Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Summit Story

Hey Internet,*

I'm excited to introduce Zero Degrees South's first-ever guest-blogger: my father, John Hoftiezer. I've referenced him before - he's an old-school story-teller whose most frequent writing advice to me has always been "Don't let the facts interfere with a good story." It's similar in tone to the advice he gave on me when dropping me off at university "Don't let your studies interfere with your college education." From those two wisdom-nuggets alone, I think you can tell that you're in for a good ride here. Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I have: we're posting this in celebration of the start of our journey to Arusha to attempt Kili's summit, 1-year-ago today!
*(Okay... Mom. Hey Mom,)

Dad taking in a view of Kibo Crater from the base of
Mawenzi Peak: acclimatizing and enjoying the sunset!
By now everybody has heard so much about a “bucket list” that it has become a little trite. In fact, some people have other lists, such as somebody who has her “thirty before thirty” list. In my case, the fates conspired to make something which people tend to put on these lists actually occur. The following account will perhaps entertain or possibly inspire. At the very least, I hope it occupies some time contentedly.

So, you may ask, what was it? My daughter Sarah has on her list to climb a mountain, a real mountain. Tanzania has a mountain. What a fortuitous coincidence. The mountain that was climbed is Mount Kilimanjaro. It is a real mountain, a mountain that many people climb and many more have heard about. We did it together. Jambo jambo, Kilimanjaro.

A bit of personnel logistics may help in the understanding. Sarah has run away from home to save the world in Iringa, Tanzania. There is extra energy and desire for attainment in the younger crowd. Now, you cannot necessarily count on best-friend-forever girlfriends, boyfriends, or even husbands. But, as every girl knows (I am told), you can always count on your Dad. Thus, when a girlfriend backed out (she never would have made it), and a husband said he didn't really want to do it twice (we should have suspected something), Dad said yes.

To prepare for this arduous adventure, several parallel efforts were begun, paused, restarted and pursued in many combinations. First off, there was the talk. Talk consisted of questions and answers. Are we really going to do it? How much will this cost? When is a good time to climb? We asked pretty much all of the five W’s and an H questions.

The real commitment came when the airplane tickets were purchased. A flurry of on-again off-again selections occurred. This included a preparation revelation, a plan to spend longer in Africa. It was discovering that Iringa is at high altitude, about 5000 ft. Just being there would help with altitude sickness, the leading cause of failure in climbing. Once the “book now” click was made there was no going back.

While that was going on, the issues of getting in shape were happening. Two activities accomplished this, exercise and dieting. Dieting did a lot of good. Whole books have been written about that topic. Suffice it to say that I figure not carrying an extra twenty pounds up the hill would do just as much good as physical conditioning. Since the folk wisdom says Mt Kilimanjaro is a walk-up, walking seemed a good preparation activity. Beside which, it is enjoyable in its own right. Since a mountain trail goes up, many stairs were climbed. There just aren’t that many trails nearby, or anywhere in Ohio for that matter, that go up hill. The African expression “pole, pole”, meaning “slowly slowly”, covered all of this activity.

Outfitting the expedition was pretty simple. We hired it out. However nobody seemed too keen on sleeping in a used bag or wearing some stranger’s coat. Those were acquired. Shoes are highly recommended. These I splurged on, thinking that good boots might make quite a difference in happiness.

I flew to Das Es Salaam to be met by Sarah holding a hand written sign, like all the cab drivers do. Hers simply said DAD. Treats and treasures escaped through customs to be opened when we got home to Iringa later. Three days passed for me to acclimate, and see just exactly what Sarah was up to. It was (is) chaos. Then too quickly we were on our way again by a puddle jumper plane to Arusha. From there it was another taxi ride to the HoneyBadger Lodge in Moshi. We got there.

