About Me

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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Super Rico

"Fear the ball of fire in the sky, for it burns...oh how it burns..."

---Former Greek God of Heat, circa 22 B.C., near the equator

There are several things to note as I reflect on the initial ten weeks here on the banks of the Rio Magdalena and the Caribbean Sea.

One is I am writing this from neither the banks of a river nor from the shores of the Caribbean. It would be more romantic if I were. But it would also be a flat out lie. I am in fact laying in bed in an urban, fully furnished apartment watching a Sunday night NFL game with Spanish color commentary ("El balon fue interceptado...Vernon Davis por los 49ers....touchdown!!! Davis esta en la tierra prometida!!!") Since I haven't written (or read much of anything) in weeks, here are some non-linear, tangential, somewhat blurry thoughts on the past stanza of my Latin American life.

I have actually met people and made friends. The colleagues at Uninorte (this will be the name I use for the University where I work, aka Universidad del Norte) are simply heavenly after the isolation of my twenty months in east Africa. Having lunch companions, binge juice drinkers, weekend drinking buddies and sounding boards has been just about the best thing for me. No matter how long the weeks can get, it's nice to have company around again.

Other things I really have enjoyed so far about Colombia:

  • The warmth of the people. How can they be so patient as I butcher their language. How can the women and men stand and talk for hours with someone who is stumbling and rummaging his brain so inarticulately for the words to convey what he wishes to express. At malls, on streets, in restaurants, at school...all the Colombians I have met are solid people people. If that makes sense. 
  • The fitness center "it" couples. Barranquilla has a fitness club called BodyTech that breeds beauty. In the bicep area, the man: early forties, wavy brown hair, lycra outfit, white tube socks pulled up mid-calf. He takes out an ear bud, refreshes himself with a pull of water, and looks for his mami. The woman, doing stair aerobics not so innocuously behind him, does a quick circle around the gym, chatting with other women of her ilk, and then finds her beau, plants a hot kiss and squeeze on her papi, then returns to her fitness trainer for instruction on how the new ab machine works better than the year-old ab machine. They discuss this as people who might be discussing nuclear physics or hunting. Complete concentration. The Ab Machine will change their lives. It is that revolutionary.
  • The juice.  Jugo is off-the-hook super rico delicious around here. Fruit I never knew existed is suddenly a top priority the moment I feel parched (which is basically all the time). Lulo, mango, fresa, uvo, mora. There is something so simple about sitting on a stool in the shade watching an old Colombia women with crooked brown fingers grab a handful of cold grapes, crushed ice, sugar, and water and make me a drink. I could do it pretty much every day.
  • The one-kiss cheek peck. It's cultural and it's endearing. And I can never tell when I should do it.
  • Speaking Spanish again. No matter how many days I struggle (and there are more of these to come) it really can't be calculated how much more rich the culture becomes when you engage the people in their own language. That being said, if any of you locals are reading this, slow it down a bit. 
  • Club Colombia. It's my beer. I drink it.
  • Salsa music. I can't dance to it, but I love watching people who can (note: the word "people" in this sentence generally refers to women)
  • But...old and/or drunk men who look like they can't dance but really can dance are often nearly as interesting to watch
  • Taxi drivers who speak slowly and pronounce the entire word so I can understand them 
  • The midday siesta. Around campus, most offices are closed from noon to two. Shutters drawn, doors closed, customer service simply a rumor. It's as if a movie set has wrapped and all the actors have gone back to their Hollywood bungalows.  
  • Seafood, salsa, empanadas, pinchos, arroz con coco, and a host of other dishes you can find on the street. 
  • Air conditioned rooms. Nearly every place of business has air conditioning. It's a mandatory excursion to escape the sun and spend a few minutes pretending to shop for bars of soap and vaseline while the sweat dries and your body temperature returns to normal. I take my time at the ATM machines, in grocery stores, in elevators. I know what is waiting for me outside.

