Wednesday, September 18

5 Great (or at least good) Things About Africa

Let's face it, the developing world is called that for a reason.  At various moments of the day one can find a dozen things about which to gripe: too much dust, too much pollution, drivers that make Bostonians look like angels, soy milk that costs $5 a box, massive poverty immediately next door to mansions, I really could go on and on.

So, instead, I thought that once a week or so, I would talk about things here that are good, even great.  An old friend from law school once told me "Perception is Reality."  At first this concept did not sit well with me at all!  I was a first year law student, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take on the injustices of the world.  I knew "right" from "wrong," and "fair" from "unfair."  I knew only my own reality and it was so, well, real

Now I know that 10 witnesses to the same incident will tell 10 very different stories, and each will believe that his own is the only true one.  I know that our minds have a way of distorting information at the moment it is observed.  And, in the act of viewing the world about us, and the people in it, our minds are telling us things that may, or may not, be true. 

So, by changing what I focus on, I can change much about my own reality.  I can go from griping, to being curious.  I can go from uncomfortable, to grateful.  And I can go from closed-minded, to being really blown away. 

Philosophy aside, here are 5 good things about Africa:

(1) Pantyhose is nonexistent. 
     How often as a prosecutor in Seattle did I gripe while getting dressed in the morning, struggle throughout the day, and desperately tear off at night this dreaded piece of attire! 

(2) It is not cold. 
     Well, yeah. We are currently about 6 degrees in latitude south of the equator.  It gets light at 6am and dark at 6pm, and it is tank-top weather 24 hours a day.

(3) iTunes works here. 
     This may be more of a comment on the internet in general, rather than Apple in particular, but it comes as a nice comfort that Karl and I have been able to rent and download three movies since we've been here. We even purchased one of our all-time favorites, The Hunt for Red October, which I will probably watch at least once a month until I am able to recite the entire movie. 

(4) You can ride in a personal "taxi" called a tuk-tuk and be taken to the doorstep of your destination for about the price of riding the bus in Seattle. 
     While it often involves a maniac young man driving like he is playing a video game, and the exhaust from other vehicles is not great (it isn't nearly as bad as India), these are a handy and convenient way to get around the city.  Karl even took one with Carrie and Robert (Carrie was safely tucked inside her traveling bag) to meet me for a romp at the beach.

(5) I am quickly discovering that the United States is not, in fact, the center of the universe.
      We who grew up in the US take for granted a wide variety of things like property ownership, currency in denominations larger than $6, balanced nutrition with lots of choices in foods, generally terrific air quality, being able to drive 200 miles in 3 hours (here this kind of distance would necessitate a flight!), and many, many more.  While this might seem to be a negative comment on Africa, it is a very positive comment on my development as a person.  A broader perspective is exactly what this post is about, and Africa is bringing me exactly this.

Sunday, September 15

The Kindness of Strangers

So, we moved to Africa.  With three dogs, two people, five boxes or bags of our pared-down must-have belongings (in comparison, we took 10 boxes/bags/surfboards to Hawaii, so we are getting better at this), and we did it all on a tight schedule, having been at Burning Man a mere three days before departing.

I was forced to do something that I don't like doing: rely on others.  I prefer to do everything important myself, to manage as much as I can, and to do my best to control outcomes.  But I had to trust the vet, hope for the best at the USDA, turn over my beloved Jackie to Swiss cargo, and rely on all my other last-minute appointments to be on time.

Not easy!

But an idea was offered to me at just the right time, before the real craziness ultimately began: There is such a thing as the kindness of strangers.  And I can now confirm that this thing is real. 

At 8am the day before departing Boston, I was at the vet's office, one we'd never seen before who could fill out the bureaucratically tedious travel paperwork for the dogs to travel.  What Dr. Weiner (ha!), lacked in a sense of humor, he made up for in his meticulousness, checking and rechecking microchip numbers, addresses in Switzerland and Tanzania, birthdates, etc.  His work was exactly what we needed.

From there I had to make it to Sutton, MA (out by Worcester) by two o-clock to have the paperwork endorsed by the USDA.  And in between I had to make a stop at Mt. Auburn for my last-in-a-series-of-three rabies vaccines.

So I raced the dogs home then went to the hospital.  Sitting at Mt. Auburn registration (where you must check in before you can go to your specific clinic and check in again) I was becoming increasingly frantic as the minutes ticked past my appointment time.  I needed to be back in the car and out of there!  One woman came in after me, made a fuss about her colonoscopy time being "right now" and was allowed to go in front of everyone.  So after some deliberation I went to the desk and said, in a superbly calm and quiet voice, "I don't mean to be pushy, but I am in a somewhat of a massive hurry."  I was invited to go right away and without the scowl the previous woman had received.

In dealing with administrators, secretaries, vet techs, and nurses, they would invariably ask me: When are you going to Tanzania?"  I would respond, "Tomorrow!  I'm a bit frantic!"  They were universally kind and understanding and would say "Oh my gosh, you MUST be!  Let's get you out of here!"  or  "Good luck on your trip!"

The nurse whom I have come to know quite well in the travel clinic came in and asked how I was doing.  I told her honestly, "Panic has definitely set in.  Just stick me!"  She had the yellow book documenting my vaccination history already filled out, the vaccine in hand, and was cleaning my arm as she began this conversation.  She indeed stuck me with no hype but all smiles, and I was out the door, and very grateful!

Out at the USDA, they were on their hour-and-a-half lunch break when I arrived, ahead of schedule(!)  But the generous young woman took my papers and said she would have the vet get started on them as soon as she came back from lunch.  I guess she could tell I was nervous to let go of these papers I had just obtained (at a price of $900! and with hours I could no longer replace) so she assured me that they would be safe with her.  She also said, "Oh we see Dr. Weiner's patients a lot, he always does a very good job."

So I went to the car to wait, ate a bizarre falafel sandwich that had pickles on it (yuk!) and managed a lovely conversation with the woman who owned the falafel shop.  She was very interested in my travels to Tanzania and told me about a friend who had just gone there on honeymoon.  It amazed me about myself that I was able to carry on such pleasant conversations throughout my day when inside I was so urgent!

I am running long already here and haven't even gotten to Jackie's adventures flying on Swiss Air so let's just say she was nothing short of a celebrity at Logan Airport.  Our check-in person closed down her post to personally take Jackie to her last stop before boarding the plane.  In Zurich, they were professional (naturally, they're Swiss for gosh sakes), and in Tanzania, they mostly were afraid of Jackie and treated her with nothing short of deference.

Sometimes you have to rely on strangers to make it in this world.  What I have found, is that it is not an impossible proposition to rely on their kindness in particular.  People are generally going to do their jobs, and not be insane.  (One of my big worries was that someone would try to x-ray Jackie.  A TSA agent in Boston told me, "That would be crazy.  That would never happen in the US, and no airport anywhere in the world should x-ray a live animal."  Because I was forced to, I believed him.  And because I can't do everything myself, I was forced to discover that it is indeed possible to rely on the kindness of strangers.