Monday, October 20, 2008

Tanner in Tunis at 29

My first real day in Tunis I went to go see my friend Margaret at work and finish up a little work of my own. Margaret works for a company called Amid East, which specializes in teaching English and helping Middle Eastern students take the SATs and apply for college. They have schools all over the region, but Margaret is in charge of the Tunis American Corner, which in conjunction with the US State Department, serves as a library and resource center on American culture and academia. We stuck around there for a while but managed to leave early since most people were still operating on the Ramadan schedule. Ramadan combined with summer work hours means that almost everyone in Tunisia leaves work around 3pm. Though Eid had officially been called on Wednesday of that week, marking the end of Ramadan, most people didn’t start their full time schedule until the following Monday (Eid, or the end of Ramadan, is called regionally, when the local cleric first sees the moon. As it is a national holiday, you are never quite sure which day you will be getting off of work so it adds a little excitement. In Uganda they had called it on Tuesday, but in Tunisia they had called it on Wednesday). We took full advantage of this and snuck out early.

Friday happened to be my friend Tanner’s birthday so we set out to find him a cake and decide what to do. While running errands I called the airline and was happy to hear that they had received my baggage in Tunis. We rushed to the airport, picked up a cake from a fancy bakery in a very weird looking isolated neighborhood and headed back home to make some dinner. We decided to have a few of Tanner and Margaret’s friends over to their apartment, have a bit of a pitch in and play drinking games. To be able to do this we needed beer, which in Tunisia is a very difficult thing to do. There is one supermarket that carries beer and it is on the outskirts of town. Margaret and Tanner made a special trip there and as they walked out with two “flats” people stared at them judgingly.

That night we had quite the spread. Margaret and I had made fresh hummus with lemon from the tree in their yard and baked challah, one of their friends brought a rotisserie chicken, and we had the special cake. A group of 6 of us sat outside enjoying the moderate weather, good food and good company. We got to bed pretty late, knowing it would be rough to wake up early for our weekend trip to Cape Bon.

Kampala/Amsterdam/Paris/Tunis or bust

The post Uganda plan was to fly to Amsterdam where I would have a short connection, fly to Paris, wait an hour, then fly to Tunis. To my surprise, the KLM agent at the Entebbe airport said that they could check my luggage all the way through to Tunis. I was still nervous about the connections actually happening, so was a bit on edge for the majority of the trip.

I arrived in Amsterdam around 6am and double checked that my flight was on time then made my way to the internet lounge to finish a few things for work and charge my computer and ipod before boarding for France. I have heard bad things about Charles de Gaulle airport and Air France, but I never really understood the whining…it was France after all. But whoa, I get it now. The airport security was bizarrely inept and slow, funneling three lines at a time into one metal detector and forgetting that duty free materials can go through if it is sealed. They triple checked some of my duty free bags, pulled me to the side where I sat until a random worker told me that my carabineer holding my hat to my bag was too big. I told her, no, no its not, and its staying on my bag. 10 minutes later someone informed her that she was supposed to be looking at my duty free bag, not making up things to take from me. They apologized and sent me on my way. At the gate I checked on my luggage again. They responded that they didn’t have it yet registered but were sure it was on the plane…great. I boarded and was not at all surprised when I arrived in Tunis with no baggage.

I haven’t spoken French in years and it has gotten really really rusty. This did not help matters when trying to talk to the Tunian baggage correspondent regarding my lost luggage…I found my French vocabulary for outrage to be definitely insufficient. After being told that there were two more flights coming to Tunis that day but that I could not get my bags until the next day (when I would have to come pick them up), I left customs and met my friend Margaret outside. We headed back to her house, hoping that my luggage would turn up eventually.

That night we went to Sidi Bousaid, a beautiful ancient suburb of Tunis, set on the Mediterranean. It is a hilly city of whitewashed domed buildings with blue shutters and beautiful mosaics. Walking through its winding cobble stone streets feels a little like the old city in Jerusalem. We had dinner at a little outdoor restaurant…teaming with cats. Side note here, Tunisia feels like is has more cats than people. They are EVERYWHERE. And they are bold! One little white cat kept jumping up on my friend Tanner’s lap during dinner. Tanner would take him by the nape of his neck, place him away from the table and he would just jump right back up. Walking down the street, they are all around, some clearly diseased and starving, others well fed and cunning. Regardless, we had a nice little diner with the cats of cous cous, grilled meat, Tunisian salad Moushuai, and lots and lots of bread. We started off with a Brick, something you can find everywhere here. It is a fried egg, usually with tuna, wrapped in a thin crepe like thing and fried. Any rural or urban eatery is guaranteed to offer it.