Some other oddities I have noticed:

  • Roughly every third person between the age of 16-21 wears braces. And that could be a low estimate.
  • Riding the bus is a great way to sample bad rap artists.
  • It's also a great place to introduce your sweat glands to an armpit near you.
  • how to put this next point delicately...let's just say plastic surgery seems to have a firm grasp on the subculture here. Extremely firm.
  • Super rico and super chevere are the two most important terms a gringo can use to blend in. Anything cool, good, nice or positive can be expressed using one or both of those terms. 
  • People love their futbol here. Seven sports channels on all hours and you can guarantee six to seven of them are airing soccer.
  • Colombians know how to dance. This makes it all the more petrifying to dance with or around them. But intoxicating to watch them. If there's a hell on earth, it would be a room where I would be forced to sit and watch a video of me dancing salsa. I can't imagine anything worse.
  • Going to a soccer match live (as I did last week) is the craziest thing you could do to shock your system. Everyone screaming, shouting, drinking, dancing, chanting, goading, sweating. A sea of yellow can be seen everywhere on game day (when the Colombian National team is playing) or red and white (for the local team, Junior). 
  • You can't overcome soccer. You can't escape soccer. Even if you hate it, it will come find you. And own you. 
  • No matter how often I repeat my first name to students, I am simply known as Teacher. This can get creepy when you are spotted off campus and still are called Teacher and other adults are around and don't know who I am or what I do. Or what I is. 

And then there's the weather.

Stifling, oppressive, relentless. It's as if someone threw a quilt on top of you and told you do pushups. Actually it's not like that at all. But walking three blocks in the afternoon sun is something I cherish about as much as a root canal. Three blocks. That's all it takes and an outfit becomes a rotting corpse at the bottom of my laundry pile.

It's a massive ordeal to run errands on foot. Not to mention how stupid you feel for even trying it. I have learned - through my own errors - to do everything I can to be in the presence of cold, contrived, free-flowing air. Fighting the heat is like standing up to communism. You know you should, but you really won't ever see the fruits of your labor and may even die trying.

(Thinking about Communism and how that really isn't a great analogy)

Where I work is a fantastic village of Colombians and expats living and working as one efficient, linguistic unit. Teachers have offices and work among Colombian staff, making the group I see every day a diverse and entertaining one. We have janitors who seem to be nearly always around when I fill up coffee and water bottles. They speak Spanish and wear uniforms. I forget the color. Blue, I think. There are several secretaries and even more administrative employees who do a million things I don't know yet but are always cordial and welcoming and charming in their own way. Some speak some English. Others don´t.

The campus itself is a square city block, a verdant oasis of shade, mixed with offices and classrooms that are both modern and clean. Once again, with Africa as my point of reference, everything is so damn modern and efficient here, I can´t help but enjoy myself. There are cafes, a small gym, yoga and dance rooms, racquetball and tennis courts, and ongoing expansion to keep the place cutting edge. Most students have laptops. Seemingly all of them have the newest blackberry, iphone or droid gripped tightly in ready position.
The teachers come from far and wide. Exotic places like Brazil, Italy, China, Japan. And not so exotic places, like Baltimore and Kansas. Everyone has a story. A past. A future. Everyone is interesting and entertaining in their own way.

And now it is time to put myself down for the night. I will try to write more soon. Mainly for my mother, my sister, aunts and uncles who wonder what am I doing and why I am doing it. I hope this clarifies things a bit.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Out of Africa

I sit in an empty house, void of the novels, photographs, maps, and clothes that made it a home. I sit staring at a guitar case, three bags, a TV, and four blank white walls, preparing myself to venture away from the continent I've called home the last twenty months.

Today I awoke and read some, penned some personal messages to students, ate some toast and peanut butter, cleaned out my fridge and bathroom. I am restive. I hear the vuvuzelas and car horns from my sitting room; Jinja road is alive with the sounds of a national holiday. The home team Cranes host Senegal later this afternoon not far from here, adding to the merriment and disonant raptures of an otherwise calm Saturday.

I leave in thirty-six hours. But I am ready to go. I reflect on the images burned into my brain. The colorful memories that are reborn and then disappear, like the sea foam crashing over an empty beach. Then I wait s'more.

Dan is cooking tilapia next door. The house next to me is being renovated. Workmen have been hammering all day. Storm clouds approach and then linger, like a fart in a blanket. I check my watch, burn some mail, walk to the Guest House and eat a plate of matooke, then finally call my boda driver for a ride to the game...

