Thursday, January 23, 2014

Thoughts on Rwanda. And feet.

I’ve been in Rwanda for work lately, and I’ve spent a lot of that time on the roads.  The drive from Kigali to our office is two and a half hours down, up, left, right, across the mountains. Don’t picture a drive either.  It’s a roller coaster ride of hairpin turns forcing you to grip anything vaguely reminiscent of a handle, lest a soft part of your own body collide with a hard part of the car’s interior.  Before taking a bus ride on this route, I was told “Prepare yourself. Someone in the bus WILL vomit.”  Not “may.”  “Will.”   

But I’m painting a much uglier picture than I mean to. Rwanda, as anyone who has visited will tell you, is stunning. Before the name conjured bloody images of machete-fueled genocide, it was known as the “Switzerland of Africa,” and for good reason.  The countryside is blanketed by patchwork shambas carved into the steep hillside and lush forest.  It’s postcard-esque.
The view from my room in Rubengera Rwanda.  From my phone, which isn't doing the view any favors.

But navigating the land on foot is a unique challenge and took a bit of adjustment. You don’t walk across the land as much as you try not to fall off of it. And, if you’re me, you fail at that endeavor, land in the mud and break your sandals in the process. And then 20 minutes later, in true African style, someone comes up to you out of nowhere with an industrial strength needle and thread and fixes said sandals for the equivalent of 15 cents. And you’re on your way.
So, all this walking around the Rwanda hillsides eventually took me to my first field visit. It was “distribution day” for the fertilizer that my organization’s farmers had bought on credit, and throngs of farmers made their way up to the distribution center set atop one of Rwanda’s many hills.  The day started, as is the custom, with a song and dance and then the field officers got down to the business of providing a brief training on the best planting practices.


So, I found myself sitting on a concrete slab amongst hardy hill-climbing Rwandan farmers, all of us leaning in to get a better listen to the live farming demonstration.  But I don’t understand the local language, so despite his enthusiastic demonstration, at some point I zoned out and started staring, like a bored school girl, at my feet.
And then I looked a few inches to my right at my Rwandan neighbor’s feet. 

I’ve noticed this before, but for some reason it stuck out to me that day.  There are a lot of physical differences between “wealthy world” urban-dwellers and African villagers, differences made stark by the intense and unceasing labor required to sustain families in a place with no electricity, tap water or gas-fueled kitchen stoves to prepare a hot meal. People have to be hardier, and they are. 
And this difference is most exemplified by the differences in our feet.

I looked at my neighbor’s feet and they looked categorically different from mine – not just darker and larger, but a different thing altogether.  The toes were fat, almost swollen looking and the heals were hardened with callouses I imagined thick enough to repel thorns.  These were feet forged, I imagined, by walks along those stony roads, weighted down by pounds of firewood and buckets of water.  Feet life had made thick and sturdy.

Then I looked at my own feet.  They looked delicate, dainty and maybe even a touch vulnerable in comparison, as if they probably couldn’t handle the natural environment. Mine were feet wrapped from day one in soft cotton socks and later ensconced in thick shoes with rubber soles engineered to cushion and protect them from their very purpose: walking.  And when they were liberated from their cocoon, there were always smooth surfaces – wood floors, soft grass – to walk across.  My feet had been babied, like an infant in a papoose, all their lives and had come out soft and a fragile.
I soon stopped my reverie, afraid I would be caught staring. I moved to catch the eye of my Rwandan neighbor and to offer one of those language-transcending smiles of good will. 

But her eyes did not meet mine.  Instead her brow was furled into a puzzled expression, and her eyes were looking directly down.  She was throwing that head-scratching expression directly at my own feet, and I could almost hear her thought bubble: “But how did they get like that?”

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ladies Room

I think I prefer this:

To this:

That is all for today.

More about my trip to Rwanda/Burndi tomorrow...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Am I still blogging? Not sure.

Am I still blogging?  Not sure. It’s been five long weeks since my last post. An unprecedented duration. I used to go 10 days and then start a blog post with an apology for the long absence.  But it’s been five. weeks.

