Archive for the 'travel' Category

“I will totally destroy you.”

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Hey kids,

Just a small shout-out to say that I’m still doing well. Work is going well; I’ve been given the leeway to pursue my ideas for the improvement of Educational Statistics in Namibia, and I think my teammates and I will really be making a difference in our terms here. Basically our goal is to expand the capacity and functions of the current Educational Statistics department in the Ministry of Education. Right now, they collect a lot of data and put the results in a book and distribute that at the end of each year, one book to each school. That book inevitably disappears into the principal’s office, and most people I’ve talked to have no idea that Namibia even has an Educational Statistics department. So first, we’re going to make examination results for schools available online, and we’re going to add to that some analysis, including resources available at schools, teachers’ qualifications (in an aggregated form), and learners’ living situations. And we’re going to make it easy to compare two schools, overall and by subject. My personal goal is for village people to compare two neighborhood schools, realize that their children are going to the school producing learners with lower grades, and then apply pressure to the principal. This might not happen for five years, but it’s a nice dream.

One great thing that happened over the last week is that I found a great town house to rent for the next year at least. (This means that I don’t need to bike around town all weekend looking for places any more, or call housing agents who say “That place is already taken”.) The place is beyond anything I hoped I could afford (I took an 80% salary cut upon taking this job), and I am very happy to have found it. It’s got three bedrooms, 2½ bathrooms, kitchen, living room, and a dining room. There’s a balcony upstairs available from 2 of the bedrooms, and a patio outside in the backyard.

This is quite a step up from what I’m currently living in, and indeed what I even want to live in. By living in such a nice place, it’s obviously in a good neighborhood, and so the people who I could really enjoy sharing time and culture with are not living around there. Most people in this nice neighborhood tend to stick to themselves. It actually was a very difficult decision to make; but the size of the place won me over. Why? 2 reasons: 1. YOU can stay with me, comfortably and not on the floor, when you come to visit! 2. Ping-pong table in the dining room? Yes.

Which brings us to the most important point of this post. At my previous job at WeBuildPages, I played ping-pong almost daily. It developed friendships, it got the blood flowing in the middle of a brain-crunching muscle-atrophying computer programming day, and it provided for excitement and friendly competion. So since I’ve been back in Namibia, I’ve been suffering from ping-pong withdrawal. I have been asking many people if they know where I can play, and most people don’t even know what it is. Some people know what it is, but have no idea where it can be played. Finally I’ve found some fellow ping-pong players who play in a league, but unfortunately the league doesn’t start up again until after the New Year, and somehow the ping-pong tables “aren’t available” until that time. So I’ve been dreaming of just going and buying a table, but until I found this large apartment, I’ve had no place to put it.

You can imagine my surprise, then, after telling my boss that I’ve been really missing ping-pong, and that I’m going to buy a table, and asking him if he knew what it was, that the first thing he said was “I will totally destroy you.” Turns out he played a heck of a lot of ping-pong during his years studying in Australia (the land of the speed-cameras… be careful!), and he’s got the talk to match. I’m totally pumped to get this town house and table ready for service! But I’ll bet he’s never faced a serve like mine!

To wrap things up, I wanted to show you some pics of the food I’ve been cooking for myself, using the professional guidance I’ve received while studying under the Browns for a wonderful year.

Eggplant Lasagna!

Hickory Burger!

Salmon, greenbeans & bacon, mashed potatoes!

Christmas comes to Namibia too!

Back to Africa

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

It took a bit more than a year, but the job I’ve been hoping to get for quite a while is finally happening. After 20 hours of flying and a night in Jo’burg, I arrived in Windhoek, Namibia, being greeted by a fellow ex-Peace Corps Volunteer and two friends. It was a warm welcome back.

Image credits: the CIA World Factbook and myself.

