Motorbikes, Mbale, and Microfinance March 23 2012
I'm sitting on the curb when the shopkeeper at the fabric store shuffles out, dragging a chair behind her. She smiles encouragingly and I dust myself off before accepting the chair. Perry is perusing bolts of fabric in this closet of a fabric shop. It's a sensory overload with bulging rectangles of color shoved into every available space. Incense permeates the air as it burns steadily before a statue of a Hindu god and the sound of scissors slicing cleanly through fabric punctuates every word. It's intoxicating, but I'm not a shopper and before Perry has had the chance to pick out even one style of fabric, I'm already bored. I retire to the plastic chair.
Dust hangs in the air, muting the colors of Mbale. Its sharp colors, loud noises, and pungent smells are faded, like laundry hanging on the line after too many washes. The sun hits the crowded streets, holding them haphazardly in its light. Smudged white buildings are adorned with rough log scaffolding as taxis, overburdened with trunks and rolled up mattresses, rock precariously over the deep ruts in the road. Children are on their way back to school and their pressed uniforms seem out of place as they walk past the street vendors selling stack of pineapples, leather sandals, used clothing, and avocados. Two women load an enormous bundle onto the head of a young man. He steadies the load with his hand and slides forward through the crowd with an ethereal grace.
Ugandans walk past me, occasionally slowing down to gaze curiously at the mzungu occupying the cracked plastic chair in front of the local fabric shop. I gaze back at them unperturbed, strangely appreciative of our mutual curiosity.
Mbale has an inexplicable appeal to it. It's not Buyobo, but the chaos of its streets is something you can slip into. There is a rhythm here, a beat of the drums that locals instinctively move in time with while foreigners rock awkwardly back and forth, feeling the pull of it all, but unable to move as effortlessly in time with its music.
I first notice this while riding on the back of a motorbike, stuttering through the stop and go traffic. Chickens, pedestrians, trucks, motorbikes, buses, taxis, goats, and cows all fight for the right of way on the pockmarked roads. Eric constantly reminds us to watch out for the motorbikes as they leap forward into the narrow pockets of space between the buses and taxis. Frequently spinning out against the flow of traffic, they cause a high number of traffic accidents, and getting on one is tempting fate. It's also exhilarating, liberating, and perhaps the most authentic way to experience the busy streets of Uganda's prominent cities.
Sitting on the back, bouncing awkwardly behind the driver, dust flies into my eyes and mouth as I clench my hands and attempt to reassure myself with the fact that the driver has left at least two inches between my leg and the massive truck he's currently speeding around.
As I wobble precariously, I watch women weave through the traffic balancing enormous bunches of matoke on their heads. It's just one more reminder that I lack the grace and adaptability to slip effortlessly into the streams of people pushing their lives forward amid a slough of improbable odds.
Perry steps back out into the street with an enormous bag of brightly colored fabric, bold prints that defy the drab reality of a life tangled in poverty's grasp. They're the prints the women in Uganda favor and it emboldens my heart to believe in the chance these women have to extricate themselves from that cycle and build a reality more in line with the brilliant and bold patterns they adorn themselves with, a reality underpinned by choice rather than circumstance.
Back in Buyobo, Olive, Jacqueline, and Allan are demonstrating to me that hundreds of women, like them, within their community, are changing the game. With WMI's help, they're sending their children to school, they're expanding their businesses, they're running for office, and they're feeding my cautious flicker of hope diminished by years of watching firsthand how useless and inappropriate many top-down development programs can be for communities ravaged by war and poverty.
Making our way up the path to the comfortable house alongside Buyobo's main road, a little girl sitting in the dirt smiles and waves. As the evening light recedes from the valley, I wonder what her life will be like in ten years. It's hard to promise anything in this world, but as I look over my shoulder at Olive--strong, beautiful, and determined, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if the women in this community have anything to say about it, this little girl will be offered every opportunity. I smile back, offer my thanks to the world that women like Robyn and Olive exist, and let myself into the house.
How I Was Nearly Mauled by an Ant: A True Story February 28 2012
In the grand scheme of things and of all the creatures that could have bitten me in Africa, I recognize that an ant is probably not that big of a deal. It could have been a crocodile, a lion, or a malaria-bearing mosquito...just to name a few. However, I'm not going to let a little detail like reality get in the way of my dramatizing an account of my near death experience. Despite what my Mother has to say about the matter, I don't have that many of them so I like to make the most of the ones I do have.