No, I did not lose my computer or opposable thumbs.  I got a job. And now, instead of pondering blog-worthy topics in the shower (my prime pondering place), I am mentally checking off lists of work-related items and outlining future memos. 

In all my gearing up to go back to work I had been mentally bracing myself for the kids-to-workplace transition, figuring out how keep quality time with the kids while still making a good impression in my new job; how to keep work stress away from the family and family time sacred.  Working out a way to still have lunch with them every day. And I think I’m doing a bang-up job on that front. I've been patting myself on the shoulder for the elusive "balance" I'm managing to strike.

I come home from work and relish the hell out of my little’ins. It’s funny, that hour between coming home from work and dinner I have more patience for their difficulties and more utter adoration for their charms than I probably had all day when I was home with them.

You’ll either relate to that statement or think I’m awful for saying it.  But, it’s true.  It’s not just the trite “it’s the quality not the quantity” cliché working moms tell themselves to feel better. It’s how I feel.  I come home from work and see their enthusiastic and loving “HI MOMMMY!!!” faces and it’s the highlight of my day. They seem even more youthful and miraculous to me, and I drink them in.  In a way that I don’t know if I did when I was home all day, preoccupied with planning meals, calming tantrums, and, yes, watching the clock (when will he finally nap?  When will their father come home?).

But even though it rarely felt like it, I had more time in my day for my own thoughts when I was home with th kids. My own musings, my own observations.  Sure, it’s self indulgent and not “productive” in the way that my current work-related thoughts are.  But I got to chew on ideas and develop them.  I worked them out on these blog-posts and shared them with a community. It made me feel interested and connected, and occasionally proud.

Now. No time for that. Not yet anyway, when I’m in overdrive trying to fit in and prove my worth in a more traditional work setting. When I find myself at the end of the day with some pondering time, I’m tired, uninspired and if there’s room to do some thinking I drift into the giant mound of work issues – my new intellectual center.

I didn’t expect this to go away so completely so quickly – my voice. My creative outlet.

I once wrote (let’s ignore the obnoxiousness of quoting myself for a moment) that “balancing work and family and relationships is often a zero-sum game. It's a big mushy ball of meals to cook, bills to pay, dishes to clean and children raise into people you hope will not be psychopaths. So, unless you have gobs of money to throw at maids, cooks and nannies, if you "lean in" to one thing, another one of those things is going to pop out the other end and demand attention.”

I just didn’t think the thing which would “pop out and need attention” would be me.


P.S. I had time to write this and think this because I am on vacation, and, just as crucially, nursing a cold, which allows me to close the door for moment.  I know I’ll find a new balance and some space once I settle into work more, get “up the curve” and find my rhythm.  Hopefully you’ll still be reading by the time that happens…

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Passengers with small children may now board. Without me.

“Boarding is now open for families traveling with small children.”  

Normally this would be go-time. The shot gun at the start of an exhausting and anxiety-ridden marathon.  But I let the message wash over me with a “see later suckers” smile on my face as I sit in the departure lounge reading an embarrassingly stupid escapist novel hidden by my kindle cover.  The other travelers shift impatiently and uncomfortably in their seats.  I exhale, relishing in the prospect of child-free travel.

This was my first work trip on my new job. 2 weeks in and I was jetting off to Bangkok for a conference.  There were a lot of mixed emotions here – excitement about the new job and opportunities for engaging in topics I feel passionate about.  The thrill of a free “work-cation” in an exotic location.  But also the worry about leaving my children (one still nursing) wondering night after night where their mother went.

But there were no mixed emotions about the flight. The flight was a veritable mom spa day.

Instead of being woken from a half-sleep haze to comfort a travel weary toddler, making a game of running down the narrow aisles and dodging irritated looks from newly woken passengers, I can read a book.  And stop when I’m tired.  I can watch a movie. The whole way through.  Someone brings me food and no one throws it in my hair. I can cocoon myself in blankets and wine and wake to people pouring me coffee and politely calling me “maam,” instead of screaching “MOM!!” and pouring multi-colored liquids on my lap.

