28 February 2014

Home and high – dry and home -drome-

I know it’s mentioned it previously (multiple times. I’m very single-minded lately, but I suspect that you would be, too), but it’s the dry season here. And, in the era of climate change, this is serious business – even the locals are complaining. I’ve also kvetched ad nauseam about the dust (one of my colleagues recently called the massive plumes stirred by the wind ‘majestic’. I was terribly proud of myself for my restrain in not smacking her) but…it’s pervasive. Walking outside, the effect is immediate. I can feel the dust settle on my hair and coat my skin in a fine talc. My eyes begin to sting and my throat becomes parched. The grit gets in your teeth and textures your tongue. It is not remotely majestic. It is unforgiving. The dust doesn’t even whirl (again, respectfully disagreeing with my rose-tinted colleague here) – it billows in harsh, menacing waves. It dulls everything. This is a truly beautiful country, but the longer the dry season progresses, the more it’s bucolic loveliness is leached from the surroundings (I readily admit that this might be a question of perception – as the season marches staunchly on, I get more and more tetchy). The light in Bunia has become harsh and flat. It bleaches and drains and renders the world in sepia. Even the clouds are lifeless and two dimensional. The sunsets can occasionally be really striking, though. 

To my mind, and thereby illustrating how deeply frivolous and narcissistic I am, one of the most irritating consequences of the Great Bunia Dust Bowl is the curtaining of leisure activities. This is, hands-down, the worst my asthma has been in years. Practicing Pranayama, not to mention going running, has become a rather fraught endeavour. I’ve also been doing a lot of slack-lining lately (don’t ask. There’s a cute French man involved, and that’s about all you need to know). It’s surprisingly fun, and I’m (slowly. Ohhhh, so slowly) getting better, but I’m not sure if it’s a matter of actual improvement or simply and intense desire to not have to dismount from the line. Where once I would have had a mattress of verdant grass to cushion my falls, I am now met by the hard ground. Twigs and clumps of dead grass adhere to my feet and dust clings to my yoga pants (how unsightly! What will the cute French man think?!). It’s harder to walk the line with debris all over your toes.

The dust also has moments – generally transportation-related and independent of a generalised lowering of lung capacity – when it can be downright dangerous. Case in point (or two): a mototaxi passed me this morning with a toque pulled down to the level of his chin. I’m unconvinced that he could properly see where he was going, but I suppose it’s all a question of priorities. Similarly, last week, someone (who really should have known better) unthinkingly turned on the AC in our Land Cruiser, not wanting to open the windows to the dust. It was like a haboob in the car. Apparently some of this is Sahara sand, so it’s not an inapt comparison.

Bug prevalence is also worse, or at least so it seems to me. I’m not sure if it’s water related, but it seems that nearly every morning there is a new cockroach inverted on our kitchen floor. In their down-side-up panic, they try to fly, spinning, no whizzing around in circles like some grotesque wind-up toy. They can survive for days like that. I would rather have expected the mosquitos to lessen, but they’re magic. I have been interested to note that when you successfully slap a mosquito, the body squishes to one of your limbs while an outline of it is left imprinted into your slapping hand, almost distressing in its detail (my hand-eye coordination as really improved, buoyed by an intense desire to not get malaria again). What with all the infestations in the bath and bedroom, I feel like I check myself for creepy crawlies more often than a meth addict.

Maybe would be easier to look past the dust if there was any possibility of relief. But there isn’t. You see, what with the lack of rain, we have no water. Generally speaking, the house depends on rain run-off to fill several massive cisterns dotted around the property. We’re also hooked up to the city system, of course, but they ran out of water weeks before we did. All of Bunia is experiencing a shortage. Even the broad spot on the river that serves as the communal car wash has been shuttered for insufficient H2O. Our logistics team had to go out and forage a tankful from the river farther out and then truck it back in.