And these African army ants aren't your average ants. They're pretty much the size of my iPhone and also possess huge fangs. You just Googled that, didn't you? Dammit. I hate the Internet. Fine. They're slightly larger than normal ants. Maybe about the size of a dime, but not as fat. Not sure about the fangs. That could be true.
Apparently, these army ants are capable of eating entire chickens or goats. They just swarm the animals, bite them till they bleed to death, and then consume everything but the bones. Freaky, right? I didn't even believe that was possible till one bit me. Eric told us that they're fully capable of killing humans so you see how close I was to death?
It all started when, after a week of being in Buyobo, Perry and I decide to take a trip to Sipi Falls for a day hike. Eric comes with us, ostensibly to visit Sipi Falls, but really he's there to ensure that Perry and I survive the expedition. I stupidly wear flip flops because I'm from California and that's as close to real footwear as we get. Occasionally our guide turns back to us and points menacingly at the ground. Eric explains to us that this gesture means beware of ants. The first few times I hop nimbly over the line of streaming insects. The last time I'm not so lucky and despite an elegant leap over the savage beasts, one clings to my sandal and sinks his fangs or whatever into my toe.
I never imagined that something so small could cause so much pain. Within seconds one little black ant is causing a searing pain that pierces my entire foot, rushes up my leg, and sends adrenaline shooting through my limbs. My heart is beating rapidly as blood begins to trickle steadily from my toe. I hit at the ant furiously, but the thing is latched on firmly. I grab its body and pull its biter thingeys (technical term) from out of my flesh.
Eric and the guide are up ahead, looking back at me with mild concern. Fortunately, this mzungu was able to wrestle the vicious beast to the ground with very little blood loss. Frankly, the only reason I'm still alive is because I'm so hardcore. Anyone else would definitely have cried a lot more. I'm always impressed by my ability to rise to the occasion and handle these chaotic near-death experiences with so much poise and strength. Most people just fall apart. Not me. I kill the ant, pour some water over my toe, and despite injuries sustained during the attack, I soldier on for the rest of the hike.
I only complain for 3/4 of the rest of the way as I limp stoically back to the car. When I get back to Buyobo, I prepare to wash and dress my wounds, but first I want to show them off to everyone. Unfortunately, there isn't even a mark. That's probably just because I heal so quickly. I'm like some kind of mutant. It's possible that I have titanium bones. That at least would explain why I always set off the metal detectors in airports. They're always telling me it's because of my belt, but they're probably just trying to be polite by not calling attention to my mutant status. TSA, always so considerate.
At any rate, I'm currently in the process of pitching my story to all major media outlets. So far nobody is that interested in buying the rights, but I hear this kind of rejection happens frequently to those with my superior caliber of intellect and strength. That's cool. I wrestled an ant to the ground. I don't need anyone else to tell me how badass I am. I already know.
Running in a Circle? I Totally Got This February 17 2012
Have you guys seen this?
I like the last one. It basically sums up a) why I started running and b) why I avoid the hurdles. While I find Prefontaine especially inspiring, the real reason I started running has a lot more to do with my ineptitude at other sports than any real running talent. Let me explain.
Sitting on a rooftop in Bethlehem one night, looking out over Jerusalem in the distance and enjoying a bottle of the worst wine known to mankind, my friend lights a cigarette and asks why I run.
Given that I had taken to hitting the road at 5:00 a.m. in order to get a run in before the desert heat made even breathing uncomfortable, her query appears far more rational than my running habit.
Taking a sip out of a chipped plastic cup, I consider my answer.
When the call to prayer ricochets off of the hills and reverberates through my apartment at dawn, why don't I just pull the cover over my head like everyone else? What possesses me to lace up my running shoes and join the ranks of the devout, albeit for a completely different kind of prayer?
I try to explain that I love the quiet that hovers over the hills in the early morning stillness. I love the sound of my running shoes slapping down on the pavement and I love greeting the day at the top of a hill, my heart racing, and sweat beading on my skin. When these words tumble out of my mouth, none of it makes any sense. Running has become so habitual that I realize it's easier to answer why I started rather than why I can't stop.
It was in junior high. Despite my general athletic prowess, I'm not good at sports involving extraneous objects. I have this annoying habit of ducking whenever anyone throws or kicks anything at me, and while this is a completely rational response, it discourages participation in most sports available to junior high girls. After I had exhausted volleyball, basketball, softball, and soccer, my Dad suggested that I try track and field, stressing the "track" component of that phrase. I think he was concerned I would attempt the javelin.
I considered it carefully. "So, all I have to do is run in a circle?"
"Yep. That's it."
"And nobody throws anything at me?"
