29 June 2013

4 women and a compound: Episode 4: "Kalas already!"

It was one of “those days.”  

p90x is a routine of sorts in Mundri, believe it or not.  It’s a good workout and with community built right in here, you usually always have some sort of accountability waiting for you to get out of bed.  Wonder if Tony Horton ever imagined working out with a bunch of missionaries in South Sudan...?  anyways, I digress.

So Bethany and Melissa and I are kicking some Yoga butt in the pyot (a little gazebo like building for greeting people and meetings and such - that also doubles from 6:30am - 7:30am or so as Fitness Mundri).  And about 2/3 of the way into the work out, Bethany glances outside and see’s our friend Sirius running around outside.  not even 8am and we’ve already got a problem...and not even 12 hours after the 4 of us spent previously chronicled hour trying to contain the silly dog and he’s out again.  Clearly we have some work to do on our dog containment skills.  So, Bethany and Melissa get working on trying to find the dog’s escape source and fortify it - loading wheelbarrows with cinder blocks and large pieces of plywood...while I try to reign in the cute and not-so-little-any-longer son of a gun.  

cute and still little Sirius
He’s gone over near Bishop’s where he knows they through their food scraps into the bush and wash their dishes in basins on the ground that are great for sitting in, etc.  I saw that Ferida had a tea kettle on the fire for morning tea and I had visions of the dog bounding over the fire and knocking boiling water all over her...ai yi yi...but I tried my best dog sweet talking skills (sorely lacking unfortunately - babies, got it; dogs, not so much) and very sorry attempts at the sweet whistling that seemed to coax him back the night before...no dice.  So, I was back to picking up the dog around the middle and carrying him back to his pen...or at least I was back to *trying.*  Let’s just  avoid all the here and there and back again with my several attempts and just say that after about attempts at kneeling and letting him smell/lick my hand and then slowly reaching to pick him up, I was bitten with an accompanying growl no less than 4 times...not playful nips like I’m used to with him, but genuinely angry back lashes.  Half of those times he broke the skin and I’ve got a nice half moon scar of his top set of teeth along my left index finger.  Good times, good times. 

friendly nips I had the misfortune NOT to experience
I was frustrated, and went to ask for advice from the other girls as they were reinforcing the fence... “food might work” Bethany suggested...brilliant!  Sacrificing the little bit of  leftover refried beans and cheese from our burrito dinner the night before, with some help from a friend, James Wani who lives next door, I got the son of a gun lured back into his pen and even managed to put his collar back on nice and tight while he ate, without getting any chuncks take out of my hand in the process.  The other two finished reinforcing, the dog was collared and tied, the gate wired shut in 3 places, “surely he won’t be able to get out this time,” Melissa said.  I kept my mouth shut.

Late in getting on with our days, we showered and ate breakfast in turn, all gathered around the island in the kitchen at one point talking about what exactly, I can’t remember...Melissa glanced up and out the window from her bowl of pineapple and then did a double take... “do we know this guy?” she asked.  Bethany and I followed her glance and both agreed we did not as he walked briskly and energetically towards the kitchen door next to us, carrying his hoe. Our conversation paused as we all took note of the man’s strange mannerisms and body language.  He walked directly towards the door, pressing his face against the screen and trying the door handle (never have I been so glad for that usually frustrating mal-functioning door handle) without success.  He asked how we were in Arabic, I think.  We told him we were well from inside the house (usually NEVER greeting people through a closed door), and asked him what he wanted.  Back and forth we went with him: he would assure us he had just come to greet, we assured him we had in fact greeted him and that he now needed to go, he played the “I don’t understand what you’re saying”-dumb card, and Melissa or Bethany responded again, this time in Moru.  He threw some English in there, so did we...now 3 languages are in play and we still have no idea what is going on with this guy...is he drunk? is he “not okay in the head?” as they like to say here...unsure, but we were in fact sure of the strangeness of the interaction.  As we continued to attempt to ascertain why he had come, Bethany ducked out the back door and went over to Bishop’s where she found Joseph and James and the night guard standing by the garden talking.  All three of them followed her back to the house when she them what was going on.  While they are approaching, Melissa and I have ascertained that in fact what this guy wants is a wife.  “Ana deru mara” was the actual statement.  “I want a woman” he said.  Aha.  Okay.  Now we’re getting somewhere.  “Lakiin aniina ma deru rajil” I replied.  “But we don’t want a man” I lied...every one of us would love a man in our lives, but not this one, or any other drunk AND “not okay in his head” man I might add...high standards, I know.

Turns out this guy is the night guard’s nephew and was coming from his home, on one side of our compound, and headed to his garden to dig on the other side of our compound...and I guess thought picking up a kawaaja wife along the way would suit him just fine on this particular morning.  Little did he know, this was not the morning to mess with us...Sirius had already tried his luck and lost, and this guy was second in line.  Thankful for the James and the night guard’s help and stern/firm words to our new “friend,” we locked the door, avoiding his second attempt to come into our house un-invited, and spite his escalating temper and hostility, they managed to send him on his way to his garden telling him that since he doesn’t know us and we don’t know him, this is not the place to greet us, that he can greet us at the office if he’d like, but not to come back to our door.  

