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.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Morning Blasts

I had a nice little day planned. Trip to the embassy, mail a couple letters, go to my favorite cafe, do a crossword puzzle, maybe a double shot of espresso to get me going. Or, I could hide out in my compound because another protest held the city hostage all day.

By ten a.m., the battered and beleaguered rival, Kizza Bessige had been rumored dead. This led to a surge of violent protests, especially in my area of town, in and around Jinja Road, leading up to the east campus gate. I heard explosions nearer and closer than I have to date. Loud booms were followed by shrieks of terror and tremulous voices from within the university. The police had surrounded the area. The shrieks were not too dissimilar to the ones heard at county fairs, where whimsical teens flew up and down on zephyrs high on cotton candy. But without the cotton candy. And the zephyrs.

I was outside drinking coffee and correcting papers when the bullets started flying, the tear gas started hazing, and the screams started - frankly - freaking me out. I got up and watched the procession move from east to west, some running, others walking rapidly...away from the fray.

After a chat with Dan and a text message from the embassy, I turned on the TV to get the eyewitness reports of..........................Kate Middleton's long awaited dress design. On every channel. No news flashes. No bottom line ticker underneath the scene at Trafalgar Square. Just wall to wall coverage of "A Royal Wedding." By lunch time the disquieting sensory overload had been replaced by a random flare of gunfire here and there. The violence had spread throughout the city though, 1 death was reported (not Bessige's) and scores of others wounded. A lone helicopter bore down on the epicenter of the action a couple miles east of my compound. I went to the campus ATM and saw 22 people waiting in line. Students were standing outside lecture halls, frozen in place, listening for warnings of approaching danger, calling family, wondering how they were getting home, like me, cornered and sequestered from violence but also unavailable to leave campus lest more protests erupted.

Poetically, just as Anderson Cooper was reeling me onto the sofa for the long awaited bride to arrive at Westminster Abbey, our power went out for a solid two hours, squandering my chances to enjoy "A Royal Wedding." Really, I was only watching to see if they'd show flashbacks to 1981 and Charles' elongated neck and Mad Magazine ears. I loved that era.

In any event, business resumed as usual by three p.m., although off campus reports of police blockades and sporadic clashes have precluded me from leaving the area. I stocked up on paw paw, chapatti, pork sausages and Nile Specials just in case I can't leave, but I'm pretty sure things will be back to normal by dusk if not sooner.

And, in fact, they are. Have a nice weekend.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An Update with no Particular Theme

10 pm, Wednesday, April 27th
I’m nearly finished correcting student short stories tonight. Nearly. I have one more to go and 25 staring at me for the next two days. More are due to arrive tomorrow for my evening class. This batch has already shown glimmers of promise. At the start of the semester, the prose was formulaic, predictable, and without conflict. 

A mosquito just flew over the dining table and I clasped my hands together and squashed it in mid-air. Death to flying thing. Number six of the evening. I’ve been washing my hands a lot. But back to the stories. 

For the first month, seventy to eighty percent of the work I received look something like this: girl meets boy, girls falls for boy, boy and girl go to local dance club where girl thinks boy is 'dreamy', girl wakes up in the morning with no memory of night before, in next sentence girl is suddenly preg-o, father disowns girl, girl gets AIDS, girl forgives boy for pregnancy and AIDS because she reads the Bible, father forgives girl for some reason, everyone feels hunky dory. The End. Seventy to eighty percent of the stories I was reading had some variation of this template. I’m not exaggerating. And the sample set wasn't a handful. It was close to 100. There was no character development, no conflict, no climax, no believability, no nothing. I was growing weary with each passing day. These students chose Creative Writing. They were literature majors. Surely, there was talent somewhere.

Boys making mud bricks

One man's trash is another man's treasure

Got caught in a rainstorm with my boda driver and watched locals convert discarded tires into rubber-soled sandals

My students in our classroom

Students responding to a writing prompt in class, as you can see, enough chairs is an issue

Butterfly flutters in a nearby meadow

Our Lit department at 4 pm on a Monday, two hours of tear gas scared everyone away
The scene an hour after the police rolled through campus

Now, sitting back in my black pleather chair, rubbing my red caked soles and squishy toes together, listening to a choir sing gospel tunes 100 meters behind me, I think we’ve turned the corner. I’m reading of 300 year- old cyclopses, vampires, princesses, and madmen. Students are describing physical gestures, details such as 'pools of coagulated blood', a few cool adjectives are thrown in here there (like vociferous and turqouise). There are thoughts, dialog, actual progression and suspense in these stories. Some twists and turns here and there. Daddy likey.

I’m injecting another dollop of orajel inside my lower gums. Heaven. For a quick high without the side effects, Orajel’s a champ. Whatever I spent on that tube at Rite Aid eight months ago, it's worth ten times that amount to me today.

