The River Nile

On our way to the airport last week, we stopped at Murchison Falls National Park, and spent a phenomenal night in a lodge next to the Nile River. We could hear hippos snorting and spraying water as they sat submerged near the bank. Hundreds of birds and the buzz of insects filled the air. A family of baboons picked through food scraps and trash, alongside a group of warthogs. Every hour or so, the diesel engine of the ferry rumbled on and spewed dark smoke, slowly chugging across the wide river, ladened down with Land Rovers and pedestrians, and the occasional military vehicle. Every hour or so, that is, until it came time for us to cross the river! One of the engines apparently broke down, and without it, the ferry wasn't strong enough to make it across the strong current to the other side. So there it sat, as the line of cars and people grew. Fortunately, we were traveling with people who speak the Local Language (as they call it) to figure out what was going on.

In the US, when a bus has mechanical troubles, there are always at least a few indignant passengers. How dare the public transportation system inconvenience us! But in Uganda, everyone seems to be a bit more accepting when things don't go as planned. They will fix it...sometime. When? Hard to say. It could be a long time. Any estimate of exactly how long? At this point, someone will probably give you a time...two or three hours? But this answer should be considered a polite way of getting you to shut up already, and should not be taken literally.

So, instead of crossing the river and getting on the road to Kampala, we had to turn around and go back the way we came. Back along the two track dirt road through the park, pausing for herds of antelope to cross. Back along the road past the IDP camps, smiling at naked, waving babies. Back 70 km to Gulu Road, past the overturned truck, still on its side in the ditch, with the driver camped out next to it. And lucky for us, this detour ended up delaying us enough so that we got into Kampala just in time for Friday afternoon rush hour. Gridlocked traffic circles, dusty sections of unpaved or partially paved roads crawling with bikes, and motorcycles and pedestrians and taxis, all generally following the convention of staying on the left side of the road unless there came a need to pass, or to avoid a chicken or goat, or small child.

But I could hardly be angry at such an ancient and mesmerizing river for inconveniencing us in this way. I spent hours gazing at the river, thinking about how it separates people and places, how massive and prized the perch are that come from its waters, how there are very few other waterways in the world that have presented such challenge for a millenia and more.

"The Nile, forever new and old,
Among the living and the dead,
Its mighty, mystic stream has rolled."

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Gulu Seems Very Far Away Now

I can tell you one thing, the next time I go to Africa, it will be for longer than two weeks! M and I are back from our trip to Uganda, a little jet-lagged on account of the nine hour drive to the Entebbe Airport, and roughly 20 hours of flying on three, progressively smaller airplanes, which safely deposited us back in the Burgh yesterday afternoon. And two weeks is sort of the equivalent of eating a sample of ice cream on one of those teeny-tiny spoons, in terms of getting the Flavor of Africa.

In support of this ongoing project, M will be launching a website that will include lots more photos, perhaps some video, and blog entries that will describe our trip and the situation in Northern Uganda in more detail. I hesitate to post pictures here right now, because I think the images and the stories we have deserve more thought and reflection before we share them. Africa is a complicated place, and our trip has prompted lots of questions. So, stay tuned for a more comprehensive report, but here are a few teasers.

I left for this trip the day after school let out for me, but in the Uganda calendar they had started their second term. I spent lots of time observing and interacting with the P1 and P2 classes, and I can now say I will never complain about class size again. There were ninety children in some of these classrooms! Granted the school is overcrowded, but when I asked the Headteacher about the "ideal" class size, she told me forty-five! Here P2 (this is roughly equivalent to 3rd grade) is learning some simple division. The children brought their own counters - either small twigs, or bottle caps, or nuts. I found the instructional delivery to be quite good, but I noted that it was tough luck for any student who did not bring a notebook or counters. That was pretty refreshing. I spent a fair amount of time and energy this year chasing down extra resources for my own students who were perpetually losing their pencils, homework packets, books, clipboards, manipulatives, etc., probably because they know I am accountable for their performance, and therefore WILL go this extra mile or two for them. In Uganda, the child, or family, is accountable for her performance, at least as it relates to things like school attendance, bringing materials, paying school fees. This is not to say the education system in Uganda is utopian...it is far from that, at least in the schools I visited.