When it arrived it was…somewhat less that pristine. Really, it looked more like rooibos tea (if only it had smelled like it, too). It’s difficult to feel truly clean when you’re taking a bath in dirty water, but you do managed to feel refreshed, I guess, so that’s something. On the bright side, my hair has great body and texture right now and my skin is terribly well exfoliated. We’ve also had good fun joking that too much time in Congo turns you into a mud-bath taking hippo. Look out if I start becoming super aggressive and territorial.

The paucity of even dirty water has created something of a merry water war between the two houses on our conjoined compound (resource wars involving humanitarians seem like a wonder premise for a topically absurdist play, no?) that is aided and abetted by our rotating guard staff. We are periodically able to convince one guard to siphon water from the main house so that we might have a shower, only to have them steal it back for drinking filtration while you’re mid-shampoo rinse. Despite the obviousness of these shenangins, no one talks about it. It’s Water Fight Club. Occasionally, I furtively wash up at the main house (a pre-yoga foot scrub behind enemy lines!) and enjoy the most absurd sort of gloating accomplishment for sneaking one past my teammates turned advisories.

What I really don’t like to think about with regard to the quality of water we’re working with right now is that this is the same water in which we wash cloathes (assuming that we even can. We’ve actually put a temporary moratorium on laundry, which is becoming increasingly worrisome as my stock of unmentionables dwindles down to nothing. I’m going on R&R soon people! A girl needs skivvies!) and – worse, to my mind – dishes (it’s fine for drinking, incidentally. Our water filtration systems are aces, which one would expect from an NGO that specialises in WASH). Someone chided me for not washing off a piece of fruit before cutting it for a salad, reminding me that this is Congo! Sure, I thought, which means that there are no pesticides on this fruit, and it’s not like the dirty water will make it clean from the dust of transport… Someone else made the rather tragic mistake of looking in our water tanks. The spit of liquid that remained was apparently covered in an oil-slick film. All in all, I think it’s an amazing accomplishment that we’re not half-dead all the time. Here’s to the resiliency of the human body!

If I look past my personal inconveniences, the dry season is not all bad. Cholera epidemics, for example, rarely occur during the dry season and it’s a great time to vaccinate kids (measles and meningitis are worse, though. Malaria stays the course. It’s tremendously consistent, as far as murderous epidemic diseases go – I blame those damn resilient mosquitoes). Travel is also much, much easier. Partly because of that, the cost of many goods, including food and medicine, noticeably drops.

Finally, it’s a great time of year for major construction projects. On this bright note, and in no small part due to the recent visits of both the President and (muzungu!) Governor, work on the main road has progressed steadily (steadily, but not quickly. This is the central boulevard through all of Bunia, and it has been closed for going on three weeks now. Getting into work has been…complicated, greatly increasing the traffic volume on the narrow market road we take and adding burning tar to the dusty bouquet of Bunia scents). Once they completed tarmacking the first stretch of road, we were treated to the rather endearing site of people strolling along the finished product, dressed smartly, a great many of them be-hatted. I found it terribly Victorian of them.

I’ll end with a final happy piece of news – based on the trees in our yard, mango and avocado season are just around the corner, and there are dark clouds massing on the horizon. Things are really looking up!

17 February 2014

You kiss, others tell*

My Congolese colleagues all properly call it St. Valentine’s Day and were tickled when I wore a (unintentionally) thematically appropriate red shirt. As a valentine’s gift, let me begin by sharing the rather critical information that sex apparently makes you smarter. I thought you would want to know that. For what it’s worth, my personal take-away from that article is that I now need to follow intercourse with some light philosophy reading and meditation. My cognitive and hippocampal functioning will improve like whoa, though all future partners are now guaranteed to think that I’m insane. The speed with which they flee might well determine if the experiment is a success or not.

With that out of the way, I’m going to return to my recent ruminations on what it means to live the expat life here in Bunia. Most in the NGO world (and not only here, but in most humanitarian contexts) are forced to live in community. There are sound logistical reasons for this. It allows for a safer team, it’s cheaper, and finding your own place is, frankly, a bitch. Some people do it, but it’s super complicated and more difficult to maintain, landlords and real estate agents around here being somewhat less than responsive (and the latter non-existent). Organisationally speaking, team living is the only way to go. Even personally, there are some real benefits: it’s not as scary, not as lonely, and I don’t have to do my own laundry or go grocery shopping unless I’m really motivated.