The first item of business was to meet our guides. Our gear was reviewed and supplementary items were identified. Everything seemed about as prepared as it could be. We strolled out to the front of the lodge to have a look in the fading light at the peak. For the first time a feeling of foreboding stole into our minds. “What have I gotten into now” is something I have felt before, and now had again. The peak didn’t tower over us, it just sort of lay over the plain looking remote. None-the-less, I slept well. We were up and about early for our approach to the mountain.

Why does it take a half day to get started? Perhaps this is the time to introduce another African phrase. TIA sands for “This is Africa”. The phrase is used in many situations. Most of them have to do with things not going smoothly. It certainly applies when things move at a leisurely pace.

We made it to the park headquarters in a microbus. Our gear was all on top. Inside were the guides, Eric and David (not their real names). Also inside with the two of us were a cook, a cook's helper, four porters and of course a driver. Because they were going to get paid the mood of the locals was high. The trekkers were hiding the fears of the previous evening well. There was a fear of rain that didn’t materialize. Lots of intrepid folks hung around, waiting in line to get permits and pay the climbing fee. We felt a bit happy that they wanted to know we would be on the mountain and happily paid the rescue fee. Otherwise, there seemed to be only a small appreciation of the effort we were about to undertake.

Our chosen path originated on the north side of the mountain. Being who we are, it was chosen because it is the least popular and because we would not retrace our steps on the future decent. The consequence was that there was another drive around the mountain to get to the trail head. I think it was worth it. We saw more of the countryside which got increasingly rural. I believe the TIA term is “off the tarmac”. As noon came and went, we got slightly impatient, not to mention hungry. As always, it worked out fine. We found the trail head, had a box lunch, and began with our first steps up.

Walking was easy at first. There were tilled fields among the forest, which in fact looked a lot like Ohio in certain ways. Pine trees were planted to reclaim land from human activity. David told us that there was a plan to reestablish the rain forest ecosystem after the pine forest had had a chance to work. The conservation effort in the Kilimanjaro region is understood by local citizenry. They also understand their more immediate needs. We bought peanut snacks at the last human outpost where the rain forest began. A nicely maintained gravel path led into the thick trees. Trees meant that there were few views along this section of the trail. Flowers were seen to keep our attention. Suddenly the clearing of camp site number one appeared. Ours was one of only three or four groups at the site. Porters were scurrying about setting up tents, greeting each other and fixing dinner.

We were entertained in the dining tent to a four course meal. The brochures didn’t mention this. Appetizer was high carbohydrate popped corn. Soup followed. We suspect a powdered mix was used. Extra fluids were always encouraged. The entrée was pasta and meat sauce. Desert consisted of cookies and fruit. Bananas are grown locally along with mangos and papaya. All in all, it was a veritable feast. Appetite is also a great flavor enhancer.

Near the equator the suns sets fast. That combined with increased altitude and exercise sent us into our sleeping bags early. And there was morning and evening, the first day.

No trumpet sounded the dawn. I was awake and aware of the fact that training might have included practice in sleeping on the ground. Plus it was cold. We had scrambled eggs at breakfast. For heaven sake, who carried those up? The bread was not crushed either. The novice trekkers began to learn what could be accomplished. We started to feel a little British, trekking on such a grand scale. To fit the mood, an Englishman popped out of the next tent over. We met Roger, on his second climb, eager to be friendly.

Our plan for success included an extra climbing day. The literature claims that the biggest cause of failure to summit Kilimanjaro is altitude sickness. Time gives your body a chance to make additional red blood cells. We chose a six day tour. The range is 4 to 7 days, with 5 being the most common. Of course, in addition to a desire for success, we wanted a vacation. Time together was part of the agenda. Because of the differing schedules, routes vary. We turned left, to the east, toward a secondary peak named Mawenzi, while the other groups headed in their own directions. By eight o’clock we were back on the trail.