The job, which will begin after a work visa is issued and a contract is signed, is firstly a web programming/database designer post and secondly a sharing post. Statistics about the Namibian education system are collected in an “Annual Education Census” from each school principal and sent to the central office in Windhoek for entry into a database. Our primary goal is to decentralize this data collection, letting the 13 Namibian regions (think somewhere between states and counties) input the data into the database themselves. This will require a web interface for data entry that sanity-checks all inputs and is easy to use by an entry-level computer user. We’ll also be creating simpler ways for Governments, NGO’s and other organizations which require statistics about the education system to obtain them.

I’ve been away from home for 5 days now and I have to say it’s been tough. A lot of stuff has happened in the last month, including my last grandparent dying. Our family came together and friends came to support us, and it was really very nice. Of course it also showed me what I was walking away from to take the job in Namibia, and that was the hardest part. I’m also going through some cultural adjustment, despite being in the fairly cosmopolitan capital, and in general just trying to be at peace with my place in this city. But looking forward, I’m happy to be here and I’m sure the work will be very rewarding.

The ex-Peace Corps Volunteer who greeted me at the airport has taken me on two hiking/walking/running events where locals or ex-pats get together and do some kind of activity. The first was a “hash,” which was a mountainous hike with primarily ex-pats and loaded with ceremony, sexual innuendoes, and at the end, a wonderful cookout. The second was a 5K suburban run/walk with a bunch of locals and ended with a few drinks to share. Both helped to get my mind off the people I’m missing from home and also helped warm me up to the people I might be seeing every week.

I have a temporary cell phone number: 011-264-81-405-3722. Phone cards exist for around $0.25/minute, AT&T is near $1/minute. Namibia is currently 6 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight time, so don’t wake me up!

I’m thinking to go the 6 hours to the North of Namibia to visit my local family and friends for couple days before returning to Windhoek and starting the job. I’ve found an apartment which is coming available next month which isn’t ideal, but it is cheaper than the backpacker where I’m staying, and will be a good place to base myself out of while I’m looking for a more permanent place. The goal would be a safe/peaceful location with enough space for visitors who wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor…. (hint hint – this would be your cue to check plane fairs to Windhoek [airport code: WDH], and remember to clear your cookies each time you check the same fare, because they raise it each successive time, those bastards!)

Becoming a man

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

I thought I had come of age before I left the States, if not the first time, at least the second time. But here in Namibia, manhood is judged differently. First: How old are you? If I’m older, I can tell you what to do. Second: Are you married? And that goes right along with the third factor: How many people are you reponsible for? (got kids?).

During my Peace Corps service, I thought I was super high in the respect category. I went to work every day, I always had my lesson plans ready, and best of all, I was never drunk in class. I thought that by being a good role model, I deserved respect.

Respect for a person in this culture is often shown in greetings by simple things. One, people will insert the word Tate (father) or Meme (mother) into greetings. Two, people can shake hands, and to add extra respect, people will put their left hand under their right elbow while shaking. Women can further the show of respect by bending their knees slightly at the beginning of the shake, and men can nod their head.

I often found myself during greetings without receiving these forms of respect, and I would mumble under my breath in the local language to ti Tate! (you say Tate!). Because I was such a good role model (of course, in my foreign opinion), I subconsciously desired/demanded this repect.

[Here’s a small tangent about non-platonic relationships in village life in Namibia.] It is very frowned upon to show affection, or even signs that a relationship might exist, in public. There’s no hugging, kissing, touching, or even blowing kisses. This causes people to repress their feelings, or at least become more creative in the courting process. If you want to see relationships in village life, you’ve got to look for fleeting signs: someone giving someone a special look, a brief seemingly accidental brush of the hand, or other things (get creative yourselves…). In this slightly repressed culture, rumors absolutely flourish. Since you’re in the village, and there’s not much else to do, gossiping is all the rage! And if it’s true according to gossip, it’s absolutely certain in most people’s minds.

