Saturday, May 29, 2010

To future Peace Corps Uganda trainees

When I was preparing to come to Uganda, I scoured the interwebs for packing-related posts. I wanted to know how closely I should follow the packing list Peace Corps provides and what things that I should bring were left off the list. I remember how I soaked up every bit of information I could find, so in this post I've created a "little" list for you future trainees. It's not comprehensive and you should, by no means, bring everything on the list (you don't have the weight allowance for it!), but it's a start. I used the official Peace Corps packing list as my guide and went from there. I hope it's useful!

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to bring clothes you LIKE. I went more for comfort than fashion, and while comfort is important, I wish I had brought more cute clothes with me.

Rain jacket - don't really need to bring one. But if you do, make it light weight! I brought one, but it's too warm to use so I just use an umbrella most times. During the rainy season it's usually raining really hard and you're not going to want to go outside anyway. You really only need an umbrella for when it's just sprinkling.

Sleepwear - bring a few pairs. The yoga pants (longer, ankle-length) are nice for lounging too. Bring tanks for sleeping in or some light-weight ts.

Long-sleeved shirts aren't really necessary. Just bring a lightweight jacket (like a sweat suit-ish zip-up jacket). There’s only one part of the country that gets cold enough for a long-sleeved shirt, and that’s in the south.

Skirts - bring at least 4. I’d recommend against long, ankle-length skirts. You might want to bring one, and that’s ok. The days here do get warm and long skirts don’t allow much air movement! You can get skirts made here, but you're probably not going to in training. And it's no fun to wear the same three all freaking week.

Gouchos are your friend. Invest. Also maybe some black leggings to wear under stuff.

When the packing list talks about tops it's a bit vague. Bring cute ones. Stuff you wear in the States will work fine. I made the mistake of bringing plain short sleeve shirts and I really regret it.

Tank-tops. Bring them. They, like gouchos, are your friend. Just be warned that the ribbed ones (like they sell at Old Navy) will stretch like none other. Try to find some that aren't ribbed.

Dresses can be a nice alternative to skirts. You might bring one for swearing in (although several girls got dresses made for that) and one more "casual" dress. This one can be tank-topy, but bring a shawl or cardigan to cover up with. Some places it’s perfectly fine to show your shoulders, but other sites are more conservative.

Speaking of shawls, they're awesome. I wish I had brought one or two with me. I bought one here, but they're nice to keep in your backpack during training for when it starts to rain and the cold wind blows in through the window.

Ignore what the Peace Corps packing list says about jeans. yes they're kind of hard to wash, but you don't really want to bring slacks. Bring at least one pair of jeans and you'll be fine. Also you might want to consider bringing a pair of Bermuda shorts (the ones to the knees).

Underwear/Bras - Bring lots. I'm talking like 30 or 40 pairs. Set aside half for mid-service or some later date. Handwashing will really wear down your undies (like everything else). Bring nice ones. I brought Victoria's Secret (the 5 for $25 ones so they were fairly inexpensive) and I've been happy. Same goes for bras. Bring several nice pairs. The stuff they sell here is NOT as good as the kinds you find in the States.

Bring a couple pairs of socks. Dark colors, certainly not white. You don't need many, but sometimes it's nice to wear socks around the house. Ugandans have cement floors and they can get a little cold/hard sometimes. Also if you’re a runner, you’ll want to bring socks…but if you’re a runner, you probably already knew that!

Sports bra - I’m not a runner so I didn’t have any need to bring one, but if you run, you might think about it.

Slip - bring one if your skirts can be see through. I brought skirts that have liners built in and have never worn the slip I brought. Save your money.

Shoes - Tennis shoes are nice if you hike or are going to go running, otherwise I wouldn't bring them. Tevas/Keens/etc are awesome. Bring cute ones. Flip flops are a plus too. I'd also suggest Crocs ballet slippers I have them in black. I love mine and they're super easy to clean!

Belt - bring one if you're bringing jeans or any type of pants that requires one.

Cap/Hat/gardening gloves - you can leave those at home.

BRING TAMPONS. Peace Corps will not provide and they can be somewhat
expensive here. Or, alternatively, bring a Diva Cup. But practice with it before.

BRING FACEWASH. Impossible to find and when you do it's like 8 bucks
for a tiny little thing.

You can bring hand sanitizer if you like. It's pretty expensive to buy in Kampala. I don't really use mine...ever.

BRING NAIL POLISH. Your toes will want to look pretty.