I ought to mention another technique to climb this hill by amateur mountaineers. That is to hike slowly. The phrase employed for this is Swahili, and was mentioned before, “Pole pole”. What I didn’t mention is just how slowly the pace can seem. It is worse than a funeral march! Or maybe it should be compared to the extremely tiring art museum pace that drives people into the gift shop. The guides are trained to set this pace for you. The porters, who broke camp after our departure, blew on by smiling and hardly sweating. We assured ourselves it would be beneficial in the end. And it was. A group consisting of two couples passed us, only to be passed later. One of them was heard to say, “I love vomiting; it is this mountain that I hate”. We wonder if they made it to the top.

For us the going was good. We were not breathing hard. The peak seemed closer. The sun made us forget our fear of rainy conditions. The long rainy growing season was due in just a couple weeks.

The path gave way quickly to moorland plants. I have read about the English moors, without getting an appreciation of them. At best I would characterize them as dull after only a brief familiarity. There were now rocky prominences affording views of the Kenyan plain. We saw only one small furry rodent on the entire trip, but knew that there were plenty of exotic big game animals far below. Maybe the animals are smarter than humans when it comes to ascending mountains. Pole pole.

Our lunch stop was popular trail crossroad. It seemed that there were extra amenities for the porters and guides, such as washing facilities. There seemed no real hurry to move on. We eat, acclimatized and relaxed. Then we hiked on.

To my surprise, the afternoon included a bit of spelunking. A nice cave going at least 200 meters into the mountainside was presented as an optional side trip. Sarah remained near the entrance cavern, while I pushed in to the end. I am happy to report that my boots got muddy. Stalactites were present, but not large. Does this indicate a young mountain geologically speaking?

Camp two was pretty similar to camp one. It did seem colder. I sort of doubt that could be attributed to increased altitude. There was a moment we both experienced of shivering heavily. That is a symptom of altitude sickness. It is also a symptom of what I would call exposure. Being out in the sun all day might have caused some discomfort no matter where we were. Happily it passed in just a few minutes. We enjoyed a long visit that evening.

Our third day was planned as a shorter hike and rest day. We were aiming for Mawenzi peak, to camp at it’s base. The trail was still not steep. It changed over the course of the day, becoming more and more rocky. We would ascend a ridge, looking at the peak behind it, only to discover it was a false view. There was another ridge, with the peak behind it for us to climb. The camp site was named Tarn Hut. A scales to weigh the porters packs was available to us to check our day packs. We weighed in at 10 kilograms each. This camp site was on the smooth washout area of a local minimum. The beautiful pond did not really impress us.

We ascended the nearest west ridge in order to watch the sunset over Kilimanjaro. Sunsets are a common photographic theme. Looking over the valley between the two peaks a little angst set in. We could see the trail up to Gilman’s point. A stretch of the imagination, we could almost see ant-sized people on that trail. It all looked foreboding in the fading light. But, have confidence team. Tomorrow we head for the base camp at the mountain. Well rested, with our attitude and altitude adjustments, we slept again.

Day four was a desert hike. We had climb slowly but steadily high enough to reach a new environment. The path was gravelly and very dry. Why were we still carrying rain gear? Sarah and I, along with our entourage, arrived at the Kibo Huts camp tired. The day had seemed long. We were ready to be there though. There had been enough hiking. There had been enough camping. It was time to climb. So we moped around resting and waiting for midnight.

Yes, the summit attempt starts at midnight. I still have not figured out exactly why this is the way it is done. Logistically it fits with the time to hike down. I doubt that is the overriding reason. I think we slept well enough to be somewhat refreshed. It was chilly, maybe even cold that night. Multiple layers of clothing, our warmest hats and mittens were anticipated. Turning on our headlamps, we set off. Because of the dark, altitude, cold and steep grade, there isn’t much to report of the climax of assent. We plunged along silently, following like pack animals as the switchbacks became more and more frequent. The stars shone brightly. The familiar Big Dipper pointed to a North Star that could not be seen because of the latitude. I wish I could say that my thoughts were positive. Mostly they were along the lines of not being the one to quit. It got colder. We met several people coming down. That kept me going in a perverse sort of way. It seemed to take forever. Time didn’t seem to pass. There was no moon to watch traverse the sky (Or was there?). At the moment of despair, Eric handed us a cup of hot Ginger tea. Amazingly we revived to discover the crater rim and Gilman's Peak was actually quite close. It started to get light. We hurried a little to be at the crater rim for sunrise. The excitement of success perked up our spirits. And there was dawn atop Kilimanjaro.