And that was that. I signed up for track the next day and for over 15 years, I've run with a religious fervor matching that of the devoted Christians, Muslims, and Jews populating Jerusalem's surrounding hills.
I've traveled all over the world, lived in five countries, and everywhere I go, my running shoes go with me. Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Israel, France, Switzerland, and Germany my running shoes have seen the streets of them all and then some. So when I found myself in the West Bank, I didn't question whether or not I would run. It was just a question of how and where. And this is what I told my friend that night. "It's a habit, an addiction. Just like your damn cigarette, I can't give it up, even if I wanted to."
She tilts her head and laughs. "Just like my damn cigarette?"
Looking at me out of the corner of her eye, she says "I don't know. It makes your thighs too big."
I consider this. She twirls an unlit cigarette in her fingers. "So you started running because you weren't good at anything else?'
We sit in silence for a few more minutes. I stare down at my legs.
"Really, it makes my thighs too big?"
She pours me another glass of wine and shrugs. "Don't worry, habibti. Some men like that."
Ten Things We Learned in Uganda February 08 2012
1. Perry needs a tracking device. Or a leash. The most frequently asked question on the trip was "Hey, where's Perry?"
2. When crowding into a shared taxi to catch a ride to a nearby town over miles of uneven dirt road, try not to sit next to the lady with the three chickens in her lap.
3. Ugandans are universally friendly. Everyone went out of their way to answer our questions, help us figure things out, and just generally make sure we were enjoying ourselves.
4. Winning a barefoot race in a small village with everyone shouting "Go, mizungu, go" makes all of those early morning workouts seem more worthwhile. Forty years from now when my grandchildren ask me for my best story, that will probably be it.
5. Riding on the back of a motorbike with all of your luggage through rush hour traffic in Kampala is not a good idea. It doesn't even sound like a good idea.
6. If you cry at Disney movies, sappy love scenes, and/or inspirational speeches, be sure to wear dark glasses when listening to WMI borrowers tell their stories about how a loan has helped them turn their lives around. Frankly, my inability to turn off the waterworks is getting embarrassing.
7. The Lonely Planet East Africa guide's top picks for hotels in Kampala leaves a little bit to be desired. I've slept comfortably in some pretty shady hotels, but that one was pretty bad. Some hotels seem to be under the impression that if they put a tv in the room, travelers will happily overlook other deficiencies. Trust us, we'll take clean sheets over a semi-functioning tv any day of the week.
8. Ants in Uganda bite really, really hard. I'm not even kidding, you guys. They draw blood. I still have a bite mark. Apparently these ants can devour entire chickens and goats. I didn't believe it until one bit me. Now I believe it.
9. Chickens here run wherever they want, however they want, whenever they want. Well, at least until it's time for dinner. It's not uncommon to see a chicken happily perched in a classroom or a cow wandering nonchalantly across the soccer field in the middle of a game.
10. Cancelled flights are not fun, but free upgrades to business class are. Another glass of champagne? Why, thank you, don't mind if I do.
Next Stop, Uganda Please January 13 2012
Next week, Perry and I will board a plane where we'll probably arm wrestle for the window seat before buckling in for a flight that will take us to Entebbe, Uganda.
Uganda. I keep rolling it around on my tongue, trying to imagine what it will feel like to be there.
I've read so much about it that I can close my eyes and feel the colors of it. The red Earth, the fluorescent green, the heat hovering gently over the treetops, the deep blue of the sky, the rising mountains. It's all just a picture painted in my head spun from the words of too many books. When I was younger, I'd perch myself on a rooftop, a fence, or a tree branch. With a book in hand and anything I could scavenge from the kitchen, I'd read so much that I'd convince myself I'd been to thousands of places around the world throughout varying points in human history. That's how I feel about Uganda. I'm craving to know the country beyond the superficial painting I've created in my head.
I'm eager for the noise and smell of the country and the palpable manifestation of its soul hitting you from every angle as you sit, sticky and sweaty, crammed in the back of a bus while the country rushes in at an overwhelming pace. It's a sensory overload that leaves you reeling before you clamber out of the vehicle and into a small village where the reeling stops and the country settles into you. You grasp the hands of those around you as introductions are made. Palm against palm is a far more intimate gesture than we give it credit for. Eyes are laughing, gazes dancing back and forth, and your soul will rush forward in a moment of pure joy. It's good to be alive. It's good to be in this place, with these people. It's good to hear their stories, to collect them, and secret them away for another time.