We all just looked at each other unsure about what had just happened...and laughed (what else can you do in that moment, you know?!).  A drunk and crazy man we’d never seen or met before had just told us he was looking for a wife and tried to come into our house looking for one...bizarre.

We regrouped, finished our breakfasts and got ready to get on with our day - unsure of what the rest of the day might bring.

Melissa and I got on our bikes and went out to visit our friend Mary.  It was great. We found her digging in the garden next to her house, she paused and started the fire for making tea for us (a hospitable welcome you don’t even bother to put up a fight about because, well, frankly, because you’ll loose).  We got a couple plastic chairs from her tukul and put them in the shade near the fire.  We plucked greens and chatted with her about the news of the week.  The sun went behind the clouds and the thunder began rumbling closer and closer to us...Mary was sure it wan’t going to amount to anything and went to do a few more things in her garden and we continued plucking greens.  Then we heard the rain in the distance... “Awadiya! Ita asuma!  Motoro gi ja asa!”  [Awadiya! Listen! The rain is coming, now!].  We gathered up our chairs and the fire (in a little charcoal seguili stove of sorts) and took them inside her tukul as she finished up her work.  The rain came, we were dry inside her newly re-thatched tukul, and she made us slimy greens with mushrooms (!) and linya followed by tea as the rain came and went a few times.  Then I got a call from the friend I was supposed to meet in town at 2pm...I was late, so I gulped down the rest of my tea with mint leaves and we got back on our bicycles and rode home in the mud and rain which had stopped and started again while we were inside eating...Melissa stopped at our compound and I continued on into town...already muddy why not just continue on.

I had made a plan with my 20year old or so friend in P6 to read after school so he had already started in on The Cat in the Hat when I got to Scott’s house to meet him.  I was a hot mess, covered from head to toe in mud (bike kick-back) and wet from the rain.   I took my Chaco’s off at the door and took a towel Scott directed me to and put it on the chair before I sat down, hoping not to dirty everything I touched.  Tata struggles with nearly everything in life and knowing a bit about what that must be like, I love doing what I can to encourage him in those things he does manage to do somehow.  Cheering him on at the end of each page, after each word he sounds out or remembers the looks of, he smiles and reads nearly 2/3 of the book before he stops and says we should continue next time.  Faster than the last time we read, I’m encouraged and so is he and he grins ear to ear as we set a time to finish up.  Back on the bike to head home...more mud...young guys pretending to run me off the road with their bikes, folks laughing as the muddy white girl rides by, calls of “I love you, my wife” and following laughs from another passing crowd of young guys as they repeat the line in celebration of their friend’s creativity (?!) as they walk/ride on behind me...can’t wait for the day to start anew tomorrow!

Dinner was luckily a north african soup Melissa was kind enough to help me chop veggies for...perfect for a rainy day...we sat around and reviewed the craziness of the day as we sipped from our bowls.  I went back down into town (this time driving the vehicle since it was dark) for bible study at Scott’s...it was just what I needed to hear, that nothing is too big/too hard for God...heard some of the news in town, showed some pictures of Carrie’s wedding, got back in the vehicle and drove home, dropping a few guys off near their homes along the way.  

When I arrived back at the compound, the light glowing from above the table in the team house welcomed me back and I found Larissa and Melissa working on a puzzle.  Stopped to tell them how Bible Study went, check in on the puzzle progress, then started out the other door towards my house...as I close the team house door, “WHAT is THAT?” Melissa says, and I pause.  “Oh. my. goodness.” Larissa follows.  I head back inside and their both shining their headlamps on a long black skinny snake curled up on the floor next to the window seat...just chillin’ like it was entirely natural for it to make itself comfortable there.  Closest to the door, I went to the choo for the panga, came back and handed it to Melissa.  She’s the resident “snake killa.”  Standing on a chair next to the slithering creature, she bent down and hacked away until she eventually severed it’s head and halfed it’s body length and it stopped moving.  A snake.  In. the. house.  Seriously?!  Today?  What?!

not the one, but close enough....
Kalas.  Enough. Really, that’s enough.  Today has been enough, thank you.  I climbed into bed, inside my mosquito net, and quickly passed on into a dreamworld where I also prefer there not to be snakes and dogs on the loose, and where I also prefer that men I don’t know not try to come into my house and prefer not to be covered in mud and heckled on the road, but when your days are like this one, often your dreams are no escape.  

until next time....

PS - you should know that more than one week after the record setting bad dog morning, the dog has NOT ONCE escaped his pen, the drunk and crazy guy paid us another visit, this time on Sunday afternoon during team worship so Scott was around as well, this time also far more intoxicated than the last but somehow we managed to convince him to go by heading for the phone and threatening to call Bishop if he didn’t leave as we’d asked...you live and you learn in this life...

PPS - Today is Saturday.  John and Jenn arrive back in Mundri in 5 days.  So, our days as “4 women and a compound” are numbered...maybe the series title will change to “1 man and his harem” or “5 women and their sidekick” or something of the sort... ;)

14 June 2013

4 women and a compound: Episode 3: "Critters threaten coup"

highways of biting ants.  Need I say more?  I think not, but I will anyways.

Impali are NOT our friends.  They travel in highways made up of themselves - thousands upon thousands of them in a river undulating with crawling ants.  Yich.  It's rainy season, and I guess they like that.