Now believe it or not, there was a decision to make. Should we go on the actual summit point, Uhuru Peak? The night before Sarah was heard to ask why anybody would turn back after getting that far. At our decision moment it became clear that this could well be considered. What difference would it make if the certificate we would be awarded was gold or silver. It was cold right then and the air was too thin for catching your breath. However, when David posed the question about moving on, I replied we were indeed ready. Sarah did not speak up. She just thought I could have consulted her and come to a different conclusion! I think it was a touch of altitude sickness talking. Gilman’s point did not have very comfortable perches. Rather than rest more, we went on.

The trail here was somewhat scary. For one thing, it was light enough to see. You could see the crater on the right hand side, sloping steeply down, covered with snow. A tumble down might not hurt too much, but the climb out would be awful. To the left, the rim rocks where jagged and close at hand. Single file was the only way to go. Because we followed the ridge, even though we were still going up, it was a gentle rise. Stella’s point broadened out and afforded a nice rest spot. The sun finally began to warm us up slightly. Uhuru Peak could be seen getting closer. Having our final target approach was great.

Actually there isn’t much to do up there. Uhuru peak is broad. The view didn’t give me a feeling of looking down from a peak over all of God’s creation. It was hazy in the distance. No quaint fields or villages show any human presence. Pictures at the sign post meant jostling for position and taking turns with other people. Yes, the top was crowded. After a short hour we began to descend.

I should not diminish the feeling of accomplishment. This contented feeling grew steadily as the realization of success sank into the oxygen deprived brain. Going down is so much easier and that helped too. The worry factor is gone. We did make it. It is all downhill from here as the saying goes. The feeling of accomplishment was huge.

Next, going over the edge at Gilman’s Point, we discovered how steep the climb in the dark had been. You have to climb down too. That means picking your way from rock to rock, and watching your steps. As the slope leveled out, the gravel slide allowed us to skip some switch-backs and charge straight down. Most people did that the whole way, but we felt unsettled by the poor footing. We took some shortcuts and also zig-zagged as needed. Euphoria or not, this turned into work. The slope leveled again. A family history of bad knees worried me slightly before the trip. It is well known, when brought to mind that knees work harder going down. We decided to be easy on them.

A short rest, two hours, was granted for brunch back at our Kibo Huts camp. This was welcome, having awakened at midnight but not eaten yet. The flavor was not enhanced by exercise this time. Nor could I nap. The prospect of walking farther that day to start off the mountain was not at all appealing. Those slave driving guides goaded us onward.

Our route was the Marengo path. This is known as the Coca-Cola route because of its popularity. It looked like a boot packed super highway, six lanes wide. We walked side by side and talked in a satisfied way about the peak. This would have been a very long path indeed without having a successful summit. It was long enough as it was. We talked about others we knew who had made the climb, assuring us we would be fine. We suspected they had been holding back.

We met a family on their way up. It turned out to be the father's sixty fifth birthday present from his two sons. He was so excited! He asked "did you make it, was it hard, how old are you?" Like so many experts since yesterday, we gave out full advice. Yes, we made it. Yes, it was worth it. Yes, it was really hard. It is perhaps the greatest thing I have ever done that I never want to do again.

The walk went on and on. We hiked farther that day than on any day on the way up. No more pole pole now. The pace was definitely faster. We were tired. Camp was just a repeat. It is funny what post summit feelings can be.