I’m spending most of my mornings drinking coffee, watching butterflies sputter cursive letters through the air. An orange and purple one today wrote lust is dead over the shrubbery as I settled into a lesson plan for my eleven o’clock class. So many things to observe outside. Birds building nests, sparring in mid air, storks circling over dead carcasses in nearby thickets; it’s a veritable Audubon Society outside my front door step.

A proposed teacher revolt is in the wind for next Monday. Nothing has been confirmed. I’m always the last to know anyhow. Half of my excitement before a lesson centers around proposed upcoming civil unrest in the area that my students fill me in on.

Another mosquito is squashed. Numero siete.

At least the strikes seem to be dissipating around town. The “Walk to Work” mission by President Museveni’s defeated rivals netted three of them jail time, one of whom got to spend the entire Easter Weekend in the slammer. That was the same guy who got shot with a pellet gun in the hand and the following day wore a cast all the way up to his elbow. He was seen on public TV being grabbed and stuffed in the back of a pick up truck by the military patrolling outside his home, just by chance I’m sure.

Around the compound, things got interesting last Monday when police armored vehicles showed to quell a student rebellion in the early afternoon. I walked outside to check laundry and inhaled some hot toxins that burned my throat and sent me scuffling back indoors, shirt over my face, coughing and wheezing. I heard gunshots and tear gas all around us; students scurried away from the fumes as best they could. By four p.m. campus was an absolute ghost town. On the bright side, my laundry dried quite nicely.

This week - after the four day weekend for easter - it's business as usual. Groups of students sitting outside studying in packs, business majors trying to find wi-fi hotspots under trees and in dilapidated buildings, proposed department meetings re-scheduled because teachers have malaria, heaps of trash being burnt in between lecture halls. 

I feel like time really seems to be speeding up. I remember in school when six hours of class seemed like a month. Now a morning goes by before I can barely catch my breath. I wake up before eight and before I know it, I’m staring one o’clock in the face, wondering what’s for lunch.  Not sure I like it. Part of it’s the speed of life here that has slowed me down, but part of it has to be age. I’m not convinced the weather isn’t culpable too. Three hundred sixty five days of sunlight and room temperature has to take its toll on a guy’s equilibrium. It’s possible to do set aside two to three tasks for a day and before you know it, you’re heading to bed. Repeat same thing tomorrow. Weeks go by like minutes. Pretty soon a ten month assignment evaporates like sand through your fingertips, another year arrives, it’s time to make decisions on a job again, and I’m wondering which friend had another baby. A gecko is climbing the ceiling above me. He’s cute and scared shitless of me. But we're allies. We both kill mosquitoes this time of night, he better than I.

I played catch with my former student, Julius today for twenty minutes on the lawn. It was great to hear the sound of cowhide smacking into leather. The smell of the gloves, the grip of the baseball, the sheer joy of firing a knuckle ball at Julius as he watched the rotation of the ball stop in mid air and dive straight into his sternum. “Sorry, man!”  The ball ricocheted off him and bounded harmlessly into the patch of beanstalks Dan has planted recently. A few more knucklers and he’ll get the hang of it.

Friday, April 15, 2011


Took an overnight bus from Kampala to Kigali two weeks ago. I wouldn't recommend unless you enjoy sweating restively near strangers and taking pee breaks in elephant grass with forty Africans dotted in your periphery. The hours of between two and six a.m. melded together like super glue on an eye socket. i woke up stiff at the border, a thick mist perforating the climates of jungle and mountain.

Rwanda is beautiful. What I saw I liked. The capital is so provincial, so suburban I had to be convinced twice at the bus depot that I had actually arrived.

"This is the capital?" I inquired incredulously.
It was an alpine village built on several sweeping hillocks, baby mountains if you will, with pines and fir clinging to their roots amidst a burgeoning group of residential areas throughout the peaceful city. Peaceful now.

I was groggy and hungry at 9 am when I finally settled on a place to stay in the city center.

I found an ATM that accepted International Debit cards (there are thousands in Uganda, in Kigali...one.).

Then I found a cafe with great blended mochas and steaming cappuccinos. I ate a heavenly fruit assortment before taking the most civilized motorcycle taxi around the capital.

I had great pizza in the suburb of Remera, was sobered by the Kigazi Genocide memorial (more on that in a moment) and pampered with pool and suds time at the Hotel Mille Collines (the inspiration for "Hotel Rwanda" starring Don Cheadle).

I met a fellow fellow for lunch on Saturday and walked around the city again, had amazing African tea at her favorite tea house, a great meal at a local buffet, and stimulating conversation at the aforementioned central cafe that became my second home in Kigali. It was fun to exchange anecdotes of our teaching experiences, living arrangements, and regional anecdotes.