Upon my second return to village life in Namibia, my involvement with a local girl, indeed my girlfriend, has become part of the town gossip. Sometimes we walk together in town, but the give away is when villagers see me walking the 3 hours to her house. “White man, where are you going?” they ask. “I’m going to visit my friend.” “How far is it?” “I’m going to Onakankuzi.” “Oh, you’re going to visit Helena?!” “Yes, indeed.” “That’s good that you have that with her.” [Note: since relationshis are slightly repressed, using direct words to describe them are also frowned upon. A question like “Did you have sex?” could typically be asked as “Did you do something?” or by the more modern, “Did you use a condom?”]

Being part of swirling town gossip doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Before I had a girlfriend, just being white was enough to be constantly stared at. My friend Cicy describes it as being a T.V. – everybody’s just watching you. Helena, my girlfriend, hasn’t taken too kindly to being a T.V., and even complains about people looking at her when she’s alone. But the good part of this whole thing is that as soon at our relationship was in the gossip wind, I became Tate, and she became Meme! Suddenly, greetings show more respect – respect which I thought I deserved a long time ago, but which has come now for (according to my opinion) frivolous reasons. I can finally say I’ve come of age in Namibia!

Settling down?

Saturday, May 19th, 2007

For the last month I’ve been travelling around Namibia visiting old friends and meeting new ones. I’ve reconnected with a lot of friends and met new Peace Corps volunteers. Namibia is a beautiful country with good people, and it has caught my attention again – I’m looking into staying around for a while.

The family where I stayed during Peace Corps service has welcomed me to stay with them again, and I’m finishing a room in an unfinished group of rooms in which to stay. This time it won’t be too Peace Corps-esque – I’m going to tile the floor, get a nice work desk, and install a solar system including panel, regulator, battery, inverter and lights. It’ll be all I need to get a solid 8 hours of internet work done every day. Of course, we can’t go too overboard – bathing will still be done with a bucket, washing by hand, bathroom by hole, and food of the traditional nature. But it’ll be enough.

I’ve also reconnected with my old girlfriend Helena. We’re currently visiting the capital, as previous to this trip she hadn’t been outside of 150 km from her house before. So the world of buildings with multiple floors, elevators, escalators, and movie theaters is all brand new for her, and thats made it a really fun week.

I’ll be looking for a job in Windhoek soon – and I am currently working on a proposal for the Ministry of Basic Educadtion to do statistical analysis of the current state of the education system – from learner’s grades to school, learner, family and teacher demographics. The results will tell what is working in the education system, and what isn’t. It’ll also be able to show where more money needs to be invested, and where some can be pulled from.

In terms of internet access, Namibia has it, but it’s comparatively expensive. You pay for the amount of information transferred, not for the time connected (except at internet cafĂ©s, of course). One thing it does have is 3G. 3G is internet via your mobile phone through which I’ve seen a max burst throughput of 46KB/s, with a commly sustained connection at 15KB/s (compared to 7KB/s and 5.5KB/s on GPRS). Needless to say, that is sufficient for my purposes, though I won’t be downloading any episodes of Lost 🙁 any time soon. Currently, 3G is available only in big towns, but they say by the end of May (which means in about 6 months) it’ll be available everywhere your mobile works.

Life goes on! If anyone wants to visit over here, you’re more than welcome. It’s peaceful and beautiful!

Back on the homestead

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

After 5 days in Windhoek, I came back up to Omuthiya where I was a Peace Corps volunteer. I was impressed at how the place had changed. When I left, Omuthiya had been slated by the government to become a town, which means it needs to look the part. Now, instead of a tire- road straight through town, a few tire-track spurs leading away from it in various directions, and a couple hundred small cuca shops (bars made of corrugated irons, most around 9×9′ or less), the town looks as if it has been planned. Gravel roads now outline what will become Omuthiya town. They look a little silly because many cuca shops were moved to accomplish this task, and now it looks as if the roads go nowhere, turn without reason, and outline nothing. I suppose with time, offices and stores will fill it up.

With the development work happening, I was quite surprised to see that the people haven’t changed at all! Every teacher I was teaching with at school is still there, save for one. Some have bought new cars, some have painted their houses, and some have moved into new flats. Everyone remembers me and I was given a very warm welcome.