All of which makes me realize that solo flying is.. um…  amazing. I mean, what do lone business travelers really have to complain about?  Too much sitting?  That’s like a problem royalty complain of. 

Just being on my own, making my own decision on no one’s schedule but my own feels like a sweet and guilty pleasure.  I can barely wipe the smile off of my face.

But then, as I slurp down the final sips of my coffee before our descent into the sun-drenched Asian capital, my breast start to swell with milk intended for a baby now thousands of miles away.  My body is reminding me of my duty, my primal biological imperative that no modern, flying, time-traveling bird can erase. And I feel every single mile of the half a planet that now separates us. 

Still, I know my boys are well cared for. Their father and second mother of nanny are showering them with love and keeping them safe.  The older boy will remain focused on the promise of a present upon my return.  The younger will likely forget the days apart after a few moments reunion. 

“They’ll be fine!” everyone tells me. And so I tell myself the same. And I’ll keep telling myself it all the way through the trip until I can return to my “mama spa day” flight home, with all the comfort and me-time made that much sweeter by the promise of wrapping my arms around my little solitude busters.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween - It's a strange one.

Halloween. Come on, it's a strange holiday. I suppose they all are.  Sure, they start out innocently enough, commemorating an event, like the resurrection of Christ or the miracle of Hannukah or throwing off the yoke of colonialism. But somewhere along the line, things change and you end up moving large foliage temporarily indoors or hiding pagan symbols of fertility around the yard while eating bunny-shaped sugar-coated marshmallows.

Halloween began in order commemorate our ancestors and martyrs and saints. Somewhere it morphed into a fun kind of spooky and communal candy sharing was added (gotta have something for the kids, right?)  Then it became almost entirely about the kids and the scary costume element was optional, replaced by superheros and princesses. So now Dora the Explorer and Bob the Builder knock on your door, demand candy, and if it's not satisfactory, they reserve the right to do commit petty destruction to your physical property. You know, to honor our ancestors.

And then this happened: When Dora and Bob got to college, Halloween became license to don a mask and shed all inhibitions in grand bacchanal of sexy cat women and inebriated pirates.  When they got a little older the costumes became a demonstration of their wit, a way to out-clever their neighbors through puns and political satire.

Puns like this:
It's a thinker. Think back to Psych 101

Add caption

And Satire, like this:
It's Anthony.. um... you get it...

But Halloween has remained a day to celebrate the id. The closest thing America has to carnivale.

OK. So, it's a strange one.  And try explaining the whole thing - especially the still-present ghoul, gremlin and fright element to a country wholly unfamiliar with this debauchery.

When we first moved to rural Kenya we were advised NOT to celebrate it.  Dressing up as a witch or a devil in a country where many people still have a strong belief in the existence of actual witches and devil-worshipers goes down well... not well.

In a related story: a shipment of actually quite frightening looking Halloween-type paraphernalia was impounded in Mombasa recently as the authorities investigated allegations that it was tide to witchcraft.  The title of one article was "SHOCKING: DEVIL WORSHIPING paraphernalia in Mombasa belongs to politician."

The kicker: despite it's timing right before Halloween, this stuff might not have been intended for a Halloween party.  The article goes on to say "insiders report that a Mombasa-based witchdoctor had ordered him to buy the goods in order to save his dwindling political career."

Seriously. If you had no experience with Halloween, this stuff is pretty suspicious.

So, for this one, we are seeking refuge in our expat community, which has organized a trick-or-treating event in Kisumu. The one year-old will be an animal (spider) and the 4 year-old a super hero (spider man).  As is ordained.  We will take copious pictures and implore all facebook friends to comment on their adorableness.  Because that's the final element in our modern Halloween tradition.  You know, to pay homage to our ancestors.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Murphy's law on hair cuts and stay at home motherhood.

It's Murphy's Law.  Or divine order. Or maybe black magic.  I don't know.  But some law of the universe makes it so every time, EVERY TIME, you are about to get a hair cut you have the most surprising of "good hair days."

