Sunday, August 28, 2011

One week into classes, and... cockroaches!

They live in my house. On Tuesday night I had the first encounter; I was peacefully sitting in my room writing as I saw a bug-like thing scurrying over the floor. I grabbed a cup that I had at hand and put it over the thing -- not very big, maybe a centimeter long, and looking rather ordinary. Then I went into the kitchen to boil some water, and saw another very similar bug. Trapped that one under a cup as well.

The next day I got home, and was greeted by two tiny and two larger copies of my bug in the bathroom. When I went into the kitchen, one of them was wandering around on the ground.

On Thursday, my roommate Emma reported drowning about four of them during her evening shower. One of them was waving at me with his little quivering feelers from the top of the fridge, and about two or three more from the kitchen floor. I didn't really dare even step into the bathroom before turning on the light for fear of stepping onto one with my naked feet. By now the little guys were pretty sizable as well, and quite clearly -- cockroaches. Lovely.

I take it there isn't much you can do about them, and they're not really dangerous... but when I got a chance to flee Muizenberg and stay at a friend's house in Stellenbosch on Friday, I was sure as hell pleased to get away from my six-legged cohabitants for a night.
(The first one I trapped in my room is still alive. I think I'm getting kind of used to him. I might adopt him as a pet.)

Aside from that distinctively new experience, I survived the first week of AIMS! My students are learning English -- it seems the Sudanese are struggling a bit, maybe also due to their Ramadan fasting this month. The Congolese prefer speaking French, and so communication with them is sometimes difficult as well.
Everyone is also getting familiar with computers. AIMS runs on Ubuntu, and all the software is free -- I'm quite excited about this, because it means I'll learn some of that myself. But first, these African students need to learn how to type (I put up little color-coded keyboard printouts on every screen in the computer room), and, within three days of starting to type, to write LaTeX.

More exciting for me: I got to take photographs of all my students for us to properly learn their names. AIMS doesn't currently own a camera, so I whipped out my little Canon and offered to help. We managed to find what I suppose is an old stage lighting spot and a tripod somewhere at the institute, and I set up a little studio in the main lounge. Everyone's complaints about how terrible last year's pictures were motivated me to try and do a good job, despite the limitations of my equipment -- and I think it worked, at least I got them all to smile!
In fact, some administrator was so pleased with it that they asked me to take pictures of all the staff as well, and I spent my Friday morning taking more portraits. For the first time ever I did all the settings on my camera manually, to get consistent colors and exposure for all the pictures, and I had a lot of fun with it. Although some of the kitchen staff was rather reluctant to have their pictures taken, as you can see here with Lennox, the chef:

And some people's vanity surfaced in quite surprising ways, like my co-tutor 's, who insisted that I take his photograph about 20 times total.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

First impressions, in chronological order.

The movie Invictus -- about Nelson Mandela and, of all things, Rugby -- moved me deeply on the plane. South African airport sniffer dogs are trained for fruit, and found two apples in my guitar case.

The townships are everywhere, and look miserable. Much more so when you're really there than when you see them on TV.

There is only instant coffee. The two tea options are black and rooibos.
Vegan food may damn well be impossible at AIMS. Scotsmen have a very different idea of "healthy food" from mine.

One student won't shake my hand, because I am a woman. The bathrooms in our apartment are gender segregated.

There is no internet at my house. There is only one single socket in my room. I can't walk the 5 minutes between my work and my home by myself after dark.

There are sharks in the ocean. The beach is ridiculously beautiful.

Racial separation/segregation/discrimination makes me unhappy. So does the fact that I'm suddenly aware of being white.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Three German cities

Three cities in three weeks, without even traveling very far -- I got to really appreciate the density of my home country recently.