I have not written much in the past month. I have not really had the energy to. Mostly, I have been thinking, consumed with the idea of leaving Uganda. How can I sum up what it is I have done? What was the point of it all? What was it that I was supposed to do here? What was my final exam? How can I reconcile the days and weeks and months and years? Is there any point in doing so?

I meet three interns from the embassy outside Nelson Mandela Stadium and we walk towards the gate. The scene can only be described with hyperbole. I witness every sound, smell, and sight known to east Africa. In the space of twenty feet, horns are blasted in my ears, a shirtless man attempts to paint my face on roller blades, three cops in riot gear eye me up and down, and thousands of fans converge on a closing gate. It's madness. It's African Football. And it's very, very claustrophobic.

We wait for the slivered opening to swell, then are pushed like rag dolls into the fray, careening off couples, vendors, fans, and metal toward the turnstiles. Horns blast from every direction. The sound is still in my ear twelve hours later. It may never fully be quiet again. Like a permanent sea shell reminding you of the sea. Except that it's not peaceful. And there's no sea. And no shell...

As the game starts, I sneak my second plastic cup of beer past the policemen and smile to myself. Other thoughts early on in the contest:

The Cranes of Uganda might have the shortest eleven men this side of Three Mile Island; how they could ever compete with a world class team is beyond me. But they threaten early before giving up a goal in the waning moments of the first half. Senegal 1, Cranes Nil.

At halftime, a friend and I walk out of the concourse to sample the food and drinks. And proceed to catch hundreds of men with their pants down. Literally.

We find a goat vender and get slabs of meat before finding another cold Bell. We guzzle it, eat the goat, slap meaningless fives with drunk men and women, and soak up the atmosphere.

Second half. Sun is peaking through the clouds. Horns still unbearably loud. That is, until the Cranes are awarded a penalty and convert. Insanity. Bedlam. Deafness. I can't hear myself think.

Twenty minutes later I call my boda and proceed to Sports View Hotel, past thousands of men, women, children, and farm animals, past the slums of Kireka, trampled-on crops, grasses, and mud, past cops and trucks, past bodas and bicycles. Into the smells of more meat sizzling, more smoke billowing, more haze enveloping, more people surrounding. Basically all the worst parts of the Bible.

After my last deep fried whole fish in who knows how long, I listen to a blues band in front of the pool, as dusk recedes into darkness. I sit around the table and answer questions of the three African neophytes, just beginning their summer in Kampala. "How long you here for?" one of the girls asks.
"Till tomorrow."
"For reals?!"
"For reals."

They have lots of questions and I have lots to share. Food gets eaten. Drinks get drunk. Questions get responses. We get the bill and I hail a couple of bodas for the ride home.

Agury picks me up a few minutes later. The dust and sand and smog are hideously thick. I mount the back of the seat of his Bajaj motorcycle and hold on. We speed past lorries and buses and sedans, weaving from shoulder to shoulder, in and out of danger, until we make it to Banda: my slum, my village, my home, and make the climb one last time, over craters and cracks, through puddles and past vagrants, and into the pearly gates of Kyambogo University.

It's now dawn. My last African dawn. My last morning wake up call from the weavers and thrushers and crows and ibises. My last still morning on the patio, gazing out at the red sun rising over Ntinda. My last coffee. My last cold bath. My last soapy bucket of laundry hanging out to dry. But I'm not sad or nostalgic. I'm not weary or fatigued. And I'm not giddy.

Dan's at church now, like he always is on Sunday mornings. I count my cash, stuff my bags, blow my nose, turn on some music. It's a morning like so many others I've spent here. There's nothing more for me to do today. And that's the beauty of this place.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A letter from one of my students to Lionel Messi, Barcelona soccer star:

Dear Messi,

Receive my lovely greetings in the name of good football. I hope you are currently doing well in Spain despite the bitter truth that you have no trophy to boast of this season.

Messi, I am wholy indebted to the way you mess up with the ball, especially around the eighteen yard box. Surely my friend, I like that and hope you continue doing the same for the rest of your life. For sure you are a star in the profession and no one can dispute that. You have scored millions of goals since you joined the world.