Weeks have gone by that your hair was a disheveled and straggly mess.  You throw it up in clips and head bands and look forward to that fresh hair cut.  But the day of the fated appointment, your hair is unexpectedly stunning.  It's lustrous, full of life and falling in all the face flattering ways.  You might even get a compliment.  Then you go in for that hair cut.

And it is probably this same principle that is allowing me a stellar "stay-at-home-mom week" just as I'm about to embark on a new job.  The children have been lustrous, full of life and falling in all the adorable and face flattering ways.  And I'm going to leave them.

Hey, I'm excited to start work.  I have gotten something of a dream job at an exciting young organization I whole-heartedly believe in.  I'll be working with bright, motivated and to-the-person likeable people. I'm Looking Forward To It!

I wrote a little while ago about the key to not feeling horrible about where ever you land in the Stay with The kids - Go To Work continuum is to find your personal balance, know that it's not the same for everyone, and expect to face some trade-offs no matter your decision.  I think this job will allow me to achieve as glorious a balance as I can hope for. Most of the time I'll be able to have lunch with my kids, I have a healthy amount of vacation and the organization believes in work-life balance. And the actual work with allow me to be creative, analytical and engaged in issues I care about - all things I've been short on. Huzzah!

But then there's the "good SAHM" week I'm currently reveling in.

My baby's starting to understand my questions and requests, shaking his head "yes" or "no" in response like we're having an honest-to-goodness conversation.  Every day it seems he's learning a new word "toto" (tortoise), "tante" (assante/Swahili for thank you), doof (juice), "doobleblopple" (I love you mom. Obviously).  He's doing iconic-ly adorable things like running around the house naked, giggling after each bath.

And don't get me started on my eldest. I took him swimming, and for the first. time. ever. he let go of the side of the big pool and started paddling around By Himself!!  I was there, right next to him, as the surprise and delight spread through his face and became so much glee it burst into laughter. "Mom I'm DOING it!! Ha ha ha ha!!"  This week he came home from school, pulled out a piece of paper and practiced his letters on his own, sweetly asking me, "Is this one right mom?" Later, he looked at me earnestly in the eyes and said "I'm really sorry that you're coughing mom. I want you to feel better." If I could bottle that kid's sweetness, I'd never have to buy sugar again.

And it's not just child adorableness that made this a "good SAHM week."  I wiled away a few mornings visiting with just about the best group of mom friends I could ever hope for.  We let our babies run around as we sipped coffee and had comfortable and connecting conversations that left each of us feeling uplifted, supported and loved.  It's the kind of community I wish on every SAHM.  And my afternoons I spent with my neighbor and one of my closest friends, sharing food, playing with our babies, leaning on each other's shoulders and laughing at each other's jokes.

I found time to write. To do yoga. To read.

This "good SAHM week" - the magical moments with my children and the time spent in the sisterhoods I relish - could not have come a worse time.

But I need to remember that I'm not giving all this up. My friendships will endure. I'll continue to have magical moments with my children. I'll find a new balance and maybe it'll be even better than this one.

I'm embarking on a new... haircut.  I hope it's as flattering as the last one.

Adi (neighbor's daughter) and Emmet sharing a snack

The two friends, probably up to no good. I mean, why the smiles?

Caleb euphoric in the water

Caleb studiously practicing... something

Friday, October 18, 2013

Road Trip: Kenya

For my birthday this past weekend, we took a trip to Lake Nakuru National Park.  But don't worry. I'm not going to foist a bunch of wildlife pictures on you. Actually, maybe you'd appreciate that more than what I'm about to do.

I am going to tell you about an aspect of taking family vacations here that gets little attention: Getting There.

Back in Chicago, it's often said that there are 2 seasons: winter and construction. Here in Kenya there is only one season.  And it ain't winter.

Most roads in our part of Kenya are either in a state of disrepair or repair.  Mainly, you are driving on shoddily constructed roads with crater-like, car-swallowing potholes and sharp unmarked speed bumps, all threatening to destroy your car and strand you on the side of the road.  Either that, or you are driving directly through road construction as it happens with only a hint of how avoid the beastly machinery blocking your way. You have to clutch the steering wheel and tell the kids to hold onto their seats as you bump along the "diversion" (read: non-road you use on while the road builders get to work.)

The dust all of this kicks up is of biblical proportions. It's caked on the car so densely you could scrape it off with a knife and you're sneezing it up all evening.
This is not out of focus.
Why the constant disrepair and repair? I've been told road construction is a big boondoggle. Apparently, a big proportion of the road budget goes to greasing palms, so things like quality cement and other important ingredients for road making get short changed. The road lasts half as long as predicted and the boondoggle starts again.

But when the road is completed it's ... well.... amazing.  Some of your journey is inevitably on fresh road, and you sail by feeling like you're on a high speed train. Like you're time traveling.  But don't get too comfortable because this is actually where the worst of the road accidents happen as the absence of potholes, diversions or speed bumps lulls long haul drivers into careless and often lethal complacency.

OK.  So the roads are no picnic.  And speaking of picnics... you better pack one, because there are no fancy roadside restaurants, drive-throughs or convenient stores. There are tons of roadside vendors, but unless you can make a snack out of a kilogram of potatoes, some tomatoes and an uncut pumpkin, you're out of luck.

OK. You can easily find a soda. But you'll have to drink it there and return the bottle.  My environmentalist heart applauds but my impatient spirit boos. 
All this said, and despite the road hazards, we actually love our road trips.  The countryside is gorgeous, teeming with people, shambas and ramshackle storefronts; and driving through it makes us feel like we are in the "real Kenya" (whatever that means). And the truth is you can find a locally harvested snack - roasted maize, pineapple slices or peanuts - if you're lucky.

Tea estate in Kericho

There are no roadside attractions, but the are plenty of on-road attractions, and I'm not just talking about the flipped over truck variety. Generally, I'm talking about a lot of improbably overloaded trucks, livestock strapped to the backs of vehicles or extended families sharing a motorbike. It's the kind of thing you found remarkable when you first moved here but now often forget to notice. Unless, of course, you're planning on writing a blog post on the topic.

Don't worry.  They're dead.

I love that despite lack of side walks and uniformly craggily roads, women around Kisumu still brave aspirational shoes. 

Just a few tweaks and this bad boy will be road worthy again.

And we always seem to stumble into some kind of misadventure.

This time we stopped in Kericho, a hilly tea-growing area, for lunch. It was at a faded colonial haunt with unintentionally ironic kitsch and intentionally gorgeous gardens.  They parked us - the only patrons at the time - in the corner of the restaurant, but by the time our food was served we were enveloped by local businessmen and politicians who descended en masse, as part of some business promotion convention.

Someone clanked a spoon to a glass, the room fell silent and the man at the next table stood up to introduce the Governor (the man with the biggest belly in the room) for some "brief remarks." In desperation, I shoved cookies in Emmet's mouth so as not to interrupt the Governor's speech with uninvited baby whining.

The guy in the grey suit: Gov'na.

Our family. Woefully under-dressed for the business conference we unintentionally crashed.

Well, I lied. I am going to give you one picture from our game drives. But Warning: this is for mature audiences only.  Or, really, immature mature audiences only.

You see, the animals in this part of the world are truly magnificent. They come in surreal colors and patterns, and near paleolithic proportions. You wonder at life's creation itself while watching those seemingly hand painted zebra stripes or stilt-like legs on the giraffe. But after watching several hundred zebra, you stop wondering and start yearning to see something besides these magnificent creatures endlessly chewing their cud.

You want some action.  A stalking and a kill. Some fighting. Some mating.  You know, the same kind of action you want from an episode of the Real Housewives of Poughkeepsie. Or so I hear.

Well, after half a dozen game drives and no ... um... "action," we finally got some.  Real animal behavior in the wild.

A baboon mating.

With himself.

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