That said, I haven’t lived with this many people in a single residence since college, and it’s…a challenge. I like my space. And you never really have that here. One of my colleagues is forever disparaging people (particularly the Dutch, for reasons I don’t fully understand) for never leaving their rooms. But, look, if I just want to listen to some quiet music and read a book without interruption, it is impossible to do in the living room. If you sit in the open, no matter how bugger-off your body language reads, people will take it as an indication that you’re willing to have a 30 minute-long discussion about their trials in acquiring a green card or learning to wind surf or experiences nursing in Switzerland or the societal breakdowns that make Americans gun-toting fatties and the French godless Bacchanalians. And it’s not that I don’t care about these things or the person I’m speaking to. It’s just that, sometimes, I would rather not chat. And if I want that time without blowing people off like an insufferable ice queen, I have to take it in my room.

Sorry for the rant. The upshot is that we all live and work in very close proximity with each other. This set up is only successful when approached with patience, sensitivity, respect of privacy, and maturity. Which is to say, it’s not generally successful at all. I kid, I kid. Seriously, though, no matter what happens, we’re one another’s soap opera. For a bunch of what are ostensibly adults, we can get awfully petty. I remember a co-worker once ranting about how nasty someone was because she (the supposedly nasty one) didn’t clear her (the ranter’s) plate from the table with the other dishes. I mean, that bitch! Another time, someone opined that the cat had gone missing because one of our colleagues had bribed the guards to kill it (it was fine. It turned up after a week, none the worse for ware and desirous of fish). I think the Country Director bears the brunt of the interpersonal strife – in addition to being our boss, she had the dubious honour of also being our RA, chastising people when they stay out past curfew or drink beers they didn’t buy. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

She’s also the lucky party who gets to manage inter-office romance. Like the couple that announced their engagement after very unsubtly dating for a grand total of three months. No one wants to say out loud what a bad idea this is, so we all just manage that we’re happy for them and we really hope it works out and leave it at that with a damningly pregnant pause. And while that was fairly straight forward, if perhaps ill-advised, we’re now avidly watching what is shaping up to be a proper love triangle. The non-emotionally entangled members of the team (the women, at least. I don’t know where the other fellas stand) watch obsessively for clues in body language, rooting for the ladies involved to variously step up their efforts or, for the love of God, tone it down, the local staff is watching, for Pete’s sake! It doesn’t help that the women in question had something of a tempestuous professional relationship to begin with. Throw a dubiously eligible man (he has, on multiple occasions, expressed the desire to become a Protestant monk, so they both might be barking up a celibate tree) into the mix, and the sparks are flying in the most entertainingly understated, passive-aggressive manner.

I sometimes feel bad about gossiping about my co-workers with other co-workers, but…there’s no one else to talk to about it. It’s hard to gossip about people here with friends from home and vice versa, given the lack of overlap betwixt the two. And I’m fairly certain people talk about me, too (that might be hubris. I’m not sure my ego could fully take it if they didn’t think about me at all). Finally, it can be a bit difficult to ignore gossip that is very nearly thrust under your nose. It behoves those living in community (especially such a thin-walled one) that nothing is ever as secret as you imagine it to be. At least, as far as field relationships are concerned. Home stuff, meanwhile, is as private as your inside voice.