I went to visit the family I stayed with while I was a teacher here. Upon arrival we did the run to eachother and hug thing, which was welcoming. The baby I knew now speaks and has manners, the unfinished building now has a roof and one finished room, and there’s a new building with a sitting room/kitchen. They served me ontaku and immediately prepared a room for me. *WOW, a warm welcome indeed*. Its nice to be back here, although I miss my bike – it’s a 40 minute walk to the village where everything happens. If anyone’s interested in Google Earthing my homestead, the coordinates are 18.37807° S lat, 16.59070° E long.

While I’m in town I’ll be rehabilitating the computer lab – while I was gone somehow most of the keyboard’s and mice’s plug pins were destroyed, and can’t be repaired. So I’ll work on getting new parts for that, and also creating a system to prevent users from destroying their own desktops. Hopefully it’ll last until the end of the year.

Hello Namibia

Monday, April 16th, 2007

I arrived in Namibia via plane. It was cheaper than the train plus a bus, and anyways I can travel through South Africa later when I’ve unloaded my bag a little.

Upon arrival, I was directed into the red customs line, and some Ghanaian fabrics I had upset the customs officer. He really wanted me to tell him they were gifts for people (taxable), but instead I told him I was going to have shirts made out of them, and wear them home (not taxable). After leaving the customs area, I was expecting the standard harrassment for ridiculously overpriced taxis, but instead I was greeted with a shuttle service with a standard price for transportation into the city. Nice work, Namibia.

I’ve been staying in Windhoek since Thursday, and on the first day I found two Peace Corps volunteers, one of whom I’m staying with now. I’ve got a cell phone – the number is +264-81-328-8852. We’re working on a quick project – PCV Connections – which will allow volunteers send emails to any other volunteer who might be interested. Volunteers can also register to recieve any emails sent whose subjects fall in selected categories.

I think around Tuesday I’ll be headed up to the North of Namibia to see my old family and friends, and I really look forward to that. It’ll be a homecoming of sorts.

Flying to Windhoek today

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

I’m flying from Jo’burg to Windhoek today. My bags are too heavy to carry across South Africa, and the plane is cheaper than the train/bus combination I was planning. I’ll be able to travel through South Africa after Namibia, when my bags are lighter. See the contact page for contact information.

Goodbye Ghana

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

You were a wonderful escape from Francophone Africa. You were half the price of any neighboring country. You were very friendly and helpful when I needed it, except when one of your people stole my iPod. But other than that, very friendly and helpful.

I’ll miss the nomadic salesmen in the towns: the shoe repair men that carry around wooden boxes of shoe repair stuff, and hit them with shining brushes, earning the nickname “town drummers”, and the seamsters who carry around hand-powered sewing machines who charge a modest US$0.20 to sew up a tear. I’ll miss the eager salespeople who walk through lines of cars in traffic with goods on their heads – anything could be there – water in bags, ice cream long since melted, meat pies, shower sponges, leather belts, Tampico (like Sunny D), sunglasses, basically whatever’s fresh off the cargo ships that month. I’ll miss all the good people I met, and I thank them for sharing their culture and time with me.

I won’t miss the cockroaches in my room the last week, or the power outages (which now occur for 12 hour spans every 60 hours) but that’s about it (need that computer!). Ghana gets most of its electricity from a hydroelectric dam on their large Lake Volta, but this year, water in the dam has been very low, so the whole country shares power, with certain places on and certain places off all the time.

It’s good news then that the rainy season is almost here. It rained for some hours last week, and it just started to pour again right now. Rain in Africa is great – when it rains, it really freaking pours! And not just for 10 minutes, but 3-4 hours! If you’re living as I did in Peace Corps in a room with a corrugated-zinc-rooved building, it’s loud! Louder than the generator which is running right outside my door right now! But the sound is strangely comforting too. The day after a heavy rain, things spring to life. Trees and plants start to flower. The ground which was cracked and dry yesterday has frogs croaking and seedlings growing from it today. All because of the saying which is so popular in Africa, “Water = Life.” Lots of people who can’t speak English can at least say this. Or maybe they’ll wear a t-shirt with it. And soon enough, maybe the electricity sharing schedule will be brought to a halt soon.