It's 4 am, and I've gotta go to the bathroom.  I drag myself out of bed, futzing around next to my bed trying to find my headlamp, then wander out of the house and across the compound to the latrine.  Somewhere in the "across the compound" portion, I must have put a foot in or near one of their highways.  The only way I knew was that suddenly as I approached the latrine, I begin getting bites on my legs inside my PJ pants...I'm now a bit more awake than I'd like to be, yelping and "oo, ee, ai!"ing the rest of the way to the latrine and a bit fearful of the extent of my interruption of their movement...I have been in rooms with people who, having just come in from  outside, have suddenly dropped their drawers while yelping and slapping their legs and jumping around while being bitten all over by impali.  So, I take care of my latrine business as quickly as I can and return to my house with my headlamp pealed for the impali highway I must have disrupted.  Noting it, I managed, this time, to step over it and move as quickly as my sleepy self could carry me into my house.  Still not quite willing to wake all the way up, I decide that PJ pants are pretty optional in the sleeping process and especially when they have biting ants inside them, so I dropped them as soon as I entered and climbed right back into my bed.  Before I fell back to sleep I heard Larissa get up on the other side of the wall and decided that the roommate-ly thing to do would be to warn her about the impali on the way to the latrine - she seemed to appreciate the warning.

That was last week.  Yesterday, around bedtime, the impali were threatening to take over the team house, this time, also in Melissa's pants.  She used the pantry as her changing room as she tried to find the culprits.  I emptied one of our 2 cans of doom in the doorway and they seemed sufficiently intimidated, which I was thankful for.  "Take THAT!" impali.  We have one more type of ammunition in that arsenal, kerosene and water that gets poured as a wall around whatever you want to keep them out of.  I like still having another option for the next time they strike...

The threatened impali coup yesterday followed on the heels of the lovely black lab puppy's threatened coup only a few hours earlier.  The dinner bell had rung, I was waiting with my hot minestrone soup for everyone to gather.  "Heidi, did *you* let him out?!" Melissa hollers from outside.  "Let who out?" I immediately responded, and before the words were finished coming out of my mouth I knew what she meant.  Sirius must be on the loose.  We've been back on the compound no more than 11 days and maybe we were getting a little too used to not having him tearing through newly planted gardens, sitting his muddy rear/paws on clean chairs, tearing holes in our skirts, sitting in the neighbor's dish water basins...he was in his pen and being cared for by John's friend coming everyday to put food and water out and such.  Just when we had let our guard down a bit, he came tearing through the compound in the rain, a muddy mess.  "No, I didn't let him out."  Bethany went down to see how he may have managed to get out of his pen.  I decided the only way we were gonna get him back in was to pick him up and carry him down there.  In the protection of my rain coat, I picked him up and moved as quickly as I could down to his pen.  Bethany was sure he hadn't gotten out the door somehow, and after we put him back in and tied the door especially securely, we noticed that the cinder blocks stacked next to john's house at the end of the dog's fencing were pushed to the side and the fencing was curled back.  As we inspect how we might repair it, just when we thought he didn't have any new tricks, he jumped the full height of the fence, almost freeing himself again.  I used the fencing to secure the cinder blocks, but if this dog can jump the fence, we are flat out of luck...we checked and double checked everything and walked back to the team house anticipating our meal of hot soup.  Before we even reached the team house we heard "ba dump - ba dump, ba dump - ba dump" behind us and there he was dashing past us heading for the team house - looking back at us once as if to say "ha! take that!"

Melissa and Larissa come out, Larissa fuming due to further damage to her garden in the process of his tearing around the compound in his few minutes of freedom before we figured out he was out.  The 4 of us head down to the pen and scheme about how best to secure the place - preventing all further escape artist demonstrations.  In the end it involved bamboo poles, fencing, cinder blocks and in the end chaining his collar to the fence and tying the door closed in 2 places.  We all walk away slowly, all pausing at the same time to look back at the black eyes looking yet hopefully back at us, "Take THAT!" we said, hoodlum arm motions and all. "4 women and a COMPOUND" Larissa said to caption off our efforts.

11 June 2013

4 women and a compound: Episode 2: "Heroes"

Our fearless leader pouring battery acid

Simon the mechanic:

He came first thing on Thursday morning...Character trait #1 of a hero: they show up when they say they will.  After our fearless leader, Bethany (aka Basin) climbed into White Bull (the Land Cruiser pick up truck used mainly for water projects with a large steel rack for carrying pipes and well, other water project type things) and confidently demonstrated the lack of movement in 1 of 4 wheels, he got right to work.  Inside eating breakfast, planning the day, Melissa would periodically go to the door to check the status of things, so far as she could tell from the door.  At one point she announced, “the wheel is off.”  That was about as much information as we could infer about the process.  Until, of course, he came to ask for the keys to try moving the vehicle again.  Bethany got back in and voila!  There it went, 4 of 4 wheels moving, reversing and then pulling forward back into it’s parking spot under the lulu tree.  A cheer rang out.  Simon informed us that one of the brake shoes had clamped shut due to rusting from lots of water exposure...either trepsing through rivers or just 3 weeks of stationary life s/p the onslaught of rain at the beginning of rainy season, whatever was the cause, White Bull needs new shoes.  Character trait #2 of a hero: not only do they fix the problem but they explain, in terms you can mostly understand, the cause of the problem, so that you can best report to the people who actually understand but don’t happen to be present.