Generally, I think we would all be a lot kinder to one another if we weren’t around each other so much. Some people to attempt to engender that space by living in a kind of self-imposed isolation – hardly interfacing with the team, never joining in any social activities. I found one colleague’s confession that she never joins us for Zumba or yoga or volleyball because she was so tired of making friends only to have them leave heart-breaking (and also took it as an indication that she should possibly get the hell out of dodge). Another is a bit removed, in that she doesn’t live with us, but with her Congolese husband. Even they remain subject to scrutiny, though. The woman with the husband, for instance, has been in Congo for some 20 years and often gives the younger staff (unsolicited) fashion advice, usually comprised of the warning that our skirts are too short (knee-length) or our jeans too tight (boy-friend cut) and someone might mistake us for whores (so that’s why people keep yelling Cherie at me on the street. It has nothing to do with my skin colour or obvious expat-ness. Glad we got that cleared up). We readily ignore her advice, no matter how well-meant, given that, by her own admission, her husband won’t let her wear tank tops (it’s because she’s a pastor’s wife. But, still, you lost me at ‘my husband won’t allow…). 

At any rate, one does always feel subject to some observation, even by teams not your own. It makes the prospect of dating somewhat daunting (I had a friend from another NGO who returned to France in December recently contact to ask if it’s wasn’t true that two other people – neither of which works for her NGO or mine – had actually gotten together and were now pregnant. The gossip mill here does not respect continents or time zones, let alone barbed wire-tipped walls). Often, what coupling does happen is less traditional dating than lusty interactions ranging from smiling too much when talking to someone or dancing together too many times or even furtive, alcohol-aided snogs in dark corners at house parties.

Some folk do legitimately try and date, though it is a fraught prospect. Forget the long-term questions (is this viable? Should I invest in a relationship here? Is this person also single/emotionally available, or are they lying?). Even a non-illict fling would need some kind of date night, and that’s not easy. When two of my colleagues finally came out as being a couple, they could never find anywhere to go on a romantic night out. At MONUSCO House, there is little social convention to prevent crashing. It’s the romantic equivalent of being unable to read a book on the couch unmolested. A determined pair could, of course, also try to eat out somewhere else at one of the many and varied dining establishments of Bunia. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve tried anywhere else. In part, that might have to do with the competition. Take, for example, the months-old Garden Restaurant (actual name). When it first opened, the expat community flocked there; we are voracious in our appetite for diversity. As we walked in that first night, there were sounds of admiration for the lighting and landscaping, about how airy it was, what beautiful gardens (at least the directness of the name is earned, unlike the rather more perplexing Camping). As we crossed the broad lawn to our appointed table, everyone agreed to how lovely it all was. One of my teammates, however, kept appraising the high concrete walls topped in barbed wire and finally allowed that it looked like the exercise yard at the poshist prison in town. I suppose it all depends on how you chose to perceive things. For example, that night, I could have opted to focus on how charming the wait staff was, how delicious and inexpensive the food (my dish was 4 USD!), how much I enjoyed the soundtrack (Congolese artists, where MONUSCO usually plays American and Indian). Or I could dwelled on how less than half the menu was actually on offer (and it took the server nearly an hour to determine what the kitchen had available), once an order was finally placed, the food took two hours and 15 minutes to arrive, was not what I ordered, and ultimately made me vomit for the next six hours (so, of the two words in its name, it at least lived up to one. Batting .500!). The fact that I’ve since been back twice points to the fact that I am: (a) foolish; (b) an eternal optimist; or (c) resigned to the fact that I have few other options, none of which are really any better. Take your pick.

I can’t help but imagine if someone – especially two points on our prickly little love triangle – did try to go on a date. I am presented with the gloriously absurd vision of the rest of the team tailing them, peaking around corners and hiding behind non-existent newspapers and magazine racks and large potted ferns like some kind of sorry, love-deranged spies, our titters barely concealed behind our hands. It would be a shambles. We don’t even have the trench coats convention dictates.

*I had fully intended to post this on Friday afternoon (in a fuller, and one had hoped, funnier, iteration), only to be laid low by malaria. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to come up with anything pithy to say about the malaria, aside from sharing the wisdom that, if you are going to get sick, perhaps try to plan it for the weekend you don’t run out of water and gas. Any illness, tropical or otherwise, is best endured with hot showers and copious amounts of tea.