So, I’ll miss Ghana, but I recommend anyone to visit it. It’s probably the best place to start in Africa if you’re going to try Africa. It’s modern enough when you need it, traditional enough when you want it, and the missionaries really did a bang-up job here, so everyone here loves Jesus more than you would like to find unconditional happiness. (Consider “Christ Cares Bread Shop” or “Jesus Saves Cellphone Store” or “Unless God” [interpretted: we couldn’t be here unless God let us] or “Odo Rice, Motto: God gives us the power”, and this list could go on forever…) If you don’t love Jesus (or Allah, or God, or whatever) this much, or you aren’t ready to denounce evolution, you might have a couple uncomfortable/interesting conversations.

Tomorrow, to South Africa. Winter approaches. Good thing that I packed for all seasons! Bad thing that it made my bag really heavy.

What’s next?

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

The boat just didn’t pan out. Turns out all the boats traveling up and down the coasts of the States don’t usually make a turn out to West Africa. And the people here don’t know what sailboats are. To top it all, I met the cousin of the harbourmaster of the major port town in Ghana (Tema), and he assured me we could work something out, and then he disappeared. My boat has left without me.

So, I’ve got a plane ticket from Accra to Johannesburg, South Africa leaving on April 2, 2007 at 23h00. Johannesburg, for those of you who don’t know, has the distinction of being the most dangerous city in the world. Stopping at a red-light in Johannesburg is equivalent to asking a thief to steal your car. Stories abound about people fixing cars at intersections waiting for a victim to pull up. It is for this reason that I plan to be in Johannesburg for about 4 hours – I’ll zip from the airport straight to the train station, and take a comfortable sleeper train across the country to Cape Town. It’ll be a nice overnight ride, and I’ll be able to see a bit of the country. In Cape Town, I’ll begin investigations for taking a boat back to the States, and then I’ll take a sleeper bus up to Windhoek, Namibia. From there, it’ll be a 6 hour combi ride North to see my old friends, family, co-workers, and students.

Weekending in Togo with Seth Bennett

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

Shortly after I sent out the email announcing this site, a friend from my days in Peace Corps Namibia replied saying he was in LomĂ©, Togo. (Togo is that really thin country next to Ghana in West Africa, and taking public transportation from Accra, takes about 3 hours, US$4.) He was working for the embassy, had a car, and said I was welcome to visit. I was basically like “hell yeah!” 2-3 hours north of LomĂ©, there’s a rainforest and a small mountain to climb, so we planned to drive up there and see what we could find.

After obtaining a visa for Togo (took about 5 hours to process, US$21 = 6 months, multiple entry), I took a trotro over to the border town between Ghana and Togo. Border towns are always hectic, and full of people trying to rip you off in any way, but usually there are people who will help you if you put on a helpless face. A kind woman also going to Togo decided to help escort me through the border-crossing process, and within 20 minutes I was happily taking a taxi to LomĂ©’s center. From there, a motorcycle taxi took me to the new US Embassy building.

Seth came out and we had our reunion greetings. We got in his car and left. First stop – the DCM’s home (Deputy Chief of Mission, the guy immediately under the Ambassador). Far from thinking himself too important to mingle with underlings, Jack was a very friendly guy! We went to use his air compressor to pump up Seth’s tires for a couple days of driving, and we ended up spending a few hours just drinking a few beers and chatting how the family structures in Africa don’t lend themselves to capitalism. He also had a few tips on where to visit the next day, and provided what is becoming his specialty – a hand-drawn map of things to see while we were up there. Two other embassy guys came over around 7, and we all went out to dinner at a German restaurant that had excellent Weinerschnitzel (sp?) and great wheat beer. That stuff’s hard to find in these parts.