Moving right along, Simon went from one vehicle to the next.  Confirming the need for a new battery for Brown Sugar (the tan-ish 2-door, 12-20 passenger Land Cruiser passenger vehicle), Simon got in his car and Bethany, accompanied by Melissa for moral support and encouragement (she’s super good at that), set out in the newly repaired White Bull for Mundri Town and battery purchasing.  It seemed like a while to me, but maybe there was a lot of discussion at the Mundri vehicle battery store about the white women who needed a new battery and how best to charge them for the most expensive one?  probably not with Simon around.  Character train #3 of a hero: instead of throwing you to the wolves and watching you flounder, they help you navigate the uncomfortable cultural situations in which people like you are not ordinarily treated with respect and get you a good product for a fair price.  Now, Simon’s next move was not Bethany’s favorite, but it worked out in the end and Simon managed to maintain hero status due to “confidence” in their competence.  After the purchase of the appropriate battery, Simon, much like John had done over the phone, proceeded to give Bethany and Melissa relatively vague-ish instructions on how to pour the 6 bottles of battery acid into the 6 ports on the battery without splashing it onto their skin and then where to leave the battery until it was ready to be put into the vehicle...

Donning our safety goggles (as noted in the photo above - in the words of one of her blog comments, "who wouldn't want a girl who can pour acid into batteries!" :) - after all “safety first!” - we took turns with the acid pouring, if one of us is gonna die, we’re all going down together.  As we pour, carefully inspecting the warning symbols on the battery casing...and there are quite a few...the most concerning a symbol clearly indicating the possibility of explosion...what might possibly cause the explosion we haven’t the foggiest of ideas, so we just kept at the acid pouring until all 6 bottles were empty and all 6 ports seemed full to the brim.   Leaving the battery in the sun for 4 hours were Simon’s instructions, at the end of those 4 hours he would return to replace the battery into the vehicle, which, of course, he did, because he’s a hero and hero’s show up when they say they will (refer to hero character trait #1).
He replaced the battery under the watchful eyes of Bethany and Melissa and as I worked in our house, we heard the purr of the diesel engine starting up and the 2nd cheer for the day rang out around the compound.  Wow.  Simon was 2 for 2 in less than 24 hours.  Well done.   Problems 3 and 6 solved.

Michael Masso:

Now, I will tell you that before he knew Simon was saving the day, the ever helpful Michael Masso playing his supporting role from the US of A, wrote a few emails trying to help us figure out what White Bull’s problem was.  It was in these emails that he wrote the following descriptions of the identifying sounds we should be listening for when attempting to drive White Bull in any direction:

..."really loud cracking noise"
 ...... "horrific grinding noise"...

I can tell you that neither sound description made me eager to give it a whirl and see what might happen...really loud cracking OR horrific grinding...no thank you, but character trait #4 of a hero: despite distance tries their best to help as best they can, again, explaining things in terms that you might be able to understand, and trying to give you concrete things to try yourself to solve the problem at hand.  Cracking and grinding are terms I can understand, or at least imagine.  Thanks Michael.

David the contractor:

So, despite Simon’s heroic mechanic-ing, problem #7 is also still outstanding, the power  in the strip of church/WHM offices is out in all but one office.  Starting on Friday, Bethany starts to try to find David, the Ugandan contractor who oversaw the building of most of the buildings on our team’s compound here in Miri Moto.  The thought was that since he’s builds houses that then have solar power put in them, maybe he knows of a good “power guy.”   Now, trying to find him looks like asking people she knows if they’ve seen him or have a phone number for him.  One way or another, she manages to track him down and on Monday afternoon gets him to come assess the situation.  Without giving her much confidence that he knew anything about electrical systems, he briefly looked around and then we she asked for his assessment he indicated he would return today with his “technician.”

First thing this morning,  David hollers outside Bethany’s house hoping to find her inside.  He does and proving himself also capable of showing up when he says he will, begins making his way to hero status (character trait #1).  He confirms his hero status not an hour later when he hollers again outside Bethany’s house for her to come here his report.  She came quickly, eagerly awaiting the damage...I’m not actually sure what he said the problem was (out of earshot of where I sat at my desk) but whatever it was it was solved, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t charge her anything for their services.  Character trait #5 of a hero: surprises you with their first rate integrity despite the opportunity to milk a situation for all it’s worth.  Wuh hoo! Problem #7 solved.

Abao Janet:

Now, maybe you’ll remember that this leaves problems 4 and 5 outstanding.  2 out of 7 is not bad, I must say.  Problem #5 was the friend who misses cultural cues and the possibility that you have gravely offended said friend by refusing to entertain her cultural cues.  Friday morning, the day after my grievous offense, I went next door to Bishop’s house on my way to the office to check email, hoping to get an idea from Rina as to what time she wanted to leave for the training we were doing that day.  I greeted her at her back door and soon, from inside the house, I hear “Aidah! Ita ayaan?  Ita numu kweis?”  “Heidi, are you sick? did you sleep well?”  It was sweet Abao, the friend I’d greeted with monosyllabic groans and closed eyes the morning before.  She greeted me sweetly, albeit understandably not quite as eagerly as the morning before, and we laughed about how rude I’d been.  I asked about her family, about Mundri, she asked about my mom, my sister’s wedding...welcome back.  Character trait #6 of a hero: they give you another chance (even when their first name means “refuse”) when you really don’t deserve one   Problem #5: solved with grace.