Our last day was more of the same. Again it seemed to take forever. Twenty kilometers (check this number) is a long way. How far was this total trip? When we crossed under the arch at the end we were about equally pleased to simply reach the end as we were to have conquered the mountain and finished the tour.

The mini bus ride to the lodge was hot and uneventful. We were awarded our certificates, and toasted the event, but mostly wanted a shower and a cold soft drink. It took a few hours before the feeling of satisfaction set in again, which it surely did. Jambo jambo Kilimanjaro.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Hello world.

It's been awhile.  I know.  I've recently been inspired by my college girlfriends' blogs to take another stab at mine.  I don't have all that much to share, so I figured I'd go the route of "stuff we do in rural East Africa."

We get asked (and ask) this all the time.  I'm increasingly involved in hiring for my organization and we always ask some version of "what do you like to do in your free time?"  It's a soft-ball question for sure, but it is actually pretty important.  Our staff live in rural environments without the options of museums, movie theaters, shopping, restaurants, yoga classes, Netflix, etc. that plenty of folks have come to expect for after-work fun.  Being able to self-entertain is pretty crucial.

Luckily, I come from a long line of hobbyists.  After my grandfather passed away, my grandma counted up his hobbies and determined he had been pursuing 14 distinct hobbies.  I probably have 4.  But anyway.  One is that I love to read.  My grandfather did too.  He started keeping a list of all the books he'd read after he retired and we figured it out:  he was averaging a book a day from the day of his retirement until the day he died.  And he still maintained 13 other hobbies.  Sheesh.

Anyway - I read more like 2 books a month.  I know this for sure because, in his memory, I also keep a list.  It's like 15 years old now, so it represents a decent data set.

Currently working on The Underground Girls of Kabul - thanks to a
recommendation from my college roommate/fellow bibliophile, Hannah.
I wouldn't normally think of reading as a social hobby, but I've been pleasantly proven incorrect over the last few months:

I've always wanted to be in a book club.  I joined one once before but, as even Wikipedia will tell you, most book clubs are a disappointment.  They're usually more about wine and gossip than the literature and it's tough to get members to actually read.  I was skeptical at first, but last August, I was visiting our Rwanda operations.  While on a three-hour car journey to our program site, I was squished in the backseat with two colleagues and all of our luggage.  We got to chatting and somehow discovered a mutual love: nautical fiction.  NPR had just published a post about the best nautical reads to get you through the summer doldrums, and it included a brief introduction to Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier:

"I guarantee you at least one delightful moment where you will crush the book to your chest, sigh deeply, and cast a slightly disappointed eye toward any seatmate, companion, or spouse who is not a French pirate."

Internet, I ask you: how could you not start a book club on the spot?

Anyway, we're approaching the meeting of our 7th book, so I figured I'd share our books to date:

1. Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier
2. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
4. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent*
5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
6. Small Island by Andrea Levy
7. Lila by Marilynne Robinson

*The club's current favorite.  Check it out!

I'll have to regale you with the tales of fire-breathing, beer-brewing, and ice-cream making (a process that actually starts at the cow), but those are the weekend pursuits of my ever-so-much-cooler colleagues.  For now, you're stuck with just another reader... and it's back to the book for me!


Friday, May 16, 2014

I am the Airport?! and other Recent Adventures

April 19, 2014

Traveling Travails
I arrived in Rwanda yesterday evening.  This is my first visit to our francophone operations and I've been nervous because, well, je ne parle pas français.  So, I started studying well in advance of my trip.  A wonderfully helpful coordinator in Rwanda replied instantly to my email promising a taxi driver named Jean-Paul who would greet me and drive me to our site.  I got through customs with a weak "merci", picked up my bag, and left the airport.  No Jean-Paul to be found.  After struggling through an ATM (Wait, what's the exchange?  Should I pull 20,000 or 200,000?  Oh, crap.) and the purchase of a phone line - I called the number I'd been given.