As I wind up my letter, I wish to extend my sincere condolences to you and your playmates, including Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, and Fabregas, not forgetting your beloved driver Guardiola. For the fans I have no much but advice them to keep heart. The season is indeed trophyless after that disastrous lose to Chelsea during your final touches in the quest for a slot in the Champions League Final due in Munich in two weeks time. Finally, I implore you to stop regretting and pick up your pieces for the remaining La Liga games.

I wish you all the best,


Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Taste of Africa

One of the first things I do in a country is adopt a beer for the duration of my stay. It is a rite of passage and helps me to associate with the common man. Find out where the men and women drink, what they drink, and where I can buy that drink when I need a drink. Long after I had graduated college and was a productive member of the working class, I realized that I would never become an alcoholic and that I had the capacity to say no and decide to do other things besides drinking to escape. Like travel. That being said, about the middle of the first bottle of my first Nile Special of the trip, I realized a mood swing. The pain in my lower back - stiffness if we're being specific - receded with the third of fourth gulp, as I sat out on the wooden chair overlooking the Kyamburo gorge, Kazinga Channel and the escarpment some two hundred meters below, where elephants and kob roamed free amidst the acacia and euphorbia inside Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The beer was a heavenly tonic. After six hours of patched tarmac and unannounced shoulder erosion on the roads from Kampala to western Uganda, any beer would have done the trick. But a cold beer, in the searing warmth of the African sun, helps stem the tide. I removed my shirt, played the ends of my toes with my flip flops and watched a man and his three daughters swim effortlessly in the azure water that dropped off to the cliff top.

I dislike many things about driving in Africa: bodas, taxis who just ease into oncoming traffic blindly, kamakazi pedestrians...the list is endless; but elephants are my biggest fear. Mostly because I can never predict their reactions. I can never say with complete confidence, "if I do this, they will then do that." It is completely arbitrary. Which scares the kabagala out of me.

At the park gate, I got out of the car and looked up at the greyish brown sky, an approaching elephant and the rain. The park ranger was on the phone so I waited for him to finish before I asked him about the lions and the trails and the route and paid our park fees. This meeting was very informal and because we had cash and were happy and eager and alone, the rangers smiled and quickly got us through the gate and onto the tracks leading out to Lake George and the salt flats before the elephant charged us or our car or both.

And as I was driving through the Kisenyi plains, under the sun-soaked golden skies of six o'clock in the afternoon after a brief interlude of heavy showers, the image of a herd of elephant struck me in the midst of a carefree tour of the northern flanks of our game drive. Sure enough, minutes before darkness, heading towards the gate and the exit of our game drive, we sneaked up on eight elephants in the middle of the dirt track, feeding on green vegetation some thirty feet in front of us. The enormity of these beasts is awesome no matter how you encounter them. But with the two of us seated tensely in a small saloon car, their size is hard to overstate. And my fear was also hard to overstate.

I reversed away slowly, waiting with bated breath for the last of the group to finish moving across our panorama and disappear into the night wilderness. These moments were seconds and minutes but felt like hours and days. The runnels of sweat along my brow, the dryness at the corners of my lips, the inarticulateness of my speech....all because of the elephant. There is no greater exhale than after a close encounter with an animal that can crush you and car like a coke can. There is no greater release than seeing these beasts disappear into the night. Life continues and you savor it. You relish it. You respect it more.

Twenty minutes later, safely across the bridge, as I navigated pot holes and craters in the middle of our twelve km tarmac journey back to the lodge, Noreen screamed for me to stop. I strained to find a cavernous bogey in the middle of the road but saw nothing. "Wha---?"

And there before us, in the middle of the Mweya Junction, stood one of the largest elephants I had ever seen, walking languidly and dispassionately across the asphalt to yet another clump of growth in the night. With my high beams I could make out the elephant and nothing else. Blackness enveloped us, and the grey beast, taking his sweet time, finally reached a safe distance away from us for us to be able to continue forward and safely back up the ribbon of dark road leading toward the top of the rift valley.

It is with great relish that I shared Uganda with my friend, Noreen. I had great visions of friends far and wide coming to visit me. The reality is they rarely do. People are just too busy. They have jet-set lives. Nuclear Families. Four-figure utility bills. Fish tanks. In any event, during the eight days I hosted my friend, we were able to do so much that I was reminded time and time again just how special this experience and country is to me. How many people can get in their cars, sprint across a verdant valley, cross the equator, buy fried bananas for lunch, wave at barefoot African kids running after you in anonymous villages, swim in the Nile, reach out and nearly touch a lioness on her way out of a fig tree, listen to the cooing and cawing of nightjars and owls, nearly get charged by a family of hippo and spit across the river into the Congo? Am I leaving out anything? Yes, I am leaving out a million things.