After our dinner we walked around a bit and had traditional mint tea at a cafĂ© carved out of the side of a mountain over looking the harbor. We waited around a bit until it was time to meet up with one of Margaret and Tanner’s friends at a popular bar. Drinking in Tunisia is not well regarded, so though many Tunisians do drink, they do so only in certain places and at certain times. The popular bars take advantage of this and charge fairly high prices for poor selection. This particular hotel/bar was a bizarre collection of American kitsch. In the back section there were tables set around a pool and side tables for drinking. All around were plastic figures, pink flamingos, and Chinese lanterns. Somehow it just worked. The bar itself is up against the ocean. After a few drinks I was completely wiped and Margaret and I headed home.

I'm leaving on a KLM plane...

My last few days were hectic as I tried to say goodbye to friends and colleagues, manage to finish all my writing, and assist in our ongoing workload. The night before I left I got my last share of fabulous Indian food from Kahna Kahzana, watched Knocked up, and packed…works for me! The following day I went to work and left my packed stuff at home so I would be ready to head to the airport in the early evening. My boss and I left work around 4pm to meet up with a grouping of democracy and governance (D&G) implementers and funders for drinks and informal exchanges. The group of 8-10 discussed current programming, trends they are seeing, responses from government officials, and strategies for the upcoming years. It was a prefect way to end my time.

I anxiously fidgeted at the end as my boss and another D&G guy chatted, making me concerned I’d miss my flight. I was just being typically antsy overly programmed me. We drove the 2 minutes back to the house where I pulled my stuff together and played a bit with my boss’s kid who for some reason decided he wanted to hang out more than he ever did while I was staying there. I shoved some food in my face and waited for the driver to arrive (we hire drivers who drive our organization trucks). I waved good bye to the little guy and my boss and headed for the airport at 6:15pm. If I thought I was going to get there without a heavy bout of traffic I was surely delusional. At every turn we found ourselves at a standstill, coughing out the exhaust of the hundreds of cars and buses pressed close to our truck.

As the sun began to set and we creped along the outskirts of Uganda I watched a city alive in its afterhours. In the midst of what looked like miles of empty dark fields, were the little flickers of bonfires marking shanty town homes and informal bars. The fires dotted the horizon marking a massive expanse of informal settlements. Along the side of the road people walked and biked, carrying food, clothes, children, and other things home after work and shopping. Informal bars in small metal containers on the side of the road lit up and filled with men. The pattern continued until close to Entebbe where it became suddenly quite, peaceful and empty. I just finished reading the Last King of Scotland so driving the big main highway that connects Entebbe’s city center to the airport I couldn’t help but imagine those who rushed out of the country during Amin’s harder times, as described in the book, racing their way down the same road, seeing the same beauty of lake Victoria, and feeling the sudden quiet seemingly imposed on a bustling, breathing country. But that is Africa…a history that is simultaneously ancient, and frustratingly new.

Rosh Hashana in Kampala

As the end of my time in Uganda approached I realized just how much I needed to get done in only a few short days. With two reports, a proposal, and a memo due on top of the usual everyday things, I knew I was not going to be able to travel the 4 hours east to Mbale to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with the Abayudaya Jews. As an alternative I began trying to find Israeli or Jewish groups in Kampala that might want to at least eat together. I had tried to find the Embassy or Consulate but was surprised to learn that Israel never returned after evacuating during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. Israel always had an interesting relationship with Uganda, actually training Amin before he came to power, supplying him with weapons before they knew just how crazy he was, and then trying to push him from power once they realized that he was on course to destroy the country. The active Mossad (Israeli CIA) network prompted the paranoid Amin to kick all Israelis and Jews out around the time he exiled the Indians. Israel’s last major interaction with the Ugandan government was when it famously stormed the Palestinian hijackers who had, under the protection of Amin and the Ugandan army, landed their plane at Entebbe. The Israeli mission successfully rescued the passengers killing the hijackers in the process in a dramatic and complicated rescue mission. Since then, though they have normalized their relations, Israel has run all of its Uganda business from its Kenyan embassy.

Thinking my options had run their course I had planned on buying some apples and honey, forcing my colleagues to eat it while cheering happy new years, and going out to dinner. On the debate night outing however, I ran into someone who said they knew a bunch of Israelis who would be able to tell me if there was anything Jewish going on in Kampala. At Latin bar I was introduced to two bald, burly, Israelis who run a major road construction company in Uganda. They had organized a big dinner for their company’s workers and their families (mostly Israeli) and had a few additional people coming as well. What was originally a 60 person affair had turned into a 120 person extravaganza. They gave me the administrator’s number and told me to call him the next day. I called the man who did not speak English very well and we managed to communicate that I would come the next day to their office to pick up tickets for the dinner. He described their location as, in Gubalobi, across from the shell station, near the big muffler sign…somehow I got that.