Turns out, Jean-Paul speaks neither English....nor Swahili...nor Panic.  So, I decided to try out my newly acquired French "skills": Jean-Paul!  Bonjour!  Je m'appelle Sarah.  Indistinguishable words came flying back from the other end.  Jean-Paul?  Uhhh...uhmmm... Je suis l'aéroport?!  Jean-Paul hung up.  "I am the airport?!"  Clearly, Jean-Paul also doesn't speak crazy-lady.

A Pudginess About the Tum
My last post says something about a half-marathon.  That wasn't actually me.  I mean, it couldn't have been.  Because whenever I even consider exerting any kind of physical effort, something much more powerful compels me to turn on Mad Men.

That said, I still decided to climb another mountain.  This one turned out to be much, much taller than the last.  My Dad came for a visit and we went after the snows of Kilimanjaro.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for two reasons: 1) it's remarkable, beautiful, beyond compare - and it's unlikely an opportunity like that comes up twice.  But, also, 2) it's really, really hard.  So once is probably enough.

Here's me and mon pére at the top:

After 4 days of moderate but do-able slightly-uphill walking, all of a sudden, there's Juma pulling you out of your sleeping bag at 11:30pm so you can spend the next seven hours trudging directly up the last 1,200 meters of elevation through slippery volcanic ash in the bitter cold, dark, and windy night.  Your reward is stunning, but man, that was rough!  Still, if you get the chance...

Sweet tat, man.  That ink is boss.
I'm kind of far from "cool" in the traditional sense.  As a painfully telling example, this week, I earnestly described a day as "pretty great, actually" because I "broke through a serious excel barrier."  It took like three hours so I was feeling quite accomplished.

My husband is basically the opposite.  He's the kind of enviable guy that was probably described by the parents of his high school compatriots as a "bad influence."  I've reached the point in my life now when all of this is supposed to shake out.  The cool, wild child of yesteryear is meant to be selling used cars while I revel in all my good karma coming to fruition - and, to wit, here I am in a beautiful guest house in Rwanda, overlooking Lake Kivu and Eastern Congo.  Pre-ty-cool.

But life ain't fair and not only has the "bad kid" not wound up flipping burgers (thankfully, since I married him and all...), but he's off in another part of the world generally living la bonne vie.  He's getting a new tattoo in Prague while I'm here.  I'm - not shockingly - nowhere near brave enough to do this kind of thing myself.  Instead, I'm planning on falling asleep at 10:15 on a Saturday with my French flashcards.  A decade ago, while I fell asleep to another set of flashcards*, my college roommate went off to get a small, geometric turtle tattooed on her ankle.  We'd spent weeks pouring over options and had finally settled on this... so, naturally, she returned the next day with a green Celtic cross on the back of her neck.  I admire, but do not share, that kind of spontaneity so as I run through my conjugations, I'll be wondering what might replace David's best-laid plan...

*Россия, я любила вас...

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Hello internet,

Check out me and David!

This time we weren't even way at the back.
Yeah.  We ran a half marathon.  In Bosnia.  And it was awesome.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Happy Peasant's Day!

When conducting our local hires, during every interview, we ask candidates what they know about agriculture and where they learned it.  We've come to expect a variety of answers but none are more common than this:

"I'm a peasant."

The first time I heard this, I nearly laughed out loud: "Well, gee, please thank your feudal lord for letting you come see me today."  I managed to keep it together and good that I did.  As it turns out, the translation of "wakulima" is "peasants" as well as the more traditional back of the flash card: farmers.

Anyway.  Yesterday was Peasant's Day, one of the 16 public holidays in Tanzania.  I tried to learn a bit more about the history of this holiday, but struggled to find anything official.  I read somewhere that it was originally meant to be the opportunity for city folks to get home and harvest their farms, but I suspect it's more just an acknowledgement of an enormous segment of the population.  You know, the peasants.