I will leave you with this photo of a meal we were served by the family of our host, Father Michael Komakec. Ugandans are pretty darn generous to their guests, and we were well-fed during the entire trip. Vegetarian foods abound, although most people eat meat any chance they get and think you are somewhat of a freak if you do not get excited about beef or chicken or goat. Uganda's equatorial position and ample rainfall make it possible to grow nearly anything. Most people don't have refrigerators, and the growing season goes pretty much year-round, so it only makes sense that the food pretty directly travels from the garden to your plate. Ugandans are rightly horrified at the thought that one would eat "fresh" greens that have traveled from say, California to Pennsylvania, and are several days old. So we ate a lot of potatoes, cassava, sweet potatoes, greens, okra, rice, corn, mangoes, papayas, bananas, passion fruit, and beans. The food was not spicy, but I definitely wouldn't call it bland. I guess the best description is to say that the foods really taste like what they are supposed to. Potatoes have a delicious, rich potato-y taste. Greens taste very Green. Bananas straight from the tree have a nice texture.

I took a really nice, long, hot shower last night, marveled at the reliability of the electricity in our apartment (which suddenly feels Huge for just the two of us), and M and I went out for veggie dogs at D's with Matt and Sloan. It's good to be home, but intercontinental travel has awakened M and K's nomadic tendencies....


Greetings from Gulu, Uganda

We are nearing the end of our time here in Gulu, Uganda, and we can't wait to get home and share our amazing pictures and stories. The hospitality is unbelievable, and we have made a lot of friends.

Tomorrow we will head back towards Kampala, making a short detour to tour a national park, and then we will fly out of Entebbe on Friday evening, and should return to the USA by Saturday evening.

Gulu is still operating on dial-up, though, so this post will be short.

See you soon!


Greetings from Kampala, Uganda

After 16 1/2 hours in the air and a few more milling about in airport lobbies and baggage claims, we've arrived safely in Uganda. However, many of our bags have not, and were left in Amsterdam due to flight weight restrictions.

So we're off to the airport (again) to collect them, then headed north to Gulu this afternoon. For those wondering we're 7+ from EDT in the USA.

So far, so good... the weather is nice, not too hot. We've already seen quite a few stork perched on the roof of the hotel. It was quite dark last night when we drove from Entebbe, so we didn't see much - today's drive should provide a better feel for the region.

More to follow... or not, depending. We'll be back in computer range a week from Friday.


Tears, Fears, and Gears

I don't ever remember crying on the last day of school, but plenty of my students did today. I wasn't sure how to react. This has been a tough year for me, and frankly, my students drove me a little crazy. Just when I was about to go over the edge, though, they would redeem themselves, and then I would write a cute and clever post about them. I will miss them, and I have to admit that I learned a lot this year. So, I'll chalk it up to another mountain conquered.

So, we're going to Africa tomorrow. I would be lying if I said that this didn't make me a little nervous. Of course I hate flying, which is pretty much the only way to get to Uganda. I am also afraid of getting a worm, even though something like 30% of the world is living with these parasites in their bodies, and really no worse for the wear. At least, it's no worse than fast food, in the long run. I am also afraid that I will have to eat meat, get malaria, or get arrested for something silly like a microscopic amount of marijuana in my shoe. Generally, my fears are pretty irrational...bears, lightening, and psycho killers who prey on campers have all been proven to be of low risk to my well-being on previous adventures. Don't know if we'll be able to post while we're over there, so look for us back online in July.

When we get back from Africa, we plan to do some hiking and biking. We are currently brainstorming a list of places we can go to that are 50 to 75 miles from Bloomfield and would make a good weekend destination. Since we are spending a good chunk of change on Uganda, it would be best if these places were cheap campgrounds. If you know of anyplace that's good and is on a well-paved, two-lane road about 75 miles from Pittsburgh, let us know.


Wondering Where the Markets Are?

Along with the 90 degree temps this week, June brings the start to the Farmer's Markets in Pittsburgh. In the countryside surrounding our Fine City, plants are popping up and farmers are harvesting them for the express purpose of getting them onto your table.

But wait, should you go to Bloomfield tonight? Or Oakland? What are the hours again?

