Thursday, November 8, 2012

Party It Up

I have three weeks left as a Peace Corps Volunteer and thus I have obtained graduation goggles. Everything that normally pisses me off now seems like no big deal and is something I internally mark as something I will miss. My chapa stops nine hundred times to exchange passengers and baggage and I think how great it is that people can just sit on the road and someone will come to take them to their destination. A man tries to argue about the price of all the shit he had on top of the chapa and I just ogle at how cute his 8 children are. The ubiquitous drunk man starts yelling at the driver, causing a scene, and then forgetting his rant to hit on me all because the driver had picked up three people to take them 10km for free (it was pouring rain and they said they were returning from a funeral) and I just think how it was a nice gesture. Where were these goggles in July?
I recently traveled to the central region (about a 15 hour travel day if you are lucky) to say goodbye to most of my volunteer friends. And I traveled on many different qualities of road. There was a stretch of road about 75km long that was horrendous when I first traversed it in January 2011. Half-dirt and half-pot hole, it used to take 2.5 hours. Now, because of the a year and a half road construction project, you only drive on dirt for 10 minutes and the rest is beautifully paved. It is awesome. There is a lot of road construction happening right now in Moz. Many of the previously unpaved roads are in the process of getting paved, which is highly promising. In 10 years, I bet most main thoroughfares will be paved, which will tremendously help to develop the country as a whole. But there are also some roads that are horrible but that won’t be getting fixed imminently. Many roads are essentially giant potholes, with craters big enough to swallow whole cars, and one in particular, that leads for 160km into Mozambique’s second biggest city, Beira, will remain in disrepair because during the civil war, this area was rebel territory and is still very much sympathetic to the opposition. Other sections of the main north-south road in the central have tons of potholes that won’t be fixed in the near future for the same reason. Who knew road construction could be so political?
It is also interesting, and horrifying, to note that it is these same roads that have transmitted HIV throughout the continent. Long-distance truckers are vilified as carrying the virus with them on their epic journeys to transport goods throughout their region, sleeping with prostitutes at truck stops (then their wives back at home), and condemning condoms. Their rate of infection is significantly higher than the general population, though obviously, I cannot denounce the profession as a whole. But it was transient workers: truckers, miners, traders, etc, that initially secured the virus in society and as a major contributing factor to the cycle of poverty and pain in the early years of the epidemic, the 70s and 80s. Read 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa by Stephanie Nolen if interested in the topic. It highlights 28 different accounts of people living with HIV throughout Africa and you get a real feel for the spread of the virus, the stigma that coincides with it, and the ravage it begets on those infected as well as their familial survivors. It is easy to forget about HIV amidst all the problems a PCV sees on a daily basis. No one talks about it: here, people are just “sick;” people just “die.” There is always someone going to a funeral, always someone ill who needs taking care of, always some dirty kids playing in the street that may or may not be orphaned due to AIDS, may or may not have been taken in by a family member or may or may not be living in a child-headed family. Many of the difficulties I have observed here would be greatly alleviated without the involvement of HIV: when most people in a community die before their 40th birthday, a whole generation is lost, children grow up without the intrinsic love and protection of parents, and progress is inevitably slow. But unfortunately, from two years of personal experience (though I admit I would need to stay longer to really be able to make a definitive claim), I do not believe that behavior change (getting people to use condoms, to not have multiple concurrent partnerships, to acknowledge their positive status, to eschew their denial that AIDS does in fact kill, etc) will completely conquer the epidemic. Because of the sensitive manner in which it is transmitted, HIV is here to stay until there is a vaccine. That is my personal opinion, though I still maintain that efforts should be made to save individual lives via prevention campaigns in the meantime. Due to a lack of health and science education (and understanding) as well as a downright fear of what it inescapably does to its host, HIV is not viewed the same here as in America. And I do not blame people. But it is still horrendous and upsetting and demoralizing to see it around you everyday. HIV tests are not always administered or read correctly and not many people get them, as I have witnessed in my time at the hospital. The 10-40% positive statistics of most Eastern and Southern African countries is probably low (did you know that even a 1% stat would qualify an epidemic?). But as pervasive as the virus and the syndrome are, it is easy to overlook and disregard, as I know I have done at times during my service, because there isn’t much I can do beyond conversations with individual youth. Read 28. It is highly informative, though difficult to get through. But read it nonetheless. The only problem I have with the book (aside from geographical mishaps in the Mozambique chapters) is the emphasis it shows people placing on securing money for their children’s education. Perhaps education systems are not as pointless in other African countries as in Mozambique, but education is not a magic cure, as Western aid perceives it. Yes, it is a means to a more developed end, but when so many people are sick and dying, and students are not actually learning much in school, I do not believe it should be placed at the highest of pedestals. I don’t have any idea what the answer is beyond a vaccine, and no one does, or I wouldn’t have to write this paragraph, but read the book. It will affect you and make you think.