We drove about 4 hours south of Iringa to the third largest city in the country - Mbeya - where the Peasant's Day celebrations were being held for our region.  I've been to an agricultural festival in East Africa once before so I thought I knew what to expect: demonstration plots, fried foods, photo booths, and tons of people... sounds a bit like the state fairs back home, no?  In many ways, this held true for Mbeya's fair, but they must have known that a photo booth with a stuffed tiger and an Obama backdrop wouldn't be enough to bring the people out in droves.  (Ok, the photo booths here are a little different from the ones you might see on the Midway back home.)  So, Mbeya really upped the ante this time around.

In addition to the demo plots:
More fertilizer = more cabbage!

And the fried foods:
Not quite the funnel cake you might have been expecting...

We got real animals!
When not texting, her job was to use that stick to make sure
the Colobus monkey on display was entertaining the crowd.

While I originally intended to make a joke about this little celebration of animal cruelty, I gotta give 'em this: those cages aren't great but I've seen much worse and there were guards posted to move the crowd through and prevent any tormenting from the crowd.  Plus, despite living in much closer proximity to the natural habitats of these animals, most Tanzanian children don't ever have the opportunity to learn about or visit them, which is a real shame.

Anyhoo - the highlight for me was our booth in the Iringa building where we demonstrated our products, showed a comparison between typical maize cobs and ours and where, at the next stall, I bought some delicious looking honey.

Still, I'm wondering if changing our slogan from Farmers First to Peasants First would turn off any donors...

Thursday, July 25, 2013


The mountain is on fire. Like, a big chunk of it.

I’ve seen a fire truck in town exactly 1 times, and it was more like a fire-minivan, so I’m not convinced it would have much effect, even if I could find it now in our hour of need.

I’m also not convinced that this is an accidental fire although “controlled” would probably be a much more favorable description than it deserves.

Meanwhile, since that fire is probably 6-8k away (that’s 4-5 miles for my metrically challenged friends), I feel comfortable letting my thoughts continue to be preoccupied by Paris. In a mere 44 days, I’ll be on a flight to Paris. 

Obviously, I’m pretty excited, but just now my musings are more on the mileage I just mentioned than on the Louvre. That 6 to 8 dreaded k: I'm anticipating my Parisian runs. Nope, that’s not an allusion to diarrhea. In fact, those kinds of runs I typically get to leave behind whenever I leave Africa (yes, there’s an ugly side to living in the developing world beyond general injustices like hunger and poverty). I’m talking about actual runs. Like, with my legs.

Let me start from the beginning: you see, my company is staffed mainly by the insane. We’ve got the guy whose weekend run is a marathon. We’ve got another who wants to see how many birthdays he can match mileage to age (at this point, he’s far exceeded his age and I won’t get into the actual numbers… it’s just upsetting). The entire Rwanda team runs with him. Last year, according to my sources, all of them ran further than they’d ever run before and at least a half marathon. Another guy is a world champion ultimate player. Still another finished the New York marathon first in his age group for Americans (okay, the Kenyans still smoked him, but still).

So that’s who I lived with the last two years. We also maintained a pretty serious “Taco Tuesday” tradition. Tuesdays, therefore, should have been the happiest night of the week, except that it coincided with “sports night” with these maniacs. So, my colleague Gazi and I revolted. We formed Team Sensible, the non-running club of our organization. In defiance of sports night, we followed up the Tuesday staff meeting with a “coke walk,” meandering down the block about 5 minutes to the stand that sold 500 milliliter bottles of Coca-Cola. It was beautiful.

And then I moved to Tanzania. And something weird happened. I started running.

It hurts pretty bad most of the time and I pretty much hate it. That’s probably why it’s on my mind right now. On the 15th of September of this year (that’s roughly 7 weeks from today), I’ll be trying to complete a half marathon in Sarajevo. We’re leading up to this trip with a few days in Paris, which means my final training runs may well be along the Seine. That’ll be nice, too, because instead of ralphing the physical incarnation of my nerves onto the lawns of the Greek Orthodox Church (oops), a foreign diplomat (sorry, Norway), or my neighbors (I’m not sorry, you jerks), it’ll all be washed away by a scenic, historic river. So, that’ll be nice.