Now, problem #4: critters.  This problem still has a hero vacancy.  In fact, this is the only problem that maybe got even more ridiculous after the first episode.  I think I posted the last post on wednesday afternoon/night.  On Thursday, towards the end of their trip through Spain, the lovely Ashley Watson commented on the tendency of skinks to meet their maker under my mattress, in a loving/joking manner of course.  Well, thursday was the 2 for 2 vehicle day and the Abao offense day, so when I went to bed around 10pm I was tired.  Too tired, in fact, to investigate at all in the dead critter smell I picked up near the head of my bed as I drifted off...Friday morning, I’m running around trying to get to a training on time, but on a quick trip into my room, I’m sure I’ve smelled the awful smell of the squished skink.  Melissa came to bolster my courage and helped me by lifting up my mattress...there is was, dead skink under the mattress #2!!!!!  You’ve got to be kidding me!  bleach, mattress in the sun, new sheets, a new mosquito net...but the critter problem goes on...

BUT today, Tuesday, the power problem was solved, the internet was speedy, and my overdue reimbursement requests were on the to-do list...and whadda ya know, without ANY issues, I got all of them sent without 1 bad word!  Record setting.  So, whoever it is that’s praying for our sanity here on the compound, do keep it up, we’re on a roll!!!!

06 June 2013

4 women and a compound: Season 1, Episode 1

Maybe you’ve seen those Two Men and a Truck moving guys around town, wherever it is that you live.  Blank white truck, basic, barebones black lettering with a black drawing  of the outline of a truck or something of the sort, promoting themselves as the kind of no frills company that “just gets the job done and done right.”  Well, that’s *almost* the way we roll here in Mundri right now, barebones, minimalist, getting the job done...it’s the “and done right” part that’s still up for discussion.  Our goal this month, as a barebones team of 4 women here on the WHM South Sudan compound in Mundri, I’m pretty sure, is just to get it done.  If it’s even done “not half bad” that’d be great!
Imagine for a moment, a group of 4 women, living alone on a compound in rural Africa.  A compound capable of housing 18 people, responsible for the operation of things like an office, the internet, a kitchen with running water AND power, 2 vehicles, and then the houses we live in.  It sounds pretty reasonable for those of you living in the US, right?  Right.  No problem.

Day T-1 (3 June) = We are in Uganda doing errands and planning to head home to Mundri.  Errands including groceries of course, because yes, it is easiest for us to buy our groceries internationally and then pay per kilo for them to be flown to where we live.  Bethany talks to Bishop to confirm he can pick us up from the airstrip.  Confirmed.  He is planning to pick us up.  One problem though, the internet has not been working for a few weeks now in the stretch of offices WHM shares with ECS.  “We are glad you are coming back because we are sure you will know exactly what needs to be done and then it will work just fine.  You see, the computer says that the connection to the network is excellent.  But when you try to use the internet - it refuses.”  Well, that paper Bethany needs to write and send to her prof, those reimbursement requests we all need to submit for the completion of the fiscal year, those will have to wait.  Problem #1: the internet.

Day 1 (4 June) = we get all of our luggage and ourselves to the airstrip at Kajjansi ON TIME, and for some reason there is an additional WHM person booked on this flight who has never planned to be on this flight...no fear...we have extra luggage weight (shocking!), we will just substitute groceries for one of our missing teammates. Problem #2: the extra seat booked on the flight - solved (we were even UNDER by 5 kg!).    After the plane is loaded with our luggage we are given the go ahead to get on ourselves by our friendly MAF pilot.  One by one we start getting on.  Wait, Bethany’s phone is ringing.  She shrinks to the back of the line and answers it.  “Hello Bishop.  Yes we are getting on the airplane now.  Oh, the vehicle is broken and will not start.  Oh, sorry.  What is the plan?  Yes we are 5.  You think it needs a new battery?  No, we are getting on the plane now, we cannot leave someone behind to organize getting a new battery for the vehicle...no, sorry...ok, you’ll see if you can get someone to push it...okay, well, thank you for calling Bishop.”  Problem #3: The vehicle won’t start.  And we’re not even home to the compound yet.  After 3 stops along the way, we fly into our beloved Mundri airstrip and Bishop has parked our vehicle on a smallish dirt mound, the closest thing to a hill in sight, and therefore manages to roll start the car when we’re ready to load in.  He drives us home, leaving it running while we unload Scott’s stuff at his place in town, meanwhile discussing his certainty we will have no issue solving Problem #1: the internet,  as soon as we arrive.  We assure him upfront, so as not to terribly disappoint later, that our particular tech savviness as a nurse, counselor, teacher and agriculturalist, looks like pressing all the buttons that we find and unplugging and plugging every cord and if none of those things work, then we’re up a creek.  When the internet doesn’t work you call the internet guys and they come fix it, and when you live in South Sudan, those guys may or may not be in the country, they are only 1 team to support the whole country and well, it may be “some days” before you can get help.  If you have a security or health emergency in rural Africa your help is not likely nearby and if you need to get in touch with people who are not nearby, and your internet does not work, you are in trouble.  Our car is parked on the only slight decline on our compound, just outside our kitchen windows, and we hope for the best when we turn off the ignition to use the keys to get into the house.  Home sweet home.