Getting back to the lighthearted parts of Peace Corps: Overall, I had great luck hitchhiking the whole way down to central and back up, in cushy private cars that didn’t charge me: living the dream. On the way down, I traveled with another volunteer and at one point the driver of the car we were in stopped to buy some road food. I think I have mentioned it before, but Mozambique has the best road food, with venders thrusting baskets of their snacks through the windows of your vehicle. Who needs drive-through fast-food when you can get hard-boiled eggs with spicy salt, orange soda, cashews, mangos, Mozambican falafel, bananas, and my new favorite that I tried for the first and only time on this trip, grilled gazelle meat. A kid came up to us with a bucket of gazelle meat and we bought some. It was delicious: tender and with a good flavor. The whole rest of the trip we talked about how we wished we had bought more. It didn’t make us sick, surprisingly, but at this point in my service, I just eat and drink whatever I want, as I now view stomach problems as more of a minor nuisance rather than an inhibitor.
Before I came to Peace Corps, I didn’t prepare very well. I didn’t begin to learn Portuguese, I didn’t read blogs, I didn’t learn too much about the country, and it all worked out. But I also had no idea what it would be like to be a volunteer. I thought I would just sit in my town and never party with other volunteers. Boy was I wrong. Peace Corps Volunteers throw damn good parties. This time, we rented a cabana between a beautiful river and the Indian Ocean (you took a boat across the river to get to this unique strip of land, and therefore had river on one side and beautiful, white sandy beaches on the other) and 30 of us camped in the front yard. Other times, we gather at a PCVs site, but it is always a version of the same thing: to celebrate Halloween, fourth of July, the Kentucky Derby, a birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, or just generally, August, and we do our best to recreate American food and traditions, always with things bought from the market or sewn and somehow constructed together. Each person was in charge of bringing a certain part of a meal, and we ate well: burritos, hamburgers, potato salad, tuna salad, veggie dip, pasta with meat sauce, etc. And for the whole weekend, we just hung out, playing card and ultimate Frisbee, drinking, etc. Americans don’t usually do this: travel extraordinary distances to just be together for 48 hours. And we were the only ones there. We would walk to the beach and just stumble upon a massive stretch of unadulterated, white, sandy, Indian Ocean beach, with absolutely no one on it. It is quite stunning and a concept I will dearly miss.
One of the days, however, I was walking shoeless back from the beach mid-day (since I have developed a habit of losing my shoes at functions like this, my plan was just to put them in my backpack and not wear shoes all weekend). At first, the sand was just hot, and then it became the most unbearable pain I have ever experienced. It was like walking on hot coals, to the point where I had a meltdown halfway home and could not physically continue. I just sat down in the sand path clutching my feet until another volunteer came to my rescue. She gave me her capulana and her sundress to tie around my feet and I trekked on. I then sat in the cabana kitchen with my feet dead-set on the cool cement floor, throbbing in pain from the veritable burns I had obtained on them. And I was not the only one to have this problem, as it became a natural sight to see people running and screaming into the house because of the hellish sand. We couldn’t go to the beach after 12pm. I now have a great fear of being stranded in the desert with no shoes, as I think it might kill me.
Throughout the weekend, we had a Halloween party, bobbed for apples (which I had never done before and hated: it is unnatural to stick your head in a bucket of water and open your mouth), and just hung out together, isolated on a beach for two days. We would just sit and watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean with a beer in hand, I mean, really, what could be better? I will definitely miss the binge (food and social) that is a PCV party.
On the way back, about 15 of us were sitting on the road in the bush, willing a car to turn up to take us to the main road, when we glimpsed some monkeys in the trees. The locals also saw the monkeys and started trapping them. Upon succeeding, one of the men started killing a monkey with a machete and it screamed bloody murder. We were all shocked at seeing something so striking and new: this dude was straight-up killing a monkey like 5 feet from us to take home and serve to his family for dinner. I had never felt more like I was in Africa. And this, one month before I leave this amazing country.
And finally, Cristina went on a visit to her family out in the bush the other day. When she came to my house to say goodbye, I went with her back to her house to accompany her to the road, as is the Mozambican custom. Again in line with social norms, I offered to carry her suitcase for her on our walk, assuming she would deny me the opportunity since she generally shows deference to me as I technically hold a higher status on account of being a teacher (yes, my best friend here doesn’t address me by name, but by “professora.” Its weird). Amazingly, she allowed me to carry the suitcase, confirming our equal friendship and my integration into the community. Such a small gesture of letting me do something for someone else but it meant so much. The next day as I was enjoying my morning tea-drinking, porch-sitting, I saw Cristina’s husband bent double, washing the floor of their house with a rag. Since Cristina and her younger brother, who do virtually all the housework, are both gone, this full-grown man must now contribute, a rare sight here. I walked over, kiddingly congratulated him on his hard-work and asked him if he will succeed in cooking for himself. He replied, “No, Professora Ana will cook for me, right?” with a knowing smile.

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