Yet the truth is life here can be very frustrating. There is no in between in Uganda. You either love an experience or loathe it. You either feel on top of the world or at the bottom of a trash heap. You either smell roses or steaming hot poo. You either feel rage or compassion. There is no in between.

And thus it was on our recent foray into the green abyss of the southwestern section of Queen Elizabeth, where we delved into one of the most overlooked corners of east Africa, running parallel to Lake Edward, and the border with the Congo. Ishasha's allure was simply the difficulty in getting there and the knowledge that once we had arrived, we wouldn't be disturbed. It also didn't hurt that our wilderness camp provided some of the most jaw-dropping scenery and luxury a safari can offer.

The real joy for me though was not in seeing the splendor of the game parks, the animals, or the pacifying treble of the Ntungwe River. It was seeing all those things through the eyes of a friend coming to Africa for the first time. It was in sharing in some of my frustration and enjoyment with someone who now knows my life here. And can relate.

In case I am not stating my case, here is a highlight from the eight days and the little reminder of the oddity of African travel.

Night One: 11:15 p.m. Entebbe Airport

Noreen's bag did not arrive from Amsterdam. We waited for an hour at the gate and then finally drove out of the airport. Upon deciding it best to stop and get food before it got too late for any dining, we pulled into a pizzeria, where this exchange occurred.

Me: Do you have any pizza?
Waitress: Only Chicken Pizza?
Me: Okay, we'll take a large. And two beers. Cold. Nile Specials. Please.

(Twenty minutes later, after the beers had been drunk)
Waitress: Do you want two more?
Me: Not yet. How much longer for the pizza?
Waitress: (Pausing) Um, you haven't ordered yet.

(Noreen and I exchange a glance)
Me: We ordered twenty minutes ago.
Waitress: No, you were still deciding.
Me: (Incredulous) Fine. Can you order the pizza now?

The waitress nods and walks away. She returns five minutes later.
Waitress: I'm sorry, we're out of Chicken.
Me: What? So we can't get any pizza?
Waitress: Not tonight. It is finished.

We paid for the beers and drove forty-five minutes home in the dark, along the treacherously dark Entebbe Road, past hundreds of villagers tight-roping the shoulders, as our stomach's rumbled to a dissonant roar.

On her last day in Uganda, we stopped by the Zoo to check out the animals and kill time before her flight left late in the evening. As we were walking near the lion exhibit, I glimpsed an African male reaching over a thorny bush in the attempt to pick something from a sprouting plant on the pedestrian side of the fence protecting us from the animals. I thought nothing of it until moments later, when the man approached me with a pinball sized green bud from the aforementioned plant.

Man: Excuse me, could you rub this on my face?
Me: What? No. Why would I do that?
Man: Do you mind? Just softly put on my bite on my cheek. (He pointed toward a red abrasion just below his  right eye.
Sensing nothing insidious with the man's exterior, I reluctantly grabbed the sticky ball and placed on the red mark on his skin.
Man: Softly please.

When I had finished, I quickly released my fingers and looked at the white mark once the man had taken the ball off the bite.

Man: Thank you, sir.

We turned and left him to his own devices, while I whispered to Noreen laconically, "So that might have been the strangest thing I've ever done."

Four days earlier, on a benign Tuesday evening in Kampala, we entered the National Theatre to watch a percussionist local group play their weekly concert in a second story indoor hall. The traditional group, replete with three or four female dancers and four male musicians, got the audience involved from the get go, pulling both exuberant and unwilling patrons up to the dance floor to mimic the gyrations from the professionals getting paid to shake their booties in public. I, myself, was dragged twice by the same woman in her late forties, dressed in the customary Gomisu, who patiently moved beside me while my face turned crimson as I attempted a weak copy of her dance.
A Japanese girl sat to our right during the concert. As many Japanese youths tend to be, she was mortified of the prospect of getting in front of an audience and dancing publicly with a group of strangers. On two separate occasions, she declined, pleading vociferously to abstain from the spectacle. That is, until a Ugandan guy ripped the plastic chair out from under the girl's backside, sending her butt first onto the floor. The entire audience nearly hit the floor with her. In hysterics. I've never seen a more embarrassed girl or a more entertained assailant behind her. When she finally was shamed into joining the lively group on stage, tears were rolling down her cheeks, either from extreme grief or utter shock.