A collector of stories. That is essentially what I am. I carry the gazes of people within my heart and when it becomes too much, they spill from me and onto paper. I tell their stories. I close my eyes and nestle myself within the sound of their voice, the lilt of their accent, the low of their sorrows, and the high of their joys. I read them from cover to cover and then I translate it.
Uganda. I am aching to have its stories poured into me. I am excited to go somewhere new, to travel, to explore the meandering roads cut through a nature so wild, it roars forward and will not be subdued. But mostly I am excited to meet people. To sit, rocking back on my heels, my mouth half open in a moment of self-forgetfulness, listening to the tangle of life experiences pour from the mouths of those around me.
And Perry? Well, in the unlikely event that I am able to peel his camera out of his hand for two seconds, he just wants to tumble over the treetops of the Impenetrable Forest in a bush plane manned by a ruffian pilot with a heavy Russian accent, a penchant for Vodka, and a disdain for safety. I used to think that it was me who instigates these ridiculous situations while traveling. Now I realize that it's not me. It's these lunatics I keep traveling with and my inability to say "You know, actually, that doesn't sound like a good idea." So if anything insane happens on this trip, blame Perry. I just wanted to sit and talk to people.
Race Day Ritual. Shattered. November 23 2011
It’s France’s fault really.
Typically, I have a pretty standard race weekend ritual.
Friday night: Eat pasta. Drink insane amount of water. Sleep 8 hours. Get up at least five times throughout the night. Promise not to drink so much water next time.
Saturday morning: Eat bowl of cereal. Arrive at race start one hour ahead of time. Eat banana. Stand in line for 30 minutes to use the restroom. Make my way to start line. Run race. Reward self with something unhealthy.
I know, I know. I’m not a dog and I’m not supposed to reward myself with food. The problem is I haven’t found anything that works as well as a reward. Maybe Apple products. I would totally take an iPad over a donut, but only if someone else is buying. Otherwise we’re keeping the rewards in the under $1 range.
All-in-all, my race day ritual is pretty standard. I’ve been racing for 15 years now and I don’t think much about it anymore. I operate on race day autopilot.
Enter the Lyon half-marathon.
The problem with Lyon is that it’s the gastronomic capital of France. The problem with me is that I love food. The night before the race we settle into a cozy corner table in a typically Lyonnaise restaurant. My race day ritual goes out the window as soon as I see the menu. A bottle of red wine, a slab of meat, and two crème caramels later, I’m half-heartedly wondering if I’ll be regretting this meal 10 kilometers into the race. I can’t decide and after the first bite of my crème caramel I don’t really give a damn.
Heading back to the hotel, I fall into bed determined to get a good night’s sleep and a more appropriate breakfast. Enter very loud drunken people in the hotel courtyard and French pastries. Both undermine my very best intentions. I toss and turn before stumbling out of bed the next morning and directly to a nearby bakery.
With my full concentration dedicated to my pain au chocolat, I lose track of the time. As do my rather nonchalant racing buddies. With five minutes to the start, we drop off our bags, and--being the overly optimistic person that I am--I get in line to use the restroom before my friends decide there isn’t enough time and drag me away to the starting line.
I have to pee so badly. In France, men can just stand discreetly to the side of the road and relieve themselves. I hate them. I run five kilometers absolutely certain that my bladder is seconds away from bursting before we turn a corner and I nearly run smack into a lone porta potty. I praise the heavens and enjoy the race a lot more after that.
I also start talking a lot more after that. My running companion is giving me that weak smile people give when they’re trying to be polite, but really they want you to shut-up. I stop talking and start composing the most amazing story ever in my head. Then I forget it all. Then I grab a bottle of water at the aid station. Then it’s kilometer 19 and I want to stop running, but I can’t because there are still 3 kilometers to go so I start imagining what I’m going to eat after my race.
When I finally reach the finish line, I’ve got my meals planned for the next 24 hours. I’m naturally skeptical of technology so I jump up and down on the finish line to make sure it reads my chip. I grab a Powerade. I don’t like Powerade, but it’s free so I grab it. I love free stuff. I’m allergic to dates (The fruit. I don’t have a problem with the other kind), but I’d probably grab them too if they were free.
After everyone crosses the finish line and we cheer in the first of the marathoners, we duck into a nearby pizzeria. I eat an entire pizza, a salad, and a crêpe. Then I convince everyone that what we really need is gelato. And maybe another crêpe.
When I get back to my apartment in Grenoble, I call my mom.
“How was the race? Did you run a good time?” she asks.
I forgot to check the results.
But I don’t even care because I’m still remembering my pre-race dinner and I decide I’m going to run all of my races in France from now on. Maybe I will only run in Lyon and I will subsist entirely on crème caramels.