Spiders and their webs have taken over our team house now unoccupied for 3 weeks, but still, it’s our house - we’re close to unpacking for 3 whole months! Problem #4: critters.  We begin sweeping/dusting in our respective houses.  In the Shire, Larissa’s got a skink cornered behind a map, armed with brooms, she beats on the map until the skink is forced to run while I attempt to whack him with my broom near the ceiling...oops, there goes his tail, he’s still running, heading for the floor I whack a couple more times and manage to squish him square on...splat...yuck.  But high fives, one less critter in the house.  We also find more than our fair share of rat turds on every flat surface.  We know he’s in there somewhere.  My room is bare and he’s not in there, and Larissa is pretty sure she’s got him cornered under her trunks... “do you think we can kill a rat?” she asks.  “We’ve got to.” I reply.  “But all our best rat killers are gone!  Jenn, where are you when we need you?!”  “Well, we can only try our best” (that’s what my mom always said so it seemed to fit nicely in the moment on the brink of rat despair.)  We arm ourselves again and call in back up.  Melissa, aka “snake killa,” comes in and grabs a bamboo rod hoping to go for stabbing action since we’d been successful thus far with whacking...On the count of 3 Larissa pulls out the first trunk...no dice.  He’s got to be behind the other...another count of 3 as Melissa is perched above on the bed I’m not yet quite sure where to be, and Larissa pulls out the last trunk...What happens next I’m not quite sure I can put words too...the amount of shrieking and jumping and whacking and stabbing and squishing and more shrieking was...well...it was loud.  Bethany added herself to our task force in the process, wielding her own rod. But we weren’t so concerned with volume, only with the death of the rat - which the overwhelming volume of shrieking enabled us to successfully achieve!  Woot woot! Surprised by our skill when push comes to shove, we were quite proud of ourselves. Another critter gone and another round of high fives.  I did notice that the panga (machete) has been moved to the girls’ shower, which gives me reason to believe the critter problem is not quite yet solved, but at least significantly underway :)

We keep cleaning/resettling into our rooms, but Bethany has not forgotten about problems #1 and #3, the internet and the vehicle.  She gets on the phone to America since it’s now late enough in the afternoon that she can do that without waking anyone up.  How and from where does one get a new vehicle battery, she asks, and who do we call about the internet not working?  Karen punts the battery question to John Sender who, with far too much faith in our understandings of the goings on inside the hood of a vehicle, begins to explain to Bethany that it’s actually pretty easy to fix a battery yourself involving taking it out of the vehicle, pouring acid from something into something else without managing to burn yourself and then let it sit for a while and “when it’s done you just put it back in.” She had to inform him that he in fact lost her at “take it out of the vehicle,” so he is forced to give her the name and contact info of a mechanic in town who could help her buy and install the battery...and Karen informs her that the contact info for the internet guys is somewhere in Michael’s desk drawer in the office, and you know what that means?  More critters...critters love drawers...too bad Bethany doesn’t love critters...We decide to save that for another day, armed with some information we eat a lovely dinner, crafted by the lovely Melissa (yes, the same Melissa also known as “snake killa”...multi talented I tell you), with conversation about the possibilities of renting an engineer, or maybe a husband, for a month? and after a lot of laughing head to bed.

Day 2: 5 June - I, personally, have an awful cold/allergy issue at this stage of the game.  So, when I head to bed around 10pm, I wasn’t sure when I’d wake up, but I was okay with just sleeping for as long as I could...and I’m actually pretty good at that, so with no alarm set, I drift off into sleepyville.  At some point, many hours later, I hear a VERY chipper female Moru voice VERY close to my bed, saying several greetings/questions/phrases in Moru (which I speak VERY little of when I’m awake let alone when I’m sleeping), and without opening my groggy eyes, I manage to mutter an affirmative moan/grunt noise in response to each question and roll over and head back to sleep.  I was awake enough to know it was my friend Abao, but I was not awake enough to actually wake up and open my eyes and see whether she was outside my window or inside my room, or interact with her beyond affirmative moans to whatever it was she was chattering on about...She must have given up on my sleepiness and started talking to Larissa who kindly tried to whisper but Abao didn’t seem to get the cultural “someone is sleeping” cues...so she kept talking and talking and Larissa finally managed to walk/talk with her out of the house.  Yes, it turns out she had come into our house unannounced and then into my room to greet me, saw me in bed, sleeping, and proceeded to try to greet me and ask me questions even though Bethany said she had already told her that I was still in bed, sick and that she could see me maybe tomorrow :)  Love it.  Problem #5: friends who miss cultural cues/risking offending said friends by refusing to wake up when they come to greet you while you’re in bed.  Problem not really solved, but at least funny in hindsight.