The first weekend after my return from Canada brought my physicist friend from MIT up to Essen, and we visited Cologne on his first day at my house. He arrived from Munich at 7am, we ate breakfast with my parents, and then caught a train to the big city. Cologne is the posh part of our parts, but still not posh on the grand scale of things: Most of the buildings are grey, recently built. Like much of the region, the city was bombed out during the second world war. Still, there is a feeling of air and openness surrounding the Rhein, and the inner city is lively and picturesque. Although my Colonians aren't the most hospitable of creatures. On the subway I got yelled at quite rudely by an old fat lady with a local accent upon resting my feet on the seat in front of me. Then, she turned to her companion and complained loudly -- in German -- about "those foreigners"; evidently she'd heard me speaking English with my friend.
The best part of that city though is indubitably its grand cathedral. For a few Euros you can climb the gothic towers over 600 or so steps, and get a beautiful view both of the structure itself and of the surroundings. We got caught in a major downpour just as we were approaching the Dom, and -- quite luckily in my opinion -- had the chance to ascend all the way up through curtains of rain, something I'd never done before. Meanwhile my fellow countrymen on the streets were looking very disgruntled, seeking shelter from the water; we Germans are quite humorless concerning our weather.

A day later, I followed my college friend down to Munich. Much prettier, much more antique looking. Also, much more full of tourists. The Bavarians here are lovely, open, friendly people. My main reason for visiting however was not Munich, but the Max Planck Institute just north of it, in Garching. The place is dominated by the technical university and the various branches of the MPI located there, grey, surrounding a commuter parking lot. The cafeteria food turns out to be awful, vegan is an unknown concept. The physicists seem friendly enough.
The remainder of my day I spent wandering around Munich, taking pictures of Municians in their natural habitat, and finally having a few beers and a little picnic with my friend in the English Garden. (That park, by the way, is the world's largest inner-city green patch, larger than Central Park in NYC.)

The week after, I found out that another Cambridge friend of mine, artist by profession, was in Berlin. And one of the few high school friends I am still in touch with lives there now. The decision to just go to that loveliest place in the world on a whim was easy. (My high school friend then turned out to be sick, and unable to meet with me, what a shame.) I figured the cheapest and most convenient way to go was by ride share -- how wrong I was!

The ride share to Berlin gave me the wrong meeting time on the phone. On Tuesday morning, on the train to the meeting point in Wuppertal, I got a call from him, yelling at me for not letting him know I was late. Then he said he had to confer with another co-traveller to see if we could leave later. Then he didn't pick up his phone at the number I had for him. Then when I got to Wuppertal, he was nowhere to be found. I sent a few irate text messages, decided I was a rich bourgeois, and got on an ICE train to the capital.
On the way back on Wednesday, I decided not to make the same mistake; an hour before the agreed upon departure at 15:00 I texted my ride share to confirm. In response, I got the message "leaving from the main station at 16:30" -- much too late to get home from the drop off by public transport. Calling the guy didn't work, either. Who knew if they were even actually going to leave at four thirty! So, again, I opted for a 100 Euro train ticket, bringing the total cost of my trip to about thrice what it was supposed to be.

Berlin though was amazing as always, and more surreal than usual. I stayed in a soviet prefab flat right in Alexanderplatz. At night, sitting on a stoop with the Cambridge artist and two computer-filmographers, drinking beer out of bottles, I learned about the Great Northern Pacific Garbage Patch. For about 10 minutes I was sure they were messing around with me, until I finally accepted that there is something of the size of a continent forming out of plastic trash in the northern Pacific. Just as I was getting over this absurd fact, a fox showed up, scurried across the street a few times, and disappeared under a car. "Yeah, that little guy lives around here, we've seen him before" -- this may have been the first time I've ever seen a live fox. And that in the middle of Berlin.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How I'm going to South Africa after all (hopefully)

I was supposed to take a plane to Cape Town today. At least that was the plan until about two weeks ago, when I got back to Germany and realized that, despite the laid-back attitude of my future employers, getting a study permit to go down there would take at least all the time I had.

The first thing I did, after one night in my parental home, was order a police certificate at city hall. I spent the next day running from doctor to doctor to get someone to x-ray my chest, certify that I didn't have TB, and sign off on a form saying I was in good health. They took my blood and my urine, and despite considerable practice it took me three trips to the bathroom to produce the latter.
Then, fill in a bunch of forms, and express-mail everything to the consulate -- all because I hadn't thought to do these things earlier. And because I couldn't really send my passport anywhere before I needed it to get on a plane home.

So at first I was hopeful, and figured maybe everything would work out. Then, a lady from the consulate, let's call her Ms T, called my home.
- "What will you be doing in South Africa?"
- "I'll be teaching, and I'll be a student at --- University."
She doesn't know that I'll mostly be teaching, and a student only for administrative purposes; but that's not her concern:
- "Your letter from --- says you will be doing research. But you filled in the wrong form, you applied for a study permit."
- "All graduate students do research, it's part of the program."
- "I need a letter to say that you're a student, if you do research, you need a work visa; this letter is contradictory. I can't work like this."

That was the short version. The actual conversation had a lot more of me going "students do research", and her going "will you be a researcher or a student?", and several insults to my cognitive abilities.

What ensued was about a week of emails going back and forth between me and the institute I will be working at, and between me and the consulate. The university for some reason did not just write me a new letter. They kept instructing me to tell the embassy things, while the embassy kept asking other things. People were changing their minds about what kind of permit I even needed. People were telling me I would have to wait 10 to 15 days to get anything. People kept telling me to fill in different forms.

Eventually on Thursday (three days before my putative flight), Ms T said: "To settle this for once and for all, I need another letter from ---", and they finally sent me another letter. An exact copy of the one I originally sent in with my application, with a different date. And the next morning T called me to tell me, much friendlier than she had ever been before, that my study permit had been issued and would go out that afternoon.

Of course it was too late to make it for my flight today, and so I'll be getting another week of vacation at home. But holy shit was this an experience in ridiculous bureaucracy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sometimes I love my country

I went for a run in the woods yesterday. Nature where I'm from is actually quite pretty - no Canada or Finland, but there's green. So I was running along, looking like I knew what I was doing, when this middle aged couple crossed my path. She stopped me and went "What's the best way to get up to the Bismarck tower from here?" That tower is one of the more common tourist destinations in our remote corner of the region, for the few tourists that ever make it here. So I explained, and then continued on my way.

Half an hour, a steep mountain climb, a rain shower and several muddy puddles later, I was in the middle of an avalanche-like descent on an overgrown rocky footpath. Suddenly I noticed what looked like a woman with her pants down by her ankles further down the hill, with someone else looking on from the bottom of the path. I was like "wooow, there is a naked woman there, I wonder what these guys are doing, maybe I better bolt into the forest...", but it was a bit too late for veering from my trajectory. So I approached, and ran by the nude lady, realizing it was the tourist on her afternoon walk that I had met earlier, taking a leak on what she thought was safe territory. Her husband was waiting for her on the road. I yelled "Hello again" and zipped by, chuckling a bit to myself.

But the best part was that, rather than being embarrassed, the two cheerfully said hi, and somehow managed to stop me and engage me in a conversation about my toe shoes. As we were talking, she pulled up her pants and bundled up again for the way home. Somehow I can't imagine anything like that happening in most other places I've ever lived.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Can't carry it with you if you want to survive

Last weekend, I was leaving once again.
This time, I left the continent that had been my home for just about five years. Probably the biggest goodbye I've had in a while. And somehow this time, although I usually hate packing more than anything, I managed to really get into that aspect of my departure.

Four days I spent moving things around the apartment, making piles of clothing and buckets of stuff in this corner and that, sorting and re-sorting. Then, I embraced the leaving behind. I vigorously thrust piles of paper into the recycling bin, and danced by the dumpster out back. Every time I decided not to take something with me, I could feel a bit of my old shell shedding, and new young pink skin emerging. Finally, my whole life fit into two duffle bags and a backpack. Fuck, it felt great!

Meanwhile, my Canadian blood brother sent me a song with the lines
"Leave all your love and your longing behind,
can't carry it with you if you want to survive."
The soundtrack to my last week in his country.

It was, I hate to admit, a bit painful too: Moving further away from Boston, my home of many years. And parting with the people that made Waterloo seem like a place I could actually live in. But nothing beats the feeling of being on the road, moving, by yourself and onto a new place -- I had almost forgotten.