Morocco Marathon: The fine line between adventure and insanity November 11 2011
I catch my first glimpse of North Africa’s highest peak as I stumble to the top of a nearby ridge, lose my balance and pitch headfirst down the trail. Plumes of dust rise into the air. My boyfriend helps me to my feet. “Didn’t you used to be a competitive mountain runner?”
“Yes. That’s a special technique mountain runners use to get down the mountain faster. It’s called falling.”
“Seems…efficient,” he replies.
I glare at him. I am supposed to be sitting on the terrace of a hotel leisurely sipping Arabic coffee and reading romance novels during a two-week trip to Morocco. Instead I am brushing dust off my backside and trying to coax my muscles through one of the world’s most difficult mountain marathons. What happened? That’s a reasonable question. I’ll tell you.
Insanity. Apparently it’s hereditary and it’s the only plausible explanation as to why someone would spontaneously agree to sign up for--to pay for— a 42 kilometer race with 3,313-meter total elevation gain up Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. What else would inspire two people to hand over all of their remaining cash to pay the race fees and then spend the night in a tent directly across from the local mosque?
At 4:45 a.m. the call to prayer shatters the silence, sending me into cardiac arrest and flooding my consciousness with yesterday’s events.
Imlil. Morocco. Toubkal. Highest peak in North Africa. Mountain marathon. Spontaneous registration. $#!@.
“You are an idiot,” my consciousness reminds me.
Normally I try to counter any negative thoughts, but this time all I can think is, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
I pull on a pair of borrowed tights and my battered running shoes and stagger to the starting line. Villagers line the street to see us off, cheering and waving Moroccan flags.
As the sun casts a pale glow behind the jagged peaks, groups of runners slowly stretch out along the single-track trail snaking its way up the ridge. Before long we find ourselves running alone, occasionally holding up a string of heavily-laden donkeys who seem grateful to be stuck behind two creatures moving at such a leisurely pace.
Three hours and too many kilometers later, we reach the second food and water station at the beginning of the six-kilometer climb up Toubkal. Dehydrated and crumpling with exhaustion, I begin devouring everything in sight. Occasionally I step out of the way of other runners who stop briefly to grab a cookie and an orange slice before continuing on their way. Apparently you aren’t supposed to treat the food stations like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Whatever. They had cookies. I can’t be expected to restrain myself.
As I sink down onto some nearby steps, my boyfriend sits down next to me. The wind sweeps through the valley in a torrent, making it difficult to hear anything other than the blood pounding in my ears. He suggests we turn back.
My muscles are twitching from over-exertion and my hands are swollen from the altitude, but I am still reluctant to forfeit the race. I had hoped that somehow the gods of spontaneous adventure would bestow their favor, enabling us to scrape enough energy together to muddle through an impossible feat. But common sense prevails, and with one last glimpse up to the summit, we turn back.
Twelve kilometers and one summit short of finishing the marathon, we are denied the t-shirts awarded to finishers. Despite the fact that they’re too big and I don’t even like the color red, I sneak envious glances at the stack of neatly folded cotton shirts. Tucking into a bowl of couscous, I promise myself that the next time I run a marathon, I’ll train for it.
Empowered by Light - 250 Laterns donated August 09 2011
We're proud to support Empowered by Light in their mission to bring solar lanterns to rural western Zambia. Their goal of promoting renewable energy and allowing children to study at night really struck a chord with us. The lantern they chose get's fully charged with a half a day in the sun and generates enough energy to light up a small room through the evening and charge a cell phone. It was amazing to see just how many cell phones were around. With the average person being a subsistence farmer living on less than a dollar a day you would think that cellphones would be a luxury item only available to a privileged few. Not the case, nearly everyone had one! And they're really a revolutionary tool used connect villagers, promote employment, communicate crop prices, access mobile banking and get the daily news.
It was great to see children studying at night and experience the gratitude from underserved clinics as they excepted our donations.
The trip also brought about the realization of the need for Zambian entrepreneurs to create a rural solar market. If they can get coke, candy and tea biscuits into every far-off dusty corner of the country they should also be able to make available these life-altering solar products. For a family living with no electricity, they can expect dangerous and polluting kerosene lamps and frequent miles-long trip to town centers to charge phones. This $20 kit is such game changer. And the ROI is something like 3-6 months considering the average expenditure on kerosene and cell phone charging.
We feel great about helping to seed schools and clinics with solar laterns and are hopeful that it will bring about more wide-spread and self-sustaining solar adoption as the community sees the benefits and impact.