Play that funky music, muzungu

Before coming to the Peace Corps, I was a pretty level-headed and balanced person. Mr. Level-headed and Balanced, that’s what they called me. (Had the girls falling all over themselves in high school, let me tell you.) I had a stable personality, and a calm temperament, and roughly the same amount of emotional variability as a tortoise.

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This is a baby tortoise. Aww, isn't he cute??

But that all changed once I moved to Zambia. Peace Corps loves to warn new volunteers about the emotional roller coaster, the cliched metaphor du jour used to describe the ups and downs you will experience during your service. But what they don’t talk about as much is that you’ve got a FastPass to this ride and it runs multiple times per day. I may start out a given morning feeling one way, but you can bet I won’t be feeling the same way by the time evening rolls around. My emotions bounce all over the place like a toddler in a grocery store. This is now normal for me here. This is my day-to-day life.

And as if the ride wasn’t already dramatic enough, I’ve been in a sort of funk for the past few weeks. If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve been in a sort of funk for the past few months. There are a few plausible explanations why:

For one, I’m at that point in my service when many volunteers hit a lull — about two-thirds of the way through my actual two-year contract and nearly three-quarters of the way through my 27 month-commitment in Zambia. It makes sense; things that used to be novel and exciting, if not necessarily pleasant and comfortable, are now no longer novel and exciting. Now they’re just unpleasant and uncomfortable. The drunk men harrassing you. The unwavering stares that bore deep into your soul. The sweaty half-hour you have to spend fetching water. Hot season. Last year, I was kind of excited for hot season, in that I-know-it’s-going-to-suck-but-I’m-kind-of-looking-forward-to-seeing-just-how-much-it’ll-suck sort of way that you can be excited. This year, it just sucks. I already know how much it sucks, I already know how long it’ll continue to suck, and I can’t even get a self-pitying blog post out of it as consolation prize because I already did that last year. Shit gets old.

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Sebastian's sons renovating a dried-up pond during the height of last year's hot season; and I thought I had it bad when my dad used to make me go check for frog eggs every day during the middle of the infamous Central Valley summers

Another possible explanation for my current rut is that life after Peace Corps keeps looming larger and larger the longer I’m here, and for a planner like me that means more distractions and less living in the moment as I scramble to get my rear in gear. I was never under any delusion that these two years wouldn’t go by swiftly, or that I didn’t have to think about what might come next, but there’s a difference between thinking about something and actively planning for it. Being in the Peace Corps is kind of like living in a bubble, and I’m not just talking about the 360-degree visibility which allows curious villagers to stare at me from all sides as if I were a caged lab rat. I’m currently being very comfortably provided for by the United States government, with killer health insurance and rent stabilization to make a New Yorker green with envy, so it’s a little unnerving to read about all of the problems with the American economy and to come to terms with returning to this reality in just a few months.

And as if these reasons weren’t already enough, my closest Peace Corps friend just finished her service and moved back to America to start grad school, so now I’m facing the next eight months without my favorite partner in crime living just an hour-and-a-half-long bike ride away. For the entire time that I’ve been at site, Emi had been a constant as one of the only other volunteers in my district. She pretended to like my cooking, left bobby pins all over my hut, and staunchly defended all things Seattle and Washington State (except for the Mariners, which was no big deal because they’ve only been my favorite baseball team since I was 8). We traveled together, hosted workshops together, and visited each other’s sites often enough that her village thought I was her brother and my village thought we were married. She also has really nice legs. Since Emi left our district, my street cred among the young men in my village has dropped significantly and I’ve been spotted talking to myself just a little bit a lot more.

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A white sandy beach is the first thing you think of when you picture a landlocked country in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa, right? Yeah, me too.