M brilliantly created a Google Calendar with all the markets on it, so that you will know when and where to go to get a non-salmonella-tainted tomato. Click here to view the calendar.


Africa in Perspective

So, M and I are on our way to Africa, Uganda to be specific, on Saturday. You may be wondering why we have written so little about this upcoming voyage. For a couple of reasons, the trip didn't seem real until very recently. Perhaps this morning, when I was shoving soccer balls and pencils into my suitcase. But I have been doing a fair amount of reading on the blogosphere, and I came across this interesting map. I think what blows my mind about this trip is that I don't know what to expect. Even the scale of this huge continent sort of blows my mind.


Suburban Bliss

If your Sunday nights are spent catching up on laundry and watching CSI, I suggest that you head out to one of Allegheny County's free concerts. Bring a picnic, bring a frisbee, bring a friend.

We met up with my parents, who figure they have been going to Sunday night shows at Hartwood Acres for about twenty years. They always bring delicious picnic food, wine and extra chairs, for people like M and I, who keep losing track of our lawn furniture, on account of not having a lawn. We also met up with my brother and his crew. What I like about Hartwood Acres is that although alcohol is strictly forbidden, there are approximately 2 police officers on guard for about 15,000 people. This leads to the people amiably being discrete about their consumption, and the police looking the other way as long as no one gets too rowdy. There is a nice balance of young suburban families and elderly people and dirty hippies, and this keeps everyone in check and irony to a minimum.


The Burgh is cookin' tonight.

M and I scored some window fans from his parents' basement today, to alleviate the sweltering heat of our Bloomfield apartment, but it is still too warm to sleep, despite my fatigue.

This is my first summer back here since 2003, and I forgot what warm weather means for this region....sticky humidity, old buildings with poor ventilation that trap the heat long into the evening hours, and swarms of insects.

Now I guess we could break down and stick an AC unit in the window, like our neighbors, but we are addicted to our $19 electric bill, and are also trying to acclimate ourselves for equatorial Africa, where we will be in about a week.

Rosie the Cat recently got a haircut, so she's slightly more comfortable, and looking very sleek. It also turns out that she's not all that overweight, and we may have been over-reacting as a result of the bulkiness of her fur. Now that she is shorn, she looks like a normal sized house cat.

Heat makes everyone cranky, and nothing makes me crankier than wasting money and resources, and I can think of no bigger waste than digging a tunnel under a river when there are 74 bridges in the city proper and 944 in the Greater Pittsburgh region, which goes to show that we are plenty good at getting over all the water, and should have no need to go under it. Incidentally, we were down at PNC Park tonight (near the site of the aforementioned ridiculous tunnel), courtesy of M's dad, who took us to the baseball game. It was a close match, against a team we supported in the recent past, the AZ Diamondbacks, but the Buccos were unable to close the deal, and lost 4-3. It was still a lovely evening, albeit hot, and we were sitting right in front of a bunch of drunk co-eds from Peter's Township. How do you get to Market Square from PNC?

Tomorrow, I will start to take my malaria pills, and that makes this whole Africa thing a little more real. I am still looking for one more suitcase, so if anybody has one, give me a holla.



I had a fantastic day.

Second grade went to the zoo.

It is amazing how much I love my students when they are not misbehaving as a result of me trying to force them to do what they do not want to do.

I was responsible for a group of four girls...two with special needs, one with a particular flair for temper tantrum drama and one who is a bit of a bully, but also, ironically, kind of a people pleaser. We started off with the elephants and giraffes, and then went slowly through the monkey house, trying to avoid the Head Start kids who kept catching up with us. They were observant, asked excellent questions of the zoo staff, and were mindful of a group of elderly women, one of whom was in a wheelchair, near the orangutan exhibit.

It was really hot and humid today and my girls started to get cranky long before our scheduled lunch. Now, if we were in school, we would have been forced to Power Through until the scheduled lunch. S would have gotten a stick in her pocket. But on field trip days, we are free! We ate lunch at 11:30 and all crankiness immediately dissolved, especially when I allowed them all to get soaking wet in the mister after they ate.