Did you think I’d be able to cover forest fire, half-marathoning, diarrhea, and vomit all in one post?  You’re welcome, internet.

Finishing my first 5k.  I'm in the pink shirt.
See how few people are left?  That's cause I was way at the back.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Child Labor

I’d like to recommend a dissertation topic to any takers. 

While I was in America a few weeks back, I got into a conversation with my pops. He’s an old-school story-teller, the type to spin wild yarns that may or may not have really happened. As he likes to say whenever I challenge the veracity of one of his tales, “Never let the facts interfere with a good story.”

Anyway. Most of dear old Dad’s stories are numbered. Not literally, but we know them all so well, they might as well be. We know about how he copied the master key to his undergraduate college. (He was the head of the dish crew and found the key on a returned plate; he carefully sanded down a blank key until he could literally unlock the campus. Not bad, until the story closes with him choosing after hours time in the Physics lab… am I making him sound like a terrorist? He’s not. Just a tinkerer.) We also know the story of my great aunt trying to scatter the ashes of her father – that one is a real gem. It involves old ladies on adult-sized tricycles, a windy final dispatch, and rubber waders. And we know about the time my great-grandfather accidentally shot himself in the foot. The stories get better and better with each re-telling.

This one, however, was new. We were chatting about my Great Aunt Dorothy. When Aunt Dorothy was just a girl in the early 1900s, she, like any girl her age, was interested in ways to earn some extra pennies to spend at the local candy shoppe.* So, she got a job.

Now, this is where I get back to the title of my post. (Did I have anyone nervous about how my organization is planning to reach sustainability? Settle down, now.) When I was a kid, there were only a few things you could do to earn extra pocket money. I babysat and housesat for the neighbors. My brother mowed lawns in the summer and shoveled snow in the winter. And that’s all I can really think of. (Because I swear no one ever made any money at a lemonade stand and I was never up early enough to even consider a paper route.)

In Mississippi, some neighborhood kids knocked on my door once and asked if they could collect the pecans that had fallen from the tree in my front yard. (PECANS?  I HAVE PECANS?)** They wanted to take them over to a local shop that would pay a certain price per pound.

But Great Aunt Dorothy was too young to be sitting for children. She could, however, get a job assisting the local doctor. All she had to do was sit on the end of a dock and dangle her legs into the lake. This might have been tricky for a kid, seeing as she really wasn’t meant to kick her legs or splash the water. Why? (I can feel your question burning through the computer screen.)

Get this: she was fishing for leeches…with her legs! These were still the magical days of yore when doctors needed leeches to “treat” their patients. So Great Aunt Dorothy would dip her legs into the water and then pull the little blood-suckers off to sell them to the local doc.

Now, this is an Africa blog, so I don’t want to neglect some local flavor. I’ll admit to pretty scattered and anecdotal research, but so far, I can’t find anyone who remembers earning money as a child. The best I can get is from a colleague who, knowing he wanted something, would spend the morning helping his mom: washing her clothes, cleaning the windows, tidying the house, only to ask her for some money later that day. (Sound familiar?  I guess some things are universal.) But this actually makes sense. Village life in rural Africa would preclude children from earning money for watching other kids and chores like fetching water, cooking dinner, monitoring cattle, and the like are expected rather than rewarded (or, if they are rewarded, it’s in the less fun-blog-joking way of getting to go to school rather than candies from the local shoppe).

But now I’m interested. I’d love to read a paper or a book or something called “Pocket Money: Innocuous Child Labor Throughout History.” But, I have a full-time job, so if one of you out there in the blogosphere has some extra time or needs a dissertation topic, you don’t even have to credit me for the idea. Just send me what you find out!

* Just trying to stick with the old-timey feel.
** This was an exciting day for me.  I had no idea.