After dinner, we went to Seth’s house (provided by the Gov’t), and crashed. The next day, I got to see the generosity of the US Government to its foreign service staff. They’ve provided Seth with a beautiful and large house in which to stay, full of American appliances and things that made it more like home. When you’re inside, you have no idea that you’re still in a developing country.He has satellite TV that gets AFN (Armed Forces Network) which is a series of channels that shows all the up-to-date American shows we get at home. A massive generator automatically kicks in 15 seconds after the power cuts out (which happens often), and a good-sized backyard is ready for picnics and football.

We left in the morning for Kpalimé, where the mountains are. It was a pleasant drive (once we were out of town) through large expanses of green fields and by small towns. We picked up some FanMilk on the way (US$0.30 for delicious icecream in a bag), and made it in a couple hours. After some lunch, we decided to drive up Mount Klouto (video).

It wasn’t too high, but it was a beautiful area, and anyone used to a dry climate would have loved it. The top was nice and green, with a cellphone tower (video). I had heard that it was supposed to be rainforest, but it wasn’t quite, since it was just before the rainy season. (But then again, the definition of rainforest is that it’s rainy all the time, so lets call it a “wet semi-equitorial” region.) But once the rain hit, it’d be almost indistinguishable from rainforest. The locals said we missed the rainy season by a few days or weeks. The views were pretty – we could see the village of Klouto down below, and across a valley there was a holiday house for the President of Togo on the next peak.

Next, we wanted to find an old German cemetery labelled on Jack’s map to which he had never been. We drove in the right direction until the car wouldn’t fit on the road anymore, and from there we were hassled by some locals who wanted to escort us to the cemetary. All we wanted were directions, but these locals wouldn’t be helpful without receiving something. (People in Togo speak French, mind you, so our ability to negociate was limitied.) It turned out that directions wouldn’t have helped in this case, because after a 20 minute hike down a thin dirt path taking several forks in the path, we arrived at the cemetary. It was a simple place, having around 8 gravesites. It seemed strange that most of the people had only lived for about 30 years.

After the cemetary, we got a hotel for the night, and went out to get some dinner. Upon starting the car, the starter didn’t stop, and after shutting the engine off and locating the problem, the started started to smoke a lot. We pulled out various wires, and tried to cut the battery, but we didn’t do it in time, as the starter had burned itself to death. Awesome.

We wondered what to do. A crazy woman stood by talking to someone who wasn’t there, and a couple other locals came by to ask “having problems?” This was one of those African questions that don’t really need to be asked… the hood was up and two guys were standing around looking inside, and there was smoke coming from a place near the engine. Africans will also ask you things like “Are you there?” as a greeting, so I wasn’t too surprised to hear the seemingly rhetorical question.

A phone call to the DCM gave us the knowledge that if the glowplug was still hot (diesel engine), and we pushed the car, we could pop the clutch and drive back to Lomé that night, rather than having it towed the next day 2 hours back to Lomé. A guy named Wisdom helped push, and the engine purred to life on the first try. We got back after dark with no problems, got some pizza, and went out for a few beers.

The next day we spent going through the Lomé market, watching a soccer game between Togo and Nigeria (Africans love their soccer teams), and eating and drinking well. One place in particular had great burgers, and we also found a place with a hookah later on. Late dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and back home to bed (it was a work-night afterall!)

Inevitably Monday came, and I wished I could have stayed for some months, but the lack of internet would have made me a little crazy. Seth called for a driver to pick him up for work (because his starter was broken), and I packed my stuff. 4 hours later we were still waiting for that driver to come, and Seth’s housekeeper surprised us with a meal of spaghetti bolognaise. We were about to just take a taxi out of there, but after 4 hours, what’s another 30 minutes? The lunch was delicious, and the driver still hadn’t come, so we said goodbye to Kristine and walked to get a taxi. Seth went to the embassy, and I took a moto to the border. Sad to say goodbye, it was a great weekend!