The following day I took the truck and made my way to the Industrial area near Gubalobi. I bumped my way down what would generously be called potholed roads and enjoyed using the truck’s 4 wheel drive function on a particularly nasty bumpy dirt section (mind you I’m still driving in Kampala, no more than 10 minutes from where I was staying). I turned past a big old muffler sign and drove down a dirt road flanked by menacing looking industrial complexes and offices. On the phone I couldn’t understand if the man said NBI or SDA, or something else, so when I saw SBI I parked in front and hoped I was in the right place. 15 minutes later the Administrator called to say he had returned and a guard let me drive into the complex. I walked into the basic but clean office building and learned that the Rosh Hashanah dinner was being prepared by all of the wives of the company workers with some ingredients imported from Israel. He emphasized how excited he was that they had shipped over Gefilte Fish to which all I could muster was a meager wincing of a sound coupled with a fake smile…who voluntarily eats Gefilte Fish? Aside from the Gefilte though, everything he described was a traditional Israeli Rosh Hashanah…dates, figs, beet root, egg, fish head, round challah., and apples and honey…looked like my Ugandan Rosh Hashanah would actually be the most authentic Israeli event I’d ever attend. The only downer was that no one had communicated to me that this was a paid event so I had to cover my surprise when he asked for the equivalent of $40 in Ugandan Shillings (about 60,000).

As I was walking out a young American couple was coming in. I waited for them to pay and then offered to give them a ride back to wherever they were going. They had just arrived two days prior and it was weird for me to feel like the experienced Kampala person. It made me realize just how well I had come to know the city. I drove them downtown, made some recommendations of places to go explore and gave them the scoop on the social and restaurant scene. They were on an extended honeymoon, the tail end of which included a stint volunteering with the American Jewish World Service’s professionals program.

We made plans to meet up for the dinner and I was happy to know someone in advance of the actual event. On the day of, I made my way to the Sheraton after work…it taking 45 minutes in the car to get the 3 miles away (oh Kampala jams). The security was ridiculously tight, most likely in reaction to the recent Pakistani hotel bombing as well as Eid and Rosh Hashana falling on the same day. I have to be honest though, with recent talk of Somali Al Qaeda arrested in Kampala I was happy to see the extra measures.

I had been in quite a rush, concerned that I would be late for the dinner. An hour and a half after the official start time people were still mulling around the big banquet hall, chatting and drinking. Little did I know that combining Israeli time and East African time actually doubled the late factor. The Israeli I had met at the bar came by to chat and informed me that the Ministers of Finance and Security were to be coming to the dinner. My jaw dropped, probably visibly…The minister of Security is also the Secretary General of the ruling party, and is the President’s right hand man. We had taken him to our program at the Democratic convention but had decided not to follow up with meetings afterwards because he was immediately embroiled in a massive scandal in Uganda, a scandal that also involved the Minister of Finance. He was under unbelievable political pressure and was certainly someone with whom my organization needed to stay on good terms. I was surprised when about 20 minutes later, both ministers not only showed up, but put on Kippahs (yarmulkahs) and sat down with their families for the whole thing. At the beginning Mbabazi (the Minister of Security) stood up to say a few words and thanked SBI for its years of service to Uganda. I had no idea, but according to Mbabazi they had been building roads in the country since the 1960s. I still can’t get over the fact that two of the most powerful and important men aside from the President were present at this company’s Rosh Hashanah dinner. I don’t think I want to know the details of that relationship.

The dinner itself was a little disorganized and confusing. It was nice nonetheless. I sat with the American couple who were placed next to one of the company’s workers, a Cuban refugee who had moved to Uganda in the 80s and stayed there with his family ever since (non Jewish). The food was pretty good and we were all excited for some traditional Israeli salad and Schnitzel. By the end of the dinner I was ready to be out of the very odd atmosphere so I said my goodbyes walked out of the hotel and caught a boda back. I love the bodas at night when the streets are empty and you can feel the cool night air slapping against your face…there is also something just so efficient about it. 5 minute later I was home and back to work.

Tupperware parties, debates, and salsa

As estimated, as soon as my boss returned from overseas things really picked up. So much so that I haven’t posted for over two weeks! I’ll do my best to remember the insanity but I am tired and now on vacation so I reserve the right to forget everything ☺

The Monday that my boss got back we popped right back into work. The hardest part about working in Kampala is that there are always people who need to meet and they will always be late, want to talk about the country, their family, and the weather, and then will take a long time to repeat themselves on business matters. Days were taken up by meetings at the Parliament building with caucus staff, members and leadership, civil servants, and party leaders. This left the evenings to write reports due at the fiscal year close and develop proposals for programs that will be funded in 2009. We would leave the office around 6:30 or 7, grab some dinner, play with my boss’s 2 year old, and then hunker down to write, usually getting to bed around 1 or 2am.