The highlight of the trip for me was the baby beaverswho, incidentally, were born on my birthday. The mother and father beavers carry the around in their mouths and it is the cutest thing. I even saw the mother beaver drag some logs around to create a playpen of sorts, for her mischievous offspring, who kept jumping into the water and trying to swim.


One Crazy Day

I had a very weird day. This morning, I received five valentines from a sheepish first grade boy. They said things like, "You rock me!" and "You're a blast!" Yes, go ahead and check the date, this post is from June. I heard some other strange things from students, so strange I feel uncomfortable posting them on my non-anonymous blog, but if you are lucky you will get to here my tattoo story in person later this week.

It all started early this morning, when a man with a giant, terry-cloth bath towel on his head arrived at the bus stop. He greeted me with a "Hey sisSTAH," and then collapsed to his knees, laughing maniacally. He was carrying a bottle of water and a coffee, and I could only assume that he was in the recovery portion of a major bender. I hate to be unfriendly to people so I always say hello, but then I get trapped in conversations that have no endings. He preached a little, "the world is all one, man, we are together" kind of stuff, and then he got distracted by a woman who needed a lighter. I took the opportunity to get a little distance and started talking to this older woman who is always there. We have the same conversation every morning. She always remembers that I'm a teacher, but forgets where I teach, and when I tell her she says, "aren't you afraid to go out there?" Our attention was returned to the man in the bath towel, who was doing a little more "preaching", but when she asked me to repeat what he had said (which was something like, "you have to go over to that corner if you want to see my head"), I just told her he was crazy.

"Oh," she said, "I thought he was a Muslim. He was praying before."

I'm not kidding. I think America needs some cultural tutorials ASAP.

Anyway, so fast-forward through work. I got some Valentines. I didn't get paid. Again. I made some sock puppets. And after work, I stopped at the convenience store next to my school to get some change for the bus.

Before the woman could even hand me the change, a guy walked in the door and the very loud burglar alarm went off. He wasn't robbing it, the door alarm just misfired. They were frantically trying to disarm it before the police showed up, so I was stuck inside, because the doors have to be shut. Nothing worked, though. So, they shouted and gestured at me to go ahead and leave, but as soon as I walked out the door, with the alarm still blaring, I realized the entire neighborhood and all cross-traffic had stopped to find out who was robbing JJ's, and it definitely appeared to be me. I walked as casually as possible across the parking lot and was crossing the street when a women suddenly decided to make the left turn. I literally had to jump super hero style across the hood of her car to avoid being run over. And then she called me a b*&%$!

There are nine days of school left. Thank goodness.


What?? Are those eggs I see in M & K's frying pan?

I need to preface this post with the disclaimer that the following food, although vegan, is not health food. It is not very good for you, and should not be consumed on a regular basis. With that said, it was really delicious and fun to make. The good thing about eating a plant-based diet is that you can spend time thinking of delicious, perhaps even fatty, foods to add to your diet, instead of figuring out ways to the eliminate them. M has a thing for processed meats - he always liked ham and corned beef and anything cured. So as much as he loves salad, he occasionally craves for something a little toothier. Last night he cooked up some seitan ham, which is made of gluten and tofu, seasoned with BacnBits (yes, they are vegan) and liquid smoke. It cooked all night in the crockpot and we sliced it up this morning.

The "eggs" are actually a mixture of tofu and chickpea flour, colored with turmeric, and are sort of a high-protein pancake. The consistency really does resemble that of a fried egg, although the taste is different. To assemble the final product, we toasted some bread and fried up the seitan and the fake egg to give them a little added crispiness.

Some of you may be wondering, why not just eat a regular egg? It would be, in fact, more of a "whole" food. We are blessed (or is it cursed) to have to make so many choices in our diets. Local vs. organic. Whole vs. processed. Low-fat vs. low-carb. Saving money vs. saving time. I remember the first time I walked into a large supermarket, after spending several months shopping at gas stations and tiny country groceries. I was so overwhelmed at the choices among bread and peanut butter that I nearly didn't buy anything at all. It's easy to get caught up in the whirl of Nutrition Labels and Diet Books and Lifestyle Choices. In the end, M and I simply prefer not to eat animal products, mainly because of the methods through which they come to the table. But we still like a good breakfast sandwich.