Driving home on our final day of the trip, the clouds of death rolled out from Lake Victoria north toward the Masaka road. Rain drops became a downpour. A storm became an apocalypse. I had to pull off the road, as the rain seemed to be coming from all angles. I did not have a wiper speed for this tsunami, and it was all we could do to idle in neutral on the red mud of a besieged village, where every man, woman, child and animal sprinted for cover. The windows fogged up, the sky became a car wash, and the vista became a bad dream, until a single car passed us, and then another, and then slowly, with the confidence of a con man in front of a priest, I re-entered the fray and proceeded towards Kampala.

It would be another two hours before we were safely home. Darkness came and we sat at a round-about, clustered among the angry and tired, inching - literally inching - forward through each bottleneck in the blurry pathway of metal and rubber and dust and mud and shit and soot and grime. Besides the blackness of the sky and the pale orange glow from kerosene lanterns dotting the warren of stalls on the roadside, all I could see was trouble: trucks of policemen sitting menacingly in the back cab, armed with AK-47s; bicycles and pedestrians and motorcycles and vans and buses and horns spinning a confusing knot, all seemingly there to personally antagonize me and my nightmarish path home.  You either love it or you loathe it. And at the end of the day, you sometimes need a drink. A cold drink. To take the pain away.

Friday, February 17, 2012

My First Ever End of the Year Party in February

There is a common acronym used to make up for any shortcomings on this continent. T.I.A. (This Is Africa).

My reply: TITTFC (This is the Twenty-First Century).

Last night, Kyambogo University celebrated its end-of-the-year party at the Hotel Africana. A beautiful poolside setting and streaks of crimson and orange sky beckoned. Unfortunately, Kampala got its first real rainfall in two months and all plans were dashed, tables moved indoors, and hundreds of staff made to wait. And wait. And wait.

The party started at six. I arrived at five minutes to. The program got underway about 7:20. We didn't eat until after 8:30. In the meantime, hundreds of lecturers, admin, builders, mechanics, janitors, and librarians stood and waited in the outdoor corridors, looking around for some sort of direction to their evening out.

As I had nothing to do and no one to really talk to, I started noticing familiarity in the room I was sitting. And then it dawned on me: the room we were setting in was the setting in "The Last King of Scotland"'s State Dinner where Idi Amin woos Nicholas to join his staff. No sign of any actors on hand for this event, however.

Therefore, I had to turn to my other stand-by when things get really bleak: watching simple, normal Ugandans wait in utter disdain, with their arms folded, and their bellies rumbling, while the Deputy Vice Chancellor gives an inordinately long speech just after promising there won't be any speeches (he read from a copy of the Vice Chancellor's prepared speech (the latter cancelled at the last minute)).

Of course, the funniest thing about the entire event was that we were celebrating the End of the Year Party. In February. There was a cake, streamers, sparkling candles, and even a couple of sarcastic "Happy New Year" chants when the cake was cut. The official line was the party had to be postponed due to logistical concerns. That's African for 'broke'.

I sat with library and IT staff. Most of our good-natured banter centered around the old guard, who must have had to endure dozens of these galas that ran about the same way. Watching entire tables of disinterested and dispirited middle-aged Africans can be absolutely fascinating when there is nothing else to do. The only thing worse than watching these broken souls is sitting with them. I was very, very glad I found a group of young staff to share the evening.