So, while I was still dead to the world in my bed asleep, Larissa was off to the races on our first full day back, teaching her class at the theological college in town.  Since one vehicle was down, she started up the other and as she backed out Melissa starts yelling to her to stop.  It turns out the car could start (which was a step up from the other vehicle) but one of the wheels was locked and not moving while the other 3 seemed to function without a problem, so it was moving in a circle around that tire...strange...so she gets out and gets on her bike instead, now quite late for class...Problem #6: vehicle #2 broken.  Unaware of any reason rear wheels would be locked (pretty sure the 4x4 wheel locking is only the front ones? and even that locking doesn’t actually LOCK the wheels, right?!), we have no idea what to do about it, so we’re down to 0 vehicles.  Not a terribly significant problem, we all have bikes, unless we have an emergency of some sort...security or health or something of the sort...but remember, this is South Sudan, no one ever has security or health issues here, it’s fine ;)

Back to Problem #1: the internet.  We might be women with few technological and handyman repair skills, but one thing is sure, we know how to use a telephone.  Bethany tracked down the internet guys’ contact info (not in fact in the critter filled desk drawers but in the ECS accountant’s office) got on the phone with internet guys in several countries, and finally it turned out the cause of our internet issue was theirs, that they had missed our payment and cut off our service unbeknownst to anyone else.  The internet guys did something from wherever it was they were on the phone and voila! we have internet again :)  Bethany rocks.  Telephones rock.  Things getting fixed from a distance without involving several days’ delay and travel, rock.  Problem #1: the internet, solved.  However, usually on this continent, one problem does not get solved without another arising in the process...while celebrating a triumph over the evil interwebs, and trying to print team meeting agendas, Bethany realizes that the power in most of the offices is out (something which happens when a certain light switch is flipped).  What happens when the power is out? You call the power guys...wait...this country has no grid power, so there are no power guys...and the power guys on our team are in the US...what to do? not sure, fuses and such are a bit outside our realm of influence...no printed agendas and make sure your computer is charged elsewhere before going to use the internet...Problem #7: office power is out.  You've got to be kidding.

Stay tuned.  Problems 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 are still outstanding, with tomorrow’s episode surely to include the antics surrounding Bethany’s trip with Simon the mechanic to buy a car battery and install it, perhaps a reaction of some sort from my friend Abao to my incredibly offensive sleeping/greeting incident, and well, one can never anticipate the critters one may encounter in a day...never a dull moment, folks, never a dull moment.

**note: most of this episode is a re-telling of the firsthand story of our fearless interim leader, Bethany Ferguson.  So, if you want the firsthand account, soon you'll be able to read her telling here: www.bethanygrace.wordpress.com.  But a good story only get’s better with more tellings, right? :)  ***

"the era of the hobo is not over"

the words of the train engineer last night just after I boarded the #14 Coast Starlight in San Jose, CA bound for Seattle, WA.  We had just taken off from the station and stopped within a few feet.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, we almost made it.  Had somebody try to jump the train so we need to stop for a minute to get them off the train.  The era of the hobo is not over.”

Usually I write from my concrete desk in my room, sweating in the stifling afternoon heat, or the back left desk in the singles’ office in the ECS office strip.  But today, Tuesday 6 May, I write from a temperature controlled car aboard the Coast Starlight, rolling along through western Oregon somewhere north of Salem.

2 weeks in Philly
2 weeks in St. Louis
2 weeks visiting friends/supporters in CA/Seattle/DC
3 weeks traveling in N. Africa/Spain

That’s a lot of weeks of traveling.  A lot of time with people I love.  A lot of asking and answering questions.  A lot of reconnecting.  A lot of really blessed, really rich time.  A lot of emotionally charged time for this introvert.

The train is a wonderful way to travel.  “We’d be happy to buy you a plane ticket” friends say when they hear I’m taking the train.  “No, I’d really rather take the train, but thank you” I respond.  Reading, watching the world go by, moseying down to the dining car for a G&T with your lunch, leg room, power outlets, interesting fellow passengers from all walks of life - tie dye wearing retirees from Berkley who drop the name of their friend Ben Cohen, “of Ben and Jerry’s” they add, into conversation about the group with whom they are engaged in a bill (US Dollars) stamping campaign I didn’t quite understand that somehow was meant to stick it to “the man,” and with whom I discussed attempts at entering Bhutan (theirs successful, mine decidedly lacking success), and a young Canadian air traffic controller and his PT student wife headed to Montana with conversation about the recent FAA air traffic controller furlough rules/fiasco and the benefits of careers like Physical Therapy and Nursing and the diversity of options they offer.  

10 hours LA - San Jose (SF area).  Leaving LA, the land where every other car is a Prius, where I was 3 for 3 seeing daily photo shoots/movie filming on street corners, where your friends point out neighborhood sights like the lofts where New Girl is filmed, the Disney Concert Hall, and skid row, where you can get in the car and be watching amazing waves crashing into the hot sandy beach in Malibu in less than an hour, where you’re spoiled rotten by friends who have known you and your parents for a long time and love you anyways, where you can get online and 10 minutes later have plans to find $20 “day-of” tickets to an amazing show called “Fela” chock full of Afro-punk music and dance based on the life of a Nigerian musician and the show is within walking distance, where these friends want you to meet their friends who end up being amazingly genuinely interested in your life in a way in which they ask good questions about this far away land known as South Sudan and what life is like there with interesting discussion of joys and frustrations quickly ensuing, and where you learn that ramen and macaroons are the semi-current food fads you have entirely missed while living in Africa for the past year and get to partake of both.  The trip to the Bay area is 10 hours of gorgeous coastline and rolling hills, less gorgeous industrial areas, mile after mile of cauliflower and strawberries growing in vast mechanically irrigated fields, solid black and brown cows grazing on the rolling green hills, rocky canyons, and a seat with a Lazy-Boy-esque foot/leg rest.