Don't worry about make up. Bring a small supply for going out and swearing-in. I used to wear it all the time in the States – never went out without some make up on and now I rarely ever wear it. Besides, you'll get tan and the shade you'll bring won't match anymore.

I'd also bring nail clippers, etc and razors. The ones here aren't as good.

Bring knives. Bring several. You won't regret it. If you drink coffee, bring a french press.

Can opener is a plus too, also measuring things. I found great measuring spoons and such at Bed/Bath/Beyond before I left - there's also one for liquids that's awesome.

Bring hot pads…they're not available here....weird.

Ziplock bags. YES!

Knife sharpener is a good investment too. The knives here suck and you'll need to sharpen!

You don't really need to bring spatulas, etc or tupperwear. You can find them here.

Bring a large camp towel. I also found a narrow, long one (it's yellow) at walmart that I cut in half to make two wash cloths.

Flat sheets are good since you don't know what size bed you'll eventually have. You'll be given a twin-ish sized one during training. Also bring a plastic mattress liner. Some mattresses will have bed bugs. I'd bring a pillow (just put it in one of those vaccum bags and make it flat for packing).

Also a small camping sleeping bag can be nice if you have the room for staying over at friend’s house.

Alarm clock - no need. You'll get a cell phone here and you can use that instead.

head lamp - YES! Bring extra rechargable batteries for it too. it's useful for the latrines!

flashlight - no need. You can find one here and your phone (if you buy one in country has one built in).

Watch - yes. If you wear one in the states, bring one with you.

Shortwave Radio - you can find one here. However if someone gives you one as a gift, bring it.

iPod - MUST! with lots of songs!

Small speakers - YES! There's this cute little round one that looks like a little tuna can that's awesome.

Camera with batteries - YES! bring one that will take AA batteries if possible. You should also bring lots of memory cards

Solios are nice, however I haven't used mine yet, but I have pretty good access to power. You might not.

LOTS of rechargeable batteries! (and battery charger!)

A flash drive is should bring one if you have one already.

Don't bring blank CDs. Not even sure why it's on the Peace Corps packing list.

If you bring your laptop, you need to bring an external harddrive. They're good for backing up your computer and you'll want to steal movies/tv shows/music from people.

speaking of should bring one. There's no one I've met here who has regretted bringing one.

I'm not sure if you should buy the voltage converter here in Uganda or in the US...but you can get the plug adapter here. I got one in Kampala for 3.50$. Way cheaper than in the States!

The food section of the Peace Corps packing list is best saved for packages from home. Although I would bring a supply of Cliff/Luna/etc bars and some powdered drink mix. I really like the K2O protein mix in pink lemonade :P

Bringing cash is fine, but make sure it's in 50s or 100s AFTER 2004.You'll get a MUCH better exchange rate here. You will need to bring about 50$ for a cellphone if you don’t’ unlock yours before you get to Uganda. Peace Corps requires you to purchase a cell phone, but doesn’t give you the money for it.

If you bring a credit card, make sure your bank knows you'll be in Uganda for the time and request that they don't authorize any purchase unless you notify them before hand.

Bring at least 8 passport size pics. You'll need them for Peace Corps stuff and for opening a post office box in town.

You don't really need to bring a dictionary or reference books unless you can't live without them. Use that space for more important novels!

You can find old (2004, 2008, etc) GRE and LSAT prep books in the Peace Corps office. Don’t bring one unless you absolutely have to.

Duct tape is your friend. bring it.

A calendar is nice, but it’s easy to make your own out of paper when you get here. An appointment book could possibly be useful, but don’t waste the space if you don’t think you’ll ever use it.

Journals are nice if you like journaling

Good scissors are a plus too!

Scotch tape is another thing I wish I brought, somehow it didn't make it in the bag!

Also bring Aloe Vera gel if you burn. DO IT.

There’s no need to bring envelopes or US stamps. Letters back home take about 2 weeks and are only 2,000 shillings to mail. Envelopes are widely available here.

bring at least two Nalgene bottles. You'll inevitably lose one. I lost one before I even left Philly! Left it in my sister's car when she drove me to the Hotel!

Sunglasses are a good thing to bring

You don't need to bring a money belt or Binoculars.

Bungee cords are nice, bring several sizes.

Some sort of day pack is a good thing to bring. I brought a regular backpack (school type) for training. you'll want something to carry your training stuff in and for short trips.

