, it was off to the mountain for some downhill skiing. The snow was not as good as I would have hoped but for someone who lives thousands of miles away in the tropics, beggars can't be choosers. It was great to be in the mountains and sliding down the slopes.


The gang in front of the lodge


The culinary tour of the "I" states continued that evening with more steaks, good wine and lots of fun conversation at one of our favorite restaurants, our beloved Pioneer in Ketchum. That evening we brought in the New Year in our room at the Lodge. The next day, New Year's, most of us skied again. Unfortunately our legs were not in good ski shape and after a few hours we were all happy to cut it early and head to the Nordic ski lodge for a drink, snacks and football. That night we some nice Italian food at Ciro's in Ketchum. Director Rob Weiner was dining there as well which is a bit funny since the last time we saw him in Ketchum was in an Italian restaurant. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that he's a big fan of Italian food.

Back to Boise


The next day we had to make our way back to Boise for our annual family Christmas party. This normally takes place between Christmas and New Years but this year it didn't work out. As such it ended up being a little less Christmas and a little more party. Lisa and Brett have a great house for hosting and they're also pretty talented at being hosts.

The final day before boarding the plane was spent shopping and preparing for our return to Tanzania. Brett took us to a sports bar that had over fifty television screens. I have to say it was a bit overwhelming to have so options for my attention – in addition to people sitting around you. That's always the big shocker when going to the US. Options. Whether it's TV channels, food or laundry soap, America loves to have so many choices for things it can make your head explode.


Priya and my sisters


Lisa took us to the airport the next morning. In addition to the sadness of the holidays coming to an end, my Boise State Bronco football team was to play the biggest game in their history and I was going to miss it sitting in an airplane flying from Seattle to Amsterdam. Ugh. The exact same thing happened in 2006 when BSU beat Oklahoma in what has been called the best college football game in the last decade. I remember booking my flight several months ago thinking that our return was later than normal (we usually travel on the 1st or 2nd). I thought that if BSU makes it to a big bowl game, I least I won't miss it this time. Due to the exceptionally late scheduling of the Fiesta Bowl this year, alas, I still missed it. As I logged on to the internet in Schipol Airport I was very happy to see that they were able to win without me.