iSURF week 2: Frustration, Welcomed Pity and Goats

You’ll hear me say time and time again that last summer (2012) was one of the best summers of my life. Last year, I was beyond fortunate to be able to travel Europe with my friends and then immediately board a plane to Peru to begin the David Rockefeller Center of Latin American Studies Summer Internship Program (DRCLAS SIP). My passport stamp collection continued by ending my trip with Refresh Bolivia, a student group on campus.

A simple list of my summer 2012 destinations can make a brain drool. Interestingly enough however, when I reminisce about my life one year ago, my most potent memories of phenomenally personally strengthening experiences are juxtaposed with memories of heightened frustration. Hiking Machu Picchu for one of the best breathtaking views of the world is remembered alongside with feeling completely useless and unnecessary as a medical shadowing intern at a private clinic. Winning a dance battle by crowd applause in a random club alludes to all the nights I felt hopelessly trapped inside because being a foreign young female was much less than ideal.

Although I can’t honestly isolate the purely good memories, summer 2012 will always be remembered in a positive light because there’s something incredibly empowering about leveraging frustrations into moments of learning. I think this is why I find traveling abroad to be so alluring: being clueless most of the time inevitably results in frustration. Thus, traveling abroad is a type of accelerated learning … ?

I’m in Swahililand so the main language is Swahili. I’ll find English speakers if I’m lucky, but there’s always a gap in understanding, a lot of charades, and inferences made between the different syntax and varying accents. I’m in the process of mastering my greetings in Swahili, but a big part of me thinks that I’m better off slightly butchering the pronunciations as people are always getting a kick out of that. Last summer, my few days in France and Italy was my first experience of traveling to a country where I couldn’t speak the native language. Needless to say, it’s completely different being unable to communicate when you’re traveling through somewhere compared to when you’re living somewhere. I have a “Let’s Learn Swahili” book that haunts me from my nightstand, but I’m having trouble securing a strong motivation to learn the native tongue. On one hand, it’s extremely frustrating when communication is impossible, especially when I’m lost and in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, I don’t understand a lot of what people shout at me, but the small phrases I do understand, I do not like.

A challenge in South America was learning how to cope with the catcalling and shameless staring. It was helpful that the DRCLAS program was more of a group program and I could tell people in Spanish about some boyfriend/husband to get people off my case. Here in Tanzania though, locals tend to be much more friendly – from shouting and honking at you from their car, smacking their lips, and even grabbing your wrists and hands. Since I’ll be living here for a while, I’d ideally like to be able to live without feeling like I’m a walking target of harassment. An essential component of feeling comfortable in a foreign country is adapting and desensitizing yourself to certain customs. Yet as ironic as can be, the whole process of becoming comfortable is making me uncomfortable. There is no resolution as of now although the best coping mechanism has been surrounding myself with friends who consist of a diverse group of locals and summer interns. Power in numbers proves to be true once again, yay!

A shorter term problem I was determined to settle this week was transportation especially to and from work. The first day was luxurious since we had a driver and the following days weren’t too bad since there was a Dartmouth co-intern who lived pretty close to me so we could carpool. However my carpool days were doomed since she was finishing up the internship and actually taking summer orgo (organic chemistry) at Harvard. (Sidebar: Quite a few premeds choose to take summer orgo. I guess it’s pretty logical since it’s more compact, but I still think they’re crazy for learning a year of material in ~7 weeks.)

There appeared to be 2 types of possible transportation methods to get to work 1) the public bus system known as Dala Dalas and 2) bajaj – the Tanzanian equivalent of a rickshaw. The buses would be cheaper than a bajaj which are cheaper than taxis. Their prices pretty much correlate to their safety levels.

Everyone told me the public buses would be useless due to where I lived and where I worked. Like a teenage rebel, I didn’t listen. I asked the locals at my guest house who gave me directions which included 2 bus transfers and I was on my way. Four hours later, four bus transfers later and lots of body odor later, I arrived at work. Never doing that again – taking the bus to work that is, not being a teenage rebel.

The bajaj was the recommended commute method with its abilities to weave in and out of traffic, drive on the sidewalk and opposite of traffic being a time advantage (not to mention a safety disadvantage). However, being Asian and unable to communicate (or negotiate) in Swahili yields the 100% accurate conclusion that I am a foreigner, meaning I have to pay the concomitant ridiculously high prices.  For the first week, I became friends with a regular bajaj driver that drove me and the Dartmouth intern both to and from work. Yet even with established loyalty and pleading eyes, my bargaining still added up to $50 USD/week for transportation to and from work. Ridiculous with a capital R for sure. Harvard and the Global Health Institute (that runs iSURF and SURF programs) has been more than generous for helping me fund this summer, but this didn’t mean I had this kind of money to throw around, especially if I wanted to be able to feed myself.