Luggage locks - YES. Bring at least enough to lock up all your luggage on the plane and make sure you have some for your backpack for walking around Kampala. There are thieves in Kampala who WILL try to unzip your bags, especially in and around the taxi parks. I always put luggage locks on my zippers when I go into Kampala.

Zip ties - no need. Not sure why this is on the Peace Corps packing list...

Instrument - if you play, bring it. especially guitar. They're expensive here and if you already have one, bring it!

Hobby stuff, novels, pictures, earrings/jewelry are all pluses

Seeds are good to bring. You can find a lot of stuff here, but if there's something you really want (like various lettuces, or really lettuce at all – Ugandans don’t eat lettuce! etc), you should bring it.

Good map of Uganda is nice too. Also a map of the world!

The Bradt guide is nice, but you can access a lot of stuff online. I haven't used mine, but you never know....

You don't really need to bring sports equipment, but if you want to, don't worry about it. Bring what makes you happy. A Frisbee is always nice.

Cards and card games are also nice to have!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

New Roomie

My new best friend. He's cuddly. He's soft. He purrs like a maniac. Birdie.


I brought my new kitten home two days ago from Grace, a fellow volunteer's, site. Even though I'm slowly by slowly getting used to traveling in Uganda, it was still quite the experience.

I first boarded a coaster (smaller than a bus, larger than a matatu) at my site around 8:30am. Usually I show up around 9 and wait in the coaster for a half hour until it fills. It never fills up earlier than that, but for some reason, it was full very early. I was one of the last to arrive and therefore had to sit in one of the "jump seats," pull-down seats that sit in the aisle. I really do not like these seats. They are not as comfortable; the backs lean way back and you get quite the abdominal work out sitting back in one. Furthermore, since you're sitting in the aisle, you're sitting on people's luggage, sacks of food, etc, leaving you with little to no leg room and you're constantly getting up to let people exit the vehicle. My seat was on top of a large sack of matooke. My knees were to my chest and my backpack kept sliding off and bumping against the woman next to me. The kitten's basket that I purchased before I left was sitting on my lap. Not much room to move around!

The woman to my right had the cutest baby who kept running her fingers over the weave pattern on the basket, enchanted with the texture on her fingertips. Why is it that Ugandan babies are a million times cuter than most American babies? Sorry, America...Uganda's got you beat in the Baby Cuteness Contest!

While coasters and matatus usually stop several times during the journey to Kampala, letting passengers off and picking up new ones. This time, however, we only stopped once - to let a woman throw up. A shout came from the back of the bus; a man yelled to the conductor, the driver quickly pulled over and a young woman stumbled over people, bags of matooke, chickens to the door, and knelt in the grass. I felt bad for her. I knew how bad the roads are now that most of the road is torn up in construction. I took my Dramamine before the journey, she didn't.

For over half of the drive into the capital the road is dirt or gravel, the tarmac torn up in order to "improve" the roads. The rainy season is winding down and the dust and dirt on the roads is increasing. The dust chokes the breath out of you, scratches your corneas and coats your skin a lovely shade of reddish-brown. Women cover their heads with wraps, shawls, handkerchiefs, plastic bags - anything to keep their hair preserved. Men might hold a handkerchief to their noses, filtering out the dust, but otherwise they sit stoically, accepting their dusty fate. A fine dust permeates everything, sneaking into every crack and crevice. Even after several bucket baths, the water still turns russet.

We arrived in Kampala three hours later dusty, dirty and sweaty. Shannon, another Volunteer who had been taking care of Birdie for a few days until I could come pick him up, told me before I left that I could catch a matatu to Grace's site at either the New taxi park or the Old taxi park. However, after walking through the entire New taxi park, asking various vendors for the stage, dodging matatus, and squelching in mud, I realized that there wasn't a stage for Grace's site in the New taxi park; I would have to make the trek to the Old taxi park.

The two parks aren't very far apart, perhaps three or four blocks. But those are hectic, untamed three or four blocks. Special hire drivers grab at you, "where we go?" ; boda boda drivers cut you off in the street, weaving around matatus and pedestrians; vendors shout at you and hawk their goods in your face; the sidewalks are crowded with hundreds of vendors and shops, slowly walking Ugandans and boda bodas, refusing to use the streets. The streets themselves are muddy and bumper to bumper matatus near the taxi park entrances, and zooming with boda bodas and special hire cars in the blocks between. You have to walk quickly and mercifully through the crowds, pushing your way through slower groups, always on the look out for thieves.