The Coast Starlight rolls into San Jose where your friend picks you up in her Honda minivan, the vehicle she never thought she’d own but is required to schlep her 3 kids under 5yo.  The last time you saw her - almost a decade ago - she was be-bopping around Manhattan footloose and fancy free, answering to no one.  Times they are a-changing.  It’s been a decade since you saw each other last but with a hug it suddenly it’s as if no time at all has passed...until you start talking about the challenges of raising 3 kids as two working parents and the cultural intricacies of health care in rural Africa - clearly some things have changed.  She too spoils you rotten along with her husband and precious kiddos with whom you are referred to as “Auntie Heidi who lives in Africa.”  It’s one of the bonuses of this single missionary life - the freedom to travel, the flexibility to spend time with people you love and their people and to be the “Auntie Heidi” who gets to show pictures of cool African animals and have hilarious conversations about how it’s true that some people in the world do in fact go to the bathroom in a hole in the ground :)  There were beach boardwalk carnival rides with babies in the Ergo, there was a throw back to college eating falafel together and enjoying salt water taffy fresh from the ancient taffy puller on the boardwalk, there were walks amongst the amazing California redwoods, lunches eaten on “Windy Hill” overlooking the SF bay on one side and the Pacific ocean on the other and watching the grass undulate like the bodies of water you can only see shadows of in the distance, and brief tours of a Children’s Hospital where you are reminded again of the vast resources available to people in this country, but the simultaneous reminder of the fact that there are really sick people everywhere.

A lovely afternoon and dinner with another couple college friends married to each other and still able to drive Honda Accords because their progeny are only 2.  You laugh about funny cultural idiosyncrasies on both sides of the ocean between announcements from extremely cute 4 year old boys about how the Darth Vader lego guy is tragically missing his pants, you eat AMAZING churasco burritos and notice that it seems to be the general Californian consensus that everything is better with avocado...and you agree.  The time flies by far too fast and suddenly you find yourself back on the Coast Starlight in the San Jose station, this time checked into your sleeper car bound for Seattle.

With the luxury of a “sleeping space,” I began the 24 hours of track travel north with a hot shower and relaxed into my own sleeper cubby... “room” would be a stretch, bed with windows and a door is more like it, but it was perfect for me.  I slept well despite the  stewardess’ apology the next morning for the noisy neighbors in my car.  I woke up, opened the curtains, and wow!  I caught the last bit of stunning Oregon coast followed by mountains and lakes and small towns the rest of the day.  Moving between the dining car and the “viewing car” (with sofa chairs that swivel and windows that extend up and include portions of the “ceiling” of the car making for a wonderful place to watch the world go).

8:30pm or so, still light out, we roll into Seattle. I walk into the swanky newly remodeled station and am greeted by another college friend - like no time has passed...but again, clearly time has passed...we walk to the Queen Anne park looking out over the bay/sound and as the sun sets we talk about my mom’s illness and the aging of all of our parents...we talk about work, about friends, about being single when most all of our peers are married, about guys (and/or the lack thereof), about the past and the future.  It was a fabulous few days of good food (Taiwanese soup dumplings, pear & cardamom muffins, pizza and salads with beets and faro), good drink, ice cream, good company and good conversation.  We both found ourselves flying out of Sea/Tac on the same day, bound for DC (me) and a vacation in Ireland/Scotland (her) and we hope one of these days to both find ourselves arriving in the same airport on the same day as well :)  Here’s to hoping.

DC brought new/old friends, more good food and drink and conversation about the past and the future, family and friends, personalities, the Enneagram, the world, work and play, with trips to Mount Vernon (a first for me) and the new MLK Jr memorial on the Mall.  Then it was Monday 13 May.  Time to get on another plane...or 4.  This time leaving the country...DC Dulles - Amsterdam - Kigali (Rwanda) - Entebbe (Uganda) - Cairo (Egypt) - Casablanca (Morocco) and then I’d finally get to leave the airport.  Our company has a company-wide conference every 3 years and this year, to accommodate Europe teams wanting warmer weather and Africa teams wanting cooler weather, the location was in Spain on the Costa del Luz.  Fine, okay, pull my arm, but after this NO MORE travel to the mediterranean...there’s never anything interesting to do!!! (wink wink, nudge nudge, funny funny, joke joke).  Needless to say, singles on teams in East Africa took the opportunity to get some fun travel in before the conference and spent some quality time together in Morocco and then ferried across the Straight of Gibraltar to Sevilla, Spain for a few days before the conference...laying down our lives, one gorgeous/fascinating part of the world at a time!  And you think missionaries never have any fun ;)

Not sure the term “hobo” ever applied to people traveling on airplanes, but you get the point.  Now that I’m back home in Mundri (clearly some time has passed since I started writing this post) looking back on the travel of the last 2 months, I’m awed by God’s kind and tender gifts to me...I’m pretty sure that of ALL the people on the globe, God has crossed my path with the coolest, most interesting, most precious, most generous, most quirky, most funny, most gracious ones...disagree?  email me and we can fight about it over cyberspace...pretty sure I’ll win though :)