So that’s where I am right now. I’m in a funk, and my Earth, Wind, & Fire playlist goes on for hours. It’ll end eventually though, since this roller coaster ride always climbs back up every time it plummets down. For now, I’m just going to try to focus on being more candid in this blog and hope that self-deprecation is the key to enlightenment. Or getting a job.*

*If there are any employers among my dear readership who might have an opportunity for my wiseacre self, seriously, I’d love to hear from you. I have a B.A. and a B.S. from UC Berkeley, two years of experience in business administration, almost two years of experience arguing with little Zambian kids, and several pairs of Oxford cap-toes just itching to be laced up.

Zamtime, n.

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Charging my phone as I wait for a fish farmer

Zamtime, zam-tym. n. A national clock that is set to run no faster than one hour behind for any and all functions that involve a muzungu highly conditioned for punctuality impatiently tapping his foot and checking the time on his phone. If a meeting is scheduled for 2pm, it will start at 3pm. Or 4pm. Or not until the following day. If you arrange to meet someone at 8am, you do not begin to wonder where the person is unless he has still not arrived by 9:30am.

Time doesn’t run here, it saunters and stops to chat with everybody it meets along the way to the meeting 7 kilometers away for which it is already an hour and fifteen minutes late.

Zambian Colloquial Dictionary (ZCD), 2014

ZamTwitter, Month 16

Random news from my sixteenth month of Peace Corps service, in 140 characters or less.

August 11 – I’m in Lusaka as a volunteer trainer for the RAP ’14 In-Service Training. Hard to believe it’s already been a year since my own IST.

August 14 – The volunteers are at Immigration getting their work permits this morning. This means we trainers have four hours to shop for chitenges.

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August 15 – Our minibus stalls. When we start off again, the driver swerves back and forth to try to slosh what little gas remains into the fuel line.

August 17 – Embarking on my third 16-hour bus ride in the last two weeks. I’ll never complain about waiting half an hour at the DMV again.

August 18 – Six cats are currently squatting in my hut. This means half-eaten mice, constant meowing, and puddles of kitten pee everywhere.

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August 20 – Bought buns (for me) and dried fish (for Calvin and Hobbes) in the boma today. The women were all abuzz about my resealable Ziplock bags.

August 22 – Tagged along as Emi put on a moringa cooking demonstration for a nearby women’s group and ended up teaching them how to fry cassava fries.

August 26 – Watching accidental brush fires is great evening entertainment until the flames get a little too close to your dried grass-thatched roof.

August 29 – Helping Emi move out of her site after two years in Kafutuma. I didn’t think it was possible to accumulate so many things in a 3-room hut.

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September 2 – Flat tires and broken jacks don’t seem to mix well — what was a 3-hour ride turned into a 6-hour ordeal. Hitching: always an adventure.

September 6 – Just traded an old pair of sunglasses I salvaged from the trash for two ice-cold bottles of water. Gotta love Zambia’s street economy.

September 8 – Of all the fun goodies my parents brought with them from America, the clear early favorite is the compressible nylon hammock.

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Burn notice

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Right now Zambia is in the midst of the burn season. The air is crisp and dry, the grasses and brush are brittle and yellowed, and the winds blow relentlessly, so of course this is the best possible time to strike a match and send a wall of flame roaring toward your house. (A house which, I might add, is covered with more of that same dried grass. How convenient.)

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Although accidental brush fires do cause a lot of damage to fields and even communities when they spread out of control, most burning is planned. As any novice forester/agriculturalist can tell you, this annual purging is necessary for clearing out clutter and thereby preventing larger, more damaging fires from occurring later, as well as for adding nutrients back to the soil to increase fertility for the next cycle of crops.

And on a less technical note, burn season also means lots of small-hand-and-feet-warming stations throughout the village to prevent against the early morning chill, a surreal pink haze lazily blanketing the landscape and coating your lungs throughout the day, and spectacular light displays in the late evenings.

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Word to your mother

I asked my parents to provide me with some blog post material reflections on their trip to Zambia last month and was intrigued, amused, and sometimes touched by their perspectives. Here’s what they had to say:

What was your favorite part of your visit to Zambia?