10 February 2014

Let the Good Times Roll (Part 3ish)

After an initial flurry of activity when I first came back, work has been quiet. Too quiet for my liking, to tell you the truth. My family often asks me what I’m up to, and I feel guilty that I never really have a good answer. But the truth is that life in the field is very often boring and monotonous. We are still waiting for word from our donors (and it already February! This is a bit scandalous), so in the meantime I’m just spinning my wheels and designing impossible yoga sequences. Sure, the pregnant lady and dudes who can’t touch their toes and those professing various and sundry knee and back problems can to Bird of Paradise! It’ll be fun (I kid. I would never. Well, not right away. We’re building up to it.)!

Happily for both my sanity and my students’ bodies, I’ve found something new to interest me: cheese. Now, rather than searching for asanas to promote shoulder health and tighten the core (I would go with Utkatasana, Ustrasana, or, if you're really tough, Tittibhasana), I am spending far more time researching farmer’s cheese that I would be willing to admit to anyone in the office. This includes the self-same colleague who put me on the cheese war-path to begin with. This individual, who was raised in as a MK (missionary kid. It’s like the secular version of a military brat) in Uganda and has spent no small amount of time in DRC, brought with him an ice cream maker. The man understanding the cravings of field life and is prepared. Unfortunately, he also manages not the most experienced. He bought from milk from a local farmer. It came to our door at 7 am on a Sunday, unpasteurised, unseparated, still warm – straight from the utter to your compound! Prior to purchase, my colleague had solicited a number of suggestions about how to treat the milk so that we didn’t all end up tossing our cookies clear across town. The responses spanned the gamut from don’t boil at all to boil for 30 minutes, separate the cream first, don’t separate the cream, etc., etc. The first suggestion struck us as unsafe, while following the latter seemed like it would result in no milk at the end of that experiment. We ultimate went for a 5 minute boil, unseparated. To our surprise, the milk promptly balled up and turned into cheese. I was not, at first, brave enough to try it. Lucky, both my colleague and the cat have more adventurous stomachs. After waiting a few hours to see what would befall them (nothing, it turned out), I gave it a go. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant - nice texture, crumbly without dryness, but it wanted for salt.

Heady with unexpected success, we decided our next step would be to make our own mozzarella. Basically, managed to stumble a few steps despite ourselves and determined we were ready for the cheese Olympics. As anyone might have been able to tell us, mozzarella is a bit beyond our reach. You need citric acid and rennet (which can – huzzah! – be vegetarian). However, I have determined that we can attempt ricotta and what purports to be a very nice farmer’s cheese. There is a whole wide, pungent world beyond Goma cheese!

For what it’s worth, we also did manage to get the milk to boil without clumping and eventually tried our hand at ice cream. It was…well, only our first time, so unmitigated disaster is probably too harsh an assessment. That said, it never managed to set beyond the soup stage. It was also shockingly artificial-tasting (the vanilla here is suspect, despite our proximity to Madagascar) and took on a sickly green hue, on account of the old m&ms someone had scrounged from somewhere to share. Well, like I said, it was a first effort only. My gastric future looks bright.

Over the long winter break, the brave and foolish few who remained actually became quite adept at entertaining ourselves. We played a range of board games printed in more languages than we could keep up with – Clue in French (Cludo) was not too much of a stretch (though not a man or woman on my team had ever seen the film. I was astounded and vowed to download it as soon as the internet would support such action. So…never) and (on the more random end of the scale) Settlers of Catan in Portuguese and the Amazing Labyrinth in Russian (the randomness of the games in my house gives an indication of how varied our staff has been over the years. Luckily, the interwebs have been strong enough to support a search for the English translations of the rule). I was also introduced to ‘African rules’ pool, in which a scratch on the eight ball, does not result in a loss. I was suspicious that they just made up pity rules for my partner because I’m so awful.

I also took advantage of my housemate/boss’ absence to paint the bathroom full of fish. It’s not my best work, for sure, but it’s also not all bad, considering I’m using oil-based house paint cut with nail polish remover and applying it with my one eye shadow brush. Desperate times and all that.