Regardless of the pace, for some reason you don’t seem to mind so much because the work feels so immediate. Writing proposals entails conversations with those it will effect to inform the design. Writing reports means discussing and analyzing the impact of existing programming. In the thick of it, it all seems exciting and meaningful. It also helps that I get along well with my boss, and even at 2am, we managed to laugh through the process. We developed a truly great proposal to improve members of parliament’s constituency outreach and were able to garner some interest from new donors over the original idea.

On the personal front, there wasn’t as much time to hang out with friends and friends of friends but I did still manage to enjoy myself and get some social time in on the weekend.
A few Fridays ago, I headed to the equivalent of a Ugandan Tupperware party. We showed up at one of my friend of a friend of a friend’s houses for dinner where he had assembled a women’s group that makes Ugandan paper beads and fabric bags. Peter’s house was a typical middle class Ugandan house, with open windows and brightly painted cement walls. Our cab driver got lost so we didn’t get there until dinner was over but I still bought a bunch of necklaces and chilled with a very random grouping of people. After about an hour and a half we headed over to a bar called Iguana to meet up with a different group of people. Iguana felt like a giant treehouse with wooden bars and stand tables, couches, and a dance floor. It was open aired with only a roof overhead and was packed with muzungus (white people) and a fare share of Ugandans. We met up with a few embassy people, USAID workers, Clinton Foundation health folks, and environmentalists. Strangely I was the only overtly political worker there. After some time the decision was made to move on and my friends and I piled into one of the embassy guy’s trucks.

Upon realizing that we hadn’t eaten dinner, embassy guy demanded that we go in search of food and we wound up driving through downtown Kampala and stopping at my favorite South African Chicken chain, Nandos (which consequently is just not as good in Kampala). After a ridiculously long wait and what I’m sure was someone spitefully spitting in my sandwich we headed to the Latin bar, owned by a Cuban, located directly above the Irish bar that is called Bubbles O’learly (I really can’t make this stuff up). The Latin bar is mainly a huge outdoor area that pipes salsa, meringue, and regetone for a packed crowd of expats from every imaginable place and a few local Ugandans on the perimeter. It is bizarre.

When talking with folks at the first bar, I had mentioned that I was bummed that our cable was out because I had planned on waking up at 4am to watch the first of the Presidential debates. Embassy guy had excitedly responded…”I’m watching the debates at my place and I have a ton of peanut m&ms!!! (side note: In Uganda it is next to impossible to get good chocolate and even more difficult to get m&ms. You probably could find them but they’d cost something like $10…cheerios do. For this reason, expats crave American or European chocolate like a drug) So come 2am at the latin bar, my friend is ready to go home and I am only considering going to Embassy guy’s if she does. My friend puts up a good fight but embassy guy counters with the following combination, and it’s just too much for her:

- the embassy provides each worker with a ridiculously high perishable goods shipping quota
- He takes advantage of it by buying half of Costco every time he goes back the states and having it shipped to the embassy
- He therefore has trail mix, all sorts of m&m’s, Velveeta cheese (why?), Doritos, Pringles, peanut butter, and every other American “comfort/junk” food you could want at 2am after a night out.

So 2:15am we’re heading to his house to pass or wait out the time til 4. Now I knew Embassy folks were set up in nice places but wow is really all I have to say. His was the smallest of the Embassy pool, but it was more than large and nice enough for a young single guy. He had a yard, a porch with a grill, a big living room and dining room, a kitchen the size of most NY apartments, two bedrooms, and an even bigger back yard. He had decorated the place quite nicely and we all sunk into his oversized couches and passed out for a bit. At around 3:30 we woke back up to get hyped for the debate and were joined by a few other friends. We yelled at the television, rolled our eyes at boring answers, and groaned at missed opportunities until it was over and then around 6am headed home.

I walked into my boss’s house around 6:15am, greeted by her husband and 2 year old son just up and getting ready for the day. I felt a little like a high school kid coming home after curfew. I promptly went to my room and passed out for about 3.5 hours then woke up and decided I needed to be productive…why I’m not sure. My boss took particular delight in poking fun at my slow reaction time and half closed eyes throughout the day. Later that night they hosted a bbq for some of their friends and I attempted to muddle my way through conversations with young parents and wayyy too many small children to be in one place at one time. Great food and good beer though.