It was very appropriate all of this was staged in a once charming and state-of-the-art hotel built in the 1970s that needs a touch of modern class and upkeep in order to compete with newer, grander competition. Somewhere, there's a metaphor in there.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Two Worlds Collide

The black man wakes up just after dawn, puts on his sandals on quietly outside his shed, stares out at the crimson sky, grabs two plastic jerry cans and walks down the slope to get his daily ration of water. The ground is wet and muddy from a heavy rain during the night. Nearby, an ibis pecks at the worms beneath the blades of lime green grass, wary of the black man’s advances. The black man has planted maize around the entire periphery of the compound, the white man’s compound, and has watched it grow during this season’s violent downpours. In a month’s time, he will harvest it, feed himself and his daughter, and sell the remaining stalks to neighbors and friends for pocket money. He will go to bed each night with his stomach full, from his own toil and sweat. This lifestyle is the only way it has ever been for him. It is what he knows.

Next door to the black man, the white man awakens to the sounds of forest kingfishers and chickens fluttering above and around the compound’s bottlebrush tree. He removes his eye mask and condemns the noise with a single expletive, rising to remove the mosquito netting on his double bed as he reaches for his pair of slippers. He boils water for his morning coffee and pulls the drapes open to stare out the burgeoning sun. He can see the black man walking purposefully up the muddy slope carrying two jerry cans full of fresh water. Thank God I don’t have to do that, the white man thinks, as he hears the snap of the boiler, and the bubbling water coming to the surface of the plastic ewer. The white man looks through his fridge for something to eat. He has bought goods at local supermarkets, pre-packaged and sealed with price tags that the black man would not believe. The white man peruses the shelves: a dozen eggs, a cellophane package of bacon, a box of milk, hamburger meat, and O.J. He pulls out the cereal and milk, cleans off an aluminum bowl, and eats his breakfast in silence. 

The black man begins whacking the shrubs at a quarter past seven, after he has finished brushing his teeth with water from what is left over in his small jerry can, rinsing his mouth in the adjacent garden next to a dilapidated blue Volkswagon, idly parked in the wet mud.

The white man is staring off at the sunrise fifty yards away, watching a pair of blue turacos bob up and down on a neighboring tree. The whacks from the black man’s blade soon pull him from his torpor. So much for the peaceful morning, he says to himself dryly. The daily ritual of the black man’s work has begun to annoy him. Why does he have to insist on doing all his work when I’m waking up?

After a couple hours, the white man returns from his office to find the black man hoeing the garden, furiously digging a patch of black earth with a primitive wooden handle and rusty metal face. The sun is hot and the black man, dressed in a blue work uniform, is sweating profusely. They nod to each other in recognition and then continue with their individual morning routines.

The white man retreats inside his three-bedroom home, boils more of his running water, rinses out his favorite mug, and begins brewing another round of coffee. As he waits, he pulls the shades and turns on the lights in his sitting room. He stares outside at the beckoning charcoal skies, booming thunder, and imminent precipitation. It’s a good morning to get some work done.
But within minutes he hears the sloshing of a mop outside his front door. Annoyed, he puts down his teaching notes and stands up in frustration. Now what? The black man is shirtless, with a white bath towel draped around his waist, scrubbing the patio cement clean. A red basin full of soapy water sits to his right. The black man is working quickly, sensing the rain drops only minutes from arrival. The white man opens the door and crack and leans outside to face his neighbor. “What are you doing? I’m trying to work.”
“Yes, sir. I am cleaning, sir. I thought you were inside. It’s very dirty.” To the white man it looks like one could eat salmon off the cement. Cleaning the patio four times a week is a little more than overkill. It’s ridiculous. The white man privately thinks the black man is doing it just to spite him, interrupt his morning, and get his attention. See how clean I can make it? Now give me money.
“This is my patio. I am inside working. Please only clean when I have asked you to do so. You interrupt me with all your noise.”

They stare at each other for a brief moment, the white man with petty vitriol, the black man with confused fear. “Anyway, just try to keep it down and finish up.”
“Yes, sir. I am finishing now, sir.”

The black man continues mopping robotically until the task is complete. Inside, the white man shakes his head and tries to get back to his reading. But he cannot. The white man's rebukes never seem to change a thing. The black man won’t change. He can’t change. And it’s bugging the white man even though he knows deep down it shouldn’t.