When I finally made it to the Old taxi park, I found the matatu to Grace's site, settled in for the expected long wait for the vehicle to fill up. Contrary to my expectations, the matatu filled in minutes and we were on our way. The drive to Grace's site was less than an hour and, in true Ugandan fashion, the roads were terrible. We swerved from side to side as we dodged craters in the roads, inched our way through the ever-present rush "hour" traffic, and inhaled even more dust. I was never more glad for Dramamine. God bless the person(s) who invented that miracle cure!

The drive back to my site the next morning was less eventful. Now, with two kittens in tow (I'm looking after Shannon's kitten for a few days while she and Grace live it up in Kampala), I made my way out of Grace's site, hailing a matatu on the side of the road, navigated my way from Kampala city center to the New taxi park, found myself a window seat on a comfy coaster, held a handkerchief to my face as we bumped over the road construction and arrived safely back at site in the evening.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

**WARNING** Ugandan Jigger Removal

So this morning I walked to town to meet up with my friend Joyce who promised to remove the jigger who set up house in my left foot. A jigger is an insect that lives in the mud or dirt and burrows into human flesh (usually on the foot near the toe nail) and lays an egg sack. I first noticed it when I was washing my feet two days ago and felt what seemed like a really hard mosquito bite. It didn't itch so I was curious. After much contorting (it's hard to get a good look at the bottom of your foot without a mirror!) this is what I saw:

"Oh, great!" I thought. "I've got a mango fly larvae in me!" A mango fly was just wishful thinking. Mango flys lay their eggs on drying laundry, or really any damp surface. These eggs hatch when they come in contact with skin and the larvae burrow into the host and set up shop there as they grow. The typical way to remove a mango fly is to suffocate it with a liberally applied dollop of Vaseline over the small hole it leaves through which it breathes, and then squeezing the little invader out like a zit. Wishful thinking indeed.

What I quickly discovered, after covering what I assumed was the breathing hole and not feeling or seeing anything frantically wiggling for air, was that I had a jigger. And those aren't easy to remove.

Yesterday Joyce told me that all I needed to bring to the jigger removal was a safety pin. She would use the safety pin to dig out the egg sac and remove all materials the jigger left behind. While Joyce only requested a safety pin, I also brought some anti-bacterial wipes to clean both my foot and the safety pin, a box of matches to sterilize the safety pin, and some bandages and antiseptic ointment for post-surgery repairs.

After thoroughly cleaning both my foot and the "scalpel," Joyce began by poking at the spot and exclaiming, "It's spitting at me!" I can only assume that she meant the wound was "spitting" liquid that my body created to try to fight off the invader and not that the jigger and/or egg sack was actually spitting something at her. Because that's just too creepy/disgusting for me to think about right now.

Eventually she managed to dig out the egg sack, any remaining bits of jigger and whatever the jigger used to line the cavity with the safety pin. Surprisingly it didn't really hurt. I expected it to be quite painful since it hurt quite a lot whenever I pressed on the spot and I could feel a dull aching at the spot when I walked. However, I barely even noticed she had begun. I could definitely feel strange pressure when she was digging around. But little pain. It did hurt more near the end, after she had removed the egg sack and was kind of...scraping...the sides to get the remaining material out, but not like I expected. And I'm also a little bit of a baby. I suspect that for most people this wouldn't have hurt at all.

Here's the end result:

Jigger free :)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

There's always room

Last weekend I went to a friend's site in a neighboring district. One of the new volunteers moved into the unit attached to hers and I wanted to welcome her to the "neighborhood" and see a good friend at the same time. We drank some excellent red wine (only 16,000= in Kampala!), watched Zodiac, ate some delicious guacamole and chapati "burritos" and had a great time. Originally this was supposed to be a welcome party-weekend, but those plans were postponed before they got off the ground and I still wanted to say hi.

Even though my friend lives pretty close, we rarely see each other. It's not that we're not that good of friends (she's probably one of my closest friends out here). It's not that she lives too far away (she's about 40 kilometers from me - 20-ish miles). It's to do with the transportation. That 40 kilometer journey in the states would probably take about a half hour in an air conditioned, cushioned car with plenty of leg room. Not so in Uganda.