More recently, the American contingent of my NGO decided that it was our patriotic imperative to watch the Super Bowl. I am not yet prepared to relive the experience it in any great depth. That shit was painful. Sufficed to say that we spent the better part of two weeks figuring out how to watch the game with no luck. Finally, Sunday evening at roughly 8pm (there’s a time difference, but even so, there wasn’t a second to loose), we were able to marry a television with a receiver. We sweet talked to the head of security at the standard bar into letting us crash between the magic hours of 1am-5am – he, too, was an American and understood. Our Dutch country director took a bit more convincing, but we finally got her on board (by promising not to tell anyone. Sssshhhhhhh!). This was how I found myself at one am in the deserted expat bar, animatedly explaining to a trio of gamely interested Italians about the down system and extra points and then, suddenly, we switched to safteys….then then punts….and then interceptions…and then I got really quiet for a long time. The other Americans picked up my explanatory slack – they were less invested than I – on why there were so many pauses and how a lineman nicknamed Pot Roast could possibly count as a professional athlete. At least the Mexican guy not only knew what was going on, but shared my despondency. Who knew that the Doncos were so popular south of the border? Anyway, the less said of that debacle, the better. At least I won’t be pining for football in the coming months, now that I’ve had my snootful.

The most common diversion, by far, though, are house parties. They usually occur on Saturday nights (Friday night, you see, is ‘happy hour’ at MONUSCO House, so no one would come to a house party, and all the other nights we’re pretty much just hermits). Even these have a sort of anticipatory sameness. MSF will have the best booze and the most restrictive guest list (no UN). Enesco (a UN contractor) has the best food and often the weirdest vibe (they seem to invite a lot of…prostitutes?). Solidarité is super fun, but the dance floor is bitty. Cesvi…hasn’t hosted a party since they got their piglet, and you can’t really blame them. The missionaries and other Christian orgs never host anything resembling a party and don’t mingle with the secular NGOs.

It’s almost like there is an approved soundtrack for when more than five expats get together. I hear the same songs at every house party we go to, over and over again. In one night, I heard Gangnam style no less than three times. I have to admit that I was impressed at how well the Egyptian peacekeepers knew a dance created by a South Korean pop start and made viral in the US. I suppose I shouldn’t have been. Of course, as whoever happens to be the self-appointed DJ gets drunker, the music selection tends to get more esoteric. Bollywood standards, Lebanese hits, Australian 80s classics, French or Italian house music…we’re usually at the mercy of the sobriety of the host. Most the us are game to dance to anything though, so we usually soldier on until 1 or 2, when our legs are about to give out and we have to make it back or be late for curfew. Ours is at 1. We…mostly respect that.

Really, implying that we’re limited to house parties or MONUSCO is unfair; there are myriad places we go to dance. After the MONUSCO happy hour closes shop at midnight, we almost always wander over to the townie disco (Champagne Club – the name is misleading) and join in a terrifically popular line dance that is strongly reminiscent of the Electric Slide. Champagne can be hit or miss – the music can be utterly undancable (on good nights, it features Congolese music (for which they are justifiably famous and sounds like a bachata by way of Jamaica), hip hop, and, very weirdly and consistently, Summer Lovin’.), there can be prostitutes everywhere (MONUSCO is not supposed to go to the clubs, for obvious reasons, though that never seems to stop them), and the guys, national and otherwise, can get really aggressive. With the Congolese, the only thing that seems to work is telling them you have a boyfriend. Simply saying no with escalating levels of intensity NEVER works.

My favourite place to dance, though (aside from my room, where I prefer to rock out in my socks and headphones after a particularly long day) is in the empty pool of Hotel Royal. The Hotel is on the outskirts of town, so the stars are almost painfully bright. In the pool itself, people mill and smoke and generally exude ineffable European coolness in the shallows, while dancing is confined to the deep end. The less adventurous tend to take up perches on the side of the pool, just dipping their toes in the maelstrom of movement and music. The more we drink, the more precarious is it to make the transition from one side of the pool to the other. We probably should just pour out the beer and made a slip’n’slide.