Later in the day, after the rains, the black man sees the white man outside, lying in a hammock reading a novel. The white man glimpses the black man out of the corner of his eye, noticing his tenuous approach. He knows instantly what is about to happen. He puts the bookmark inside the binding, closes the pages, and waits.
“Yes, sir.” The black man begins.
“Yes, how are you?”
“Yes, sir, not very good, sir. You know I am working very hard for this place. The estates people…they don’t give me anything for money, sir. Not even for food, sir.”
“Mmmm,” the white man is all too familiar with this sob story.
“You know, last night I even didn’t have anything for food, sir. It is not good.”
“What about the maize and the peas in the garden?”
“The food from the garden. I saw you cooking last night.”
The black man makes no response. Instead, he gazes out at a rotten mango, dripping with pulp and juice at the base of the mango tree. He scans the shrubs he has slashed and grass he has cut. He waits silently, fidgeting with his hands down by his sides.
“We have talked about this before. I am not your benefactor. I am here to work. I am not here to pay you for your services. That is not my job. You need to talk to the universi-”
“You know, the woman who was here before, from your side, she paid me to wash her clothes. She sends me money when I need help.”
“So why do you keep asking me then!? I don’t have money for this.”
“I am very sorry, sir. Very sorry.”
The white man looks at the black man, half with contempt, half with pity, wondering why it was he was put here. It rubs him the wrong way, yet he retreats back to the house for a few small notes from his wallet, hands it to the black man, who extends his arms in front of him, bending slowly forward, clasping the wrinkled, green bill politely, before it disappears inside his brown mitts.
“When I am outside, in the morning, working…” The white begins. “I need it quiet. I work from home…” his voice trails off and he loses heart, realizing how petty he sounds. It doesn't matter. The black man has already starting walking away from him. He has got what he came for. The black man retreats back inside his cement hut. He slips his blue sandals off before entering, shuts the door behind him and is gone from sight.

In the evening, the white man is done with his work and again is sitting out on the patio, watching the sun go down, pondering his choices for evening entertainment (a DVD at home, a drink in town, Italian food somewhere nearby). As he considers these options, two hornbills are squawking nearby and he runs to go get his camera. When he returns, he sees garbage billowing up in smoke behind the stalks of maize in the adjacent compound. A man in blue overalls is stoking the pile, and the black man is standing idly chatting with a neighbor and laughing. Are they laughing at me, the white man wonders. He goes right for the black man.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Sir?” the black man’s smile has quickly faded and his visage burns with concern and fear. He has seen the face of the white man like this before and he knows what it means.
“The burning?! I told you to tell them to stop the burning. What the hell?! I told you when someone is burning to make them stop. How can you even breathe when it’s like this? That smoke is toxic!”
“Sir, the problem is…”
“I don’t want to hear about problems. Tell them to put it out!”
The white man walks off in a huff, slamming the door inside his smoke-filled sitting room. The black man watches him disappear. His face has lost all its life, all its vigor from before the incident. He shakes his head and excuses himself to go discuss the matter with the man who is stoking the blaze.

His house is untenable, so the white man grabs his laptop, phone and charger, and leaves quickly and resolutely. As he strides past the burning rubbish, he stares indignantly at the black man, leaning against a shovel handle and talking quietly with the worker. Something about the black man startles the white man. He looks statuesque in the night sky, staring off into grey ashes and orange embers flickering about the compound. Fuck this place, the white man mutters.

After the incident, the black man sits alone on his bed, lost amid a sea of thoughts. The power has gone out and the fire has been extinguished. His hut is lit by a single paraffin lamp. He can still smell the acrid smoke floating above him but has put it out of his mind. All he can think about is the white man. “What have I done to him to make him hate me? God only knows…”

In his office two hundred yards away the white man cannot concentrate either. It isn’t the noise of the gospel choir that is bothering him. Nor is it the incessant buzzing of the pestilent mosquitoes attacking his ankles and feet. It is the black man. It is their relationship. How can he not know what makes me angry? Why does he keep doing it? And then he has the nerve to ask me for more money.

These two men are separated by class, by education, by language, and by culture. They are separated by virtually every category one could identify. They live different lives and run in different circles. They always will. They try to understand each other but fail miserably. They try talking to each other but nothing changes. The white man knows this situation is temporary. One day, he will leave the black man behind. The black man will never leave. The black man has nowhere else to go. He has no one else to bother. He has no other choice. He doesn’t know any better. And deep down, despite his anger, despite his exasperation, the white man knows it. And he wishes he didn’t feel the way he does.