I’ve seen a few people riding their bikes on the street and I have cringed for them. Little did I know I would soon be a biker! The roads aren’t always paved here which makes sidewalks pretty hopeless. They also drive on the left side of the road which freaks me out, but you basically have to scan 360 before crossing any streets here anyways because lanes, right-of-ways, and generally street lights don’t exist or are neglected. Definitely not the safest option and probably not the smartest option, but buying a bike to commute to and from work was the most economic decision. No one really supported my decision. In fact, people both at the Global Health Institute and at work pretty strongly advised against it with their strongest argument pointing out how helmets aren’t really a thing here. On the up side, a lot of summer interns in the area have expressed their admiration about my biking. If this decision ends my life, at least I’ll have some street cred tacked to my name. In all seriousness, choosing to bike back and forth was a tough decision to make. I have to say that it has changed my lifestyle for the better though! I think I may be on the healthiest regimen of my life. Besides from forcing myself to bike ~25 km/day, in order to avoid traffic but still have it bright outside, I strive to head out around 7:15 am which means I wake up at 6:20 am and get first dibs on breakfast (which comes with our guest house rate and is essentially the only hot meal we eat)! For all you math whizzes who are thinking that I’m a diva taking forever to get ready in the morning, the majority of my time is spent either eating or lathering myself in a mix of sunblock and bug spray. All in all, I’m still learning how to cope with the catcalling, the insane traffic and driving norms, and being absolutely drenched in sweat upon arrival to work. These are three necessary life skills if I’ve ever seen one.

I feel like a lot of this post has painted a terrible picture of my abroad experience thus far, but this would be terribly inaccurate. I’d be lying if I said that thoughts about going home to my familiar shelter never crossed my mind. Whenever this happens, I pretty instantly feel really spoiled and bratty because I’ve been awarded not only the opportunity to pursue clinical research abroad, but also the funding for it! If it sounds like I’ve been awarded the tools to make dreams come true, this is because I have been. This is my summer and I’m going to come out on top whether or not you like it Africa.

My front bike tire went flat one day. A slightly humorous situation both during and in retrospect because when I explained the types of bumpy terrain I was biking on to my sister via gchat, she was 125% sure I should carry around a pump with me for my inevitable flat. I openly told her I wouldn’t do that and projected a lot of crying if that ever happened. This is one of the rare moments I’m proud to announce how wrong I was – I think my legs were burning so much from biking on a flat tire that I couldn’t possibly cry. 12 km later, I was too happy that I arrived safely at home to let anything get me down. As the doorman eagerly grabbed my bike to put it away in storage for me, we played a healthy game of charades which concluded in him pumping my front tire for me. When that didn’t work, he took it down to the bike store for me. And when the bike store was unsuccessful because they needed to purchase a tire zip (?), he went to the nearest open air market, bought the bike part and brought everything back to the bike store. Current status of my bike: unknown. Regardless, I’m beyond grateful for all this help!! Whether this altruism stems from a kind heart or pity from my helplessness, I’ll take it! The staff at my guest house has really become analogous to a host family because they’re constantly concerned about my safety and essentially helping me survive on the daily.

My program partner, Leanna, and I work in different places. I’m not sure if Leanna’s boss knows it yet, but he and his wife has adopted us. They are the epitome of the family I want in the future. They have a 6 year old daughter and the three of them together go to a nearby university 3x/week to run for an hour. Leanna had mentioned during the workday that she and I try to run almost every day. Her boss invited us to join them on their running escapades. I think it’s safe to say Leanna and I charmed everything out of them as our running session ended with an invitation to go clubbing with them. As I said, this family is SO COOL.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any brighter, my boss told me about the goat races happening over the weekend. It sounded like an annual fair I didn’t dare miss. When I returned home from work, I told Leanna that we were going to these goat races, no choice. She was a little hesitant at first but was a trooper and came along. I thought these goat races were a big deal and that every bajaj driver in town would know what I was talking about. Nope, not the case. Leanna and I essentially kept repeating “goat” and after a few back and forths along the coastline, finally arrived at the fair which was equipped with gelato and BBQ goat. We had a great time at what seemed like an expat dominated event.

With the goats as they prep for their races!

As orderly as goats can be

The goat winner even gets a TV interview … !

I’m glad Leanna didn’t resent me for dragging her to something that sounded ridiculous, especially because she was leaving me for an indeterminate amount of time. She was assigned to travel to a much more rural area to work on the data there for 3-14 days. Packing is obviously even more fun when it’s for a trip you have no details about.

Leanna’s departure means that I’m all on my own for week 3! Fingers crossed for the hopes of making new friends!

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