Dad: My favorite part was the village interactions with the kids and Matt’s close friends like Sebastian. These are the things he will remember and cherish always. I was impressed at how refreshing was the curiosity and relative unsophistication of the young folks (and some of the older ones), especially compared with our subsequent visit to New York where everyone was a bit stressed, closed into their little space, and hardened from a world that is more scary than rural Zambia. This is why I believe the environment shapes a lot of how someone becomes. I kinda knew rural Africa would be refreshing, but it still impressed me.

One incident showed how innocent the kids are: I was backing up the car one day and ran into a tree. A car-savvy person would have yelled out or stopped me before I hit the tree, but since these kids have not been around cars, they had no idea there was imminent danger. (The insurance was excellent and paid it off.) I thought that was funny.

Kids getting out of class at my local primary school

Kids getting out of class at my local primary school

Mom: I had a wonderful time in Zambia. Unlike some vacations where you travel to a destination, have fun, return home, and everything goes back to normal, visiting a Peace Corps volunteer at his site is totally different. I felt like I was experiencing, first-hand, all of the things that Matt shares in “Fishing in Zambia.”

Perusing a favorite blog is like reading a fascinating book. You become totally engrossed in the plot and in the characters’ lives, and you wish there was a way to magically become part of the story yourself. Visiting Zambia gave me this rare opportunity to experience “Matt’s Zambia.” I feel in a small way, that I “know” Chungu, the little boy who sweeps Matt’s yard for a plastic bag, and that I “know” Chama and Josephine, the little girls who came by to sell vegetables from their family garden. I feel like for the short time I was there, I was not just a tourist, but I was experiencing this totally different culture in an intimate and genuine way.

How I get my daily produce

How I get my daily produce

What was the biggest challenge you experienced while in Zambia?

Dad: The traffic, hecticness, and fear of theft (i.e. high walls, electric wire) in the major cities was worse than I expected. It has all the usual growing pains of a developing country’s capitol, but it was still unnerving. It was sad to see it but I should not have expected any better. It shows the results of colonialism. We saw the paranoia in Johannesburg too. So that made me think of how it could have been avoided, and what can we do here in America to prevent a similar unwinding of human decency.

Mom: It was frustrating to see needs and not be able to help. I had to keep trying to see everything through Matt’s eyes and ask myself, “Is this sustainable?”

Chungu with his favorite shirt

Chungu with his favorite shirt

What was the part of your trip to Zambia that you least expected?

Dad: I was impressed with the Peace Corps volunteers themselves, meeting the wide range of folks that volunteer now. It is kind of true that in the early years of Peace Corps it was idealists and hippies who served. That the majority of volunteers now are women is a huge change since when I was a volunteer. The willingness to use public transportation is also admirable.

Mom: When Matt signed up for the Peace Corps, I knew we would visit him sometime during his service. I was a little apprehensive because I am not an outdoorsy type of person nor am I very adventurous. So I was pretty hesitant about this trip. But once we arrived, I just fell in love with Zambia and her people. Everyone is so friendly and helpful. Zambians seem genuinely interested in talking to us and hearing about America. The children were delightful. Zambia is a very special place and I wish we could have stayed longer than we did.

Some of my favorite people in Nchelenge District

Some of my favorite kids (and my favorite volunteer) in Nchelenge District

How has Matt changed in the past year and a half since he left for Zambia?

Dad: Matt is comfortable in his new country, navigating the culture with ease. The pleasantries and greetings in the lingua franca are fun to observe; it is so important in being seen as an understanding compatriot instead of as a tourist or neo-colonialist. It is a sizable personality stretch for him, as he tended to be on the introverted side before coming to Zambia.

Mom: Before Peace Corps, I didn’t think Matt was that into community development, volunteerism, or development work. He didn’t express a high need to travel or “see the world,” so I was a little surprised when he signed up for the Peace Corps. I wasn’t sure what kind of experience Matt would have without that kind of idealistic, adventure-seeking background.

But while we were in Zambia, I could tell that Matt was an accepted member of his new community and was making a difference. Everything Matt did was through a lens of “Is this helping my village?” and “Is it sustainable?” Matt has always been very thoughtful and reflective, but the extent to which he has thought out his service and his impact there amazed me. It would have been easier, I’m sure, to write grants and attempt lots of projects in order to leave some type of lasting, tangible legacy, but Matt was always aware of the bigger picture.

I was also delighted to see Matt and his interactions with the children in his village. I have not known Matt to be naturally drawn to children, but in Zambia I saw this whole other side to Matt’s personality — a kind of cheeky, playful sense of humor. There was a lot of kidding around, and there was this genuine affection between Matt and his kids, almost like a big brother to little brother/sister type of relationship. It was quite touching.

Some of my neighbor kids clowning around with my dad

Some of my neighbor kids hanging out with my dad

The plural of minibus is mayhem

I spent last week in Lusaka as a volunteer trainer for the RAP 2014 In-Service Training (IST), helping to facilitate technical sessions for the intake of aquaculture extension volunteers who arrived in Zambia exactly one year after I did. Although I enjoyed working and sharing ideas with this impressive and engaging group of volunteers who are just beginning their Peace Corps services, the most entertaining part of the entire week was getting real comfortable with Lusaka’s ubiquitous minibus system of public transportation.

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Intercity Bus Terminal in Lusaka, one of the most hectic places known to man

Zambia’s capital is a rapidly growing sub-Saharan metropolis with inconsistent infrastructure, which is a nice way of saying that there are too many people and not enough roads. Rush hour is a sight to behold, with traffic laws relegated to mere suggestions and right-of-way at roundabouts and intersections going to the vehicle that is most battered and therefore cares least about getting bumped by another car.

Enter the minibus.

Riding a minibus in Lusaka entails hopping into a faded blue 30-year-old Toyota minivan with thin bald tires and a slightly heavier-set but just as bald driver and, packed into rows of tiny benches like human sardines with 19 of your closest friends complete strangers, rattling a few kilometers along a pothole-filled road to a different section of town. All the while, a skinny kid with baggy clothes hangs off the side of the van hollering at passersby, subjecting them to a steady stream of verbal abuse as he wrangles up more fares. If an unfortunate pedestrian so much as glances up, the bus screeches to a jarring stop and the conductor yanks the poor chump inside as the vehicle leaps away again with a cringe-inducing grinding of gears.

Riding in a minibus isn’t exactly the most luxurious way to get around. So why would anyone subject themselves to this, you may ask?

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A typical-sized minibus with an atypical cargo -- 12 volunteers (and their camping gear) traveling to Kasanka National Park last November to see the bat migration

1. Because they’re everywhere. The minibus routes follow all of the main roads in Lusaka and several dozen buses race each other up and down the thoroughfares, picking up and dropping off passengers at every stop along the way. If you miss one bus, another will come careening around the corner honking at you in approximately 3.4 seconds.

2. Because they’re surprisingly efficient. Driving in Lusaka is, as alluded to above, not fun. However, it’s a bit more fun when your minibus is the only vehicle that’s moving, weaving in and out of heavy traffic and making such liberal use of adjacent side streets and uneven shoulders that during rush hour they effectively serve as Zambia’s de facto minibus lane.

3. Because they’re dirt cheap. The price varies by distance, time of day, the whim of the conductor, and how white you look, but the fare is generally understood to be two kwacha (about 30 cents) if you’re going to get off 1-4 stops away, three kwacha if you’re traveling 4-7 stops, and four or five kwacha if you’re going all the way to the end of the line. Not too shabby when you consider that most of the time, you’re getting a ride and a show.

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The Big 5 look like harmless little kittens when compared with the singular terror that is a minibus