In Uganda, one rarely hears "There's no more space!" or "We're all full here!" Personal space is not something that Ugandans take into account when traveling. I've only heard "I'd give you a ride, but there's no more room" once, and that was from a white woman transporting other white people. And, I'm afraid to admit it, but I was a little uncomfortable with that statement. What do you mean there's no more space? We're in Uganda! There's always more space. But alas, she was transporting some newly arrived Danish visitors and probably didn't want to overwhelm them too much during their first week by inviting an sweaty, un-ironed, hasn't-washed-her-hair-in-3-days Peace Corps volunteer. (I really do help to improve America's image overseas...!)

So walking down to the Kyotera/Mbrara highway intersection in search of a ride to my friend's site I was fully prepared to sit squished in a back seat with three other people and a chicken or in the front passenger seat with a baby on my lap and the mother squeezed between me and the driver, her hips helping to shift. That's how it works here. I'm starting to realize that if I do have to take a car, and not a matatu, I'll be uncomfortable. And after 8 months in Uganda, I'm ok with it. It's a necessary evil. It happens.

Amazingly I found quickly found a car (typically seating 4 - the driver, passenger and two in the back - in the States) and after throwing my backpack in the boot and arguing with the driver over the price (No I will not pay 4,000 shillings! I know the price! It's 3,000! No? Ok, I'm leaving. No, I'm leaving. Open the boot. What? We go for 3,000? Ok), I settled myself in the back seat. When I was quickly joined by three other passengers in my row and one in the front seat I expected to hit the road. But no. The driver had other ideas. Why drive all those 40 kilometers with only 5 passengers when you can make the same journey with more?! There are back-country roads he can take to avoid the police checkpoints, so why not?

We finally left after two more people squeezed themselves into the car. (occupant count = 7). While this was a little more than I'm used to, I figured that the short 40 kilometer journey wouldn't be too bad. We might not even have to avoid the police and keep on the tarmac.

Oh how naive I was. (Mistake 1)

We stopped two more times to pick up more passengers.

At the first stop, we picked up two passengers, one of which was a very LARGE woman. When I saw her I assumed that she would sit in the front since there was only one, rather thin, person in the front passenger seat. (Mistake 2) But no. Smiling, the driver walked around to the driver's side rear door, opened it and ushered her inside. And she squeezed herself right down on my right hip. That's ok. I don't really need that ilium anyway. Did I mention how fat she was? One of the fattest Ugandans I've seen here. On. My. Lap.

My third mistake? I convinced myself that she would get out soon. Surely this woman couldn't be going the whole way. Surely.

We stopped a second time to add another person bringing our count to ten passengers. Yes, you read that right. Ten people in a car made for, at the most, 5: driver, front passenger and three in the back - but let's not kid ourselves. Most Americans wouldn't put three full grown adults in the back seat. It's just not done.

Mistake number 4: I assumed some of these people MUST BE GETTING OUT SOON. *laughs at self* Yeah, right.

When we stopped a third time to let three people in the car, I had enough. The man sitting next to the door, however had a different idea. He refused to move. "Extend!" I said. Repeatedly. But did he extend? No. He smiled at me. After pushing him and hitting his leg for what must have been three minutes, he finally managed to fall out of the car and I escaped. The driver, recognizing that I was one angry passenger didn't say a word to me. He opened the boot and I retrieved my bag. He didn't ask demand that I pay him for the ride from hell. He didn't even look at me.

As the car was pulling away (final passenger count: 11), I flagged down a matatu and settled myself in the half-empty vehicle for the remainder of my journey.

The ride back to town the next day was almost as bad as the drive down. Walking 15 minutes to the highway from my friend's small village, I waited with several very friendly boda boda drivers and generally unemployed men who have always wanted a Muzungu "wife". Luckily a matatu arrived quickly and I boarded. The drive back started fairly uneventfully as the matatu wasn't terribly full.

We stopped several times in Kalisizo, however to pick up more passengers (and lots of luggage and a chicken), bringing the final passenger count in the matatu to 23. The "official" passenger limit for matatus is 14 passengers. The school term had just ended and many of those riding to town with me that particular day were students leaving boarding school with trunks, luggage, and various other space-taking items.

I somehow managed to make it to town with relatively little discomfort (no fat lady in my lap this time) and have since resolved to only take matatus to my friend's site in the future.

On another note. There is a jigger in my foot. A jigger is some sort of insect that lives in the mud and dirt and either burrows into your skin and lays an egg sack there or lays eggs in the soil, which then somehow make it into your skin. Either way it's not comfortable. And tomorrow I'm meeting with a Ugandan friend to dig it out. With a safety pin. Wish me luck.

Pre-Op jigger: