Monday, September 25, 2006

Bush Taxi Races and Japanese Volunteers

Sometimes I swear if they don't kill me in an outright accident, the bush taxis here are going to give me a heart attack. Today, I was waiting for a bush taxi on the side of the road, as usual. Before long I see not one, but two coming along. I considered myself lucky because if the first one was full, then the second one would probably stop (it's worth noting that being "full" is not compatible with being a bush taxi). As the first one started to slow, however, the second one sped up, and swung around the first to overtake and went wizzing past.

So I cross the street to get into my bush taxi. The bush taxi "conductor" (I don't know what else to call him but he collects the money and packs the luggage on the roof and is called the "moto dog" in zarma) ushers me into the car clearly in a hurry. I noticed at this point that there was hardly anyone in the vehicle. Two whole rows were empty?! Truly an anomoly. I considered myself again to be lucky. But before I could properly make myself comfortable in my luxury accomodations, the taxi was wizzing off down the road and the dude was slamming the sliding door shut.

Brief side note about bush taxis - It is not uncommon for them to start moving with the main door still open. Indeed, it is actually the norm for them not to. There is speculation among PCV's that the apprentice/conductor dude is considered incompetant if he cannot run alongside the car for several feet and then hop in and shut the door after the vehicle gets atleast halfway to cruising speed. All this with a vehicle that greatly resembles a very slightly oversized VW bus crammed with around 30 people. Not exactly easy to just hop back in. You get the idea. Now back to the story.

When we last left our hero (me) I had found myself in a curiously empty bush taxi that was wizzing down the road at an unusually high speed (especially for a rundown toyota van). Well at this speed it was not long before we caught up to...and passed the other taxi. The one that had zoomed past as my own had stopped for me. As my conductor dude shouted some taunt out the window as we went passed it dawned on me: these lunatics were racing!

Now let me tell you, my road is pretty good by Nigerian standards. Not too many potholes and only a moderate serving of livestock. And it's paved. But I still wouldn't want to race a vehicle that's in good shape on it. But these two bush taxis were leap frogging, and weaving, and zooming all the way. As one would stop it would be a rush to get the passengers and their baggage loaded while the other one zipped ahead...only to have to stop for another passenger further up. Or not. At one point we started moving again while the apprentice guy was still on the roof. Let me say that again. There was a man. Up on the roof. And the door was open. And the car started moving. Quickly. He was truly skilled as he was able to clamber down and back into the car, all with a huge grin on his face.

With all the weaving about, this is when I learned that a full taxi is a blessing. With all those people wedged in there, you can't bounce around. And if perchance the bush taxi were to roll over, well you're plenty padded then aren't you. All those squishy bodies. Also makes it quite easy to take a nap. It was fun, however, when this little old lady on the side of the road tried to buy the sack of leaves that one of our passengers had up on the roof. The whole bush taxi got involved in the negotiation. We gave her a hard time and she ended up not buying the sack, but it was fun.

Despite a few scares, we made it into Niamey in record time and with everyone in good spirits...even though I think we lost. So I went and flagged down a town taxi to take me to the bureau. It was in this taxi that I finally met one of the Japanese volunteers that are working in Niger.

I've been looking forward to meeting one of these volunteers and I'll tell you why: our common language is Zarma. After a few minutes of conversation with the driver and another passenger, I asked the driver if the Japanese girl in the backseat spoke Zarma (I had only heard her say one or two short phrases about where she was going). He said yes so I immediately engaged her in conversation. She was much more reticeant about speaking, but I asked her how long she's been here and such. It was awsome.

One of the Nigerien passengers asked why we would speak Zarma to eachother (both being foreigners). So I explained I don't speak Japanese and she doesn't speak English. Zarma, therefore, is our common tongue. They thought this was a riot. As did I really. I have to say that it was definately a crazy experience to speak to a foreigner, from another industrialized nation, in an obscure African language because that is our only common language.

I suggest you try it some time.

(Btw Mom, I wasn't in quite as much danger as I make it sound in this post. But the bush taxi ride was quite thrilling.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Brief Update

I just want to point out that I've been adding fellow pcv's blogs to the links section as I acquire the addresses. Of particular note, I've just added Katy's blog and I highly reccomend you take a look at it in the next day or two as she is currently sitting next to me posting pictures from the Cure Salee. The Cure Salee is the national celebration of the end of rainy season and has all kinds of fun traditional activities like Wadabe dancing and camel races. Check it out!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

On Western Guilt

Welcome to crazytown, population me. As I'm sure you've no doubt figured out, Peace Corps is one hell of a mind blowing experience. You'd think you'd get used to it, and you do. To a point. For the most part you get by. You learn a lot about the culture, so that gets easier. They prepare you with language really well, so while frustrating, you are not crippled. And you have your distractions: reading, music, crafts, etc. But nothing changes the fact that you are living in a completely different world from your home.

A couple of weeks ago most of us from the Tillaberi region (Say, Gotheye, and Balleyara) were in Niamey for a bike stage so we could better learn to care for our bikes in this harsh climate. While we were in Niamey, two pcvs and a pct went home. One Close of Service, and two Early terminations. I think this was the even that flipped the switch as it were, especially considering the two PCV's were friends of mine who I was sad to see go.

Shortly after I began to feel rather homesick. This is perfectly normal. I feel homesick about once a week. It happens. Usually I just take a nap or spend a whole day reading some sci-fi or fantasy novel and when I'm done, the homesickness is gone for another few days. This time however, it stayed around. And lingered. And festered.

I started working harder than usual in my fields, cause if I exhausted myself physically, I was too tired to feel unhappy. It worked for the most part. I even felt happy afterward sometimes. But it was still always there, waiting to pop back up.

My usual escapes offered little relief. Reading didn't help as I ended up just staring at pages and thinking about home and all the things I would do. Playing music was an instant cure...but only as long as I was still playing.

You learn to accept ups and downs here. It's part of existing in a different and sometimes uncomfortable place. You play all kinds of psychological games with yourself to get through the downs. You tell yourself things like "well I'll just stick around till swear in." or "if I can last another 4 months I can say I was here for a year." What get's scary is when you start setting conditions under which you will call it quits. "If this down cycle lasts a week I'll go home." That's what I told myself at one point.

Needless to say it lasted more than a week. I had quite a few conversations with my parents back home about my thoughts and the possibility of going home, and their support helped immensely. But the realy thing that was bothering me is that I would think about going home, and then I would get these sort of anxiety attacks. And from there I would follow a whole slew of emotional turmoil until I ended up back at just homesick. The cycle would start again from there.

For about two weeks there was not a day that went by that I didn't hit everything from homesick, to anxious, to elated, to tears, to angry. It was pretty unpleasant let me tell you. And it was scary, cause I knew this wasn't me. So I finally bit the bullet and went and had a long chat with my Medical Officer, I needed help.

Through the course of the conversation we managed to get to the bottom of the anxiety, which was the real source of all the ups and downs. Basically my problem was this:

I joined the Peace Corps to do something real. My goals were more about self exploration and expansion than anything else. Doing good things in the world was a nice idea, but wasn't what got me excited or anything. But now that I am here I see people who not only don't have all the luxuries we have, but will cannot even fathom many of the things we take for granted. For example the fact that I can just pop over here and type up a blog post that many of you may read tomorrow morning over breakfast or while at work.

We have so much that they will never have. The balance of resources and advantages is so staggeringly skewed it boggles the mind. It is one thing to sit in America and say that people over here have to live on $2 a day, it is another thing to live here and see what that really means. When I thought about going home, I would think about the fact that I was here and had seen all of this and would be turning my back on it. This is what then led to the anxiety attacks.

Are not the Haves obligated to share with the Havenots. Isn't it a moral obligation to seek equality. If that is the case should we not be willing to give up as much as necessary to achieve that equality. Thus if I am turning my back on these people just because I miss being able to have my own computer, play games with my friends, and go and see a movie aren't I a horrible person. These are the thoughts that would fill my mind when I thought of going home. These kinds of thoughts can tear a person apart. They nearly did me.

I wanted so desperately to go home and not be faced with this world. And yet I could not bring myself to do it for paralyzing fear of the condemnation of the people around me and more so my own conscience.

In my talk with my doctor, though, I learned an important lesson. These are different worlds, and they do not meld easily. It is not a simple case of there is more in one and less in another. One cannot simply transfer money or goods and balance it out. The ways of life are completely different and cannot be viewed through the same lens.

This is the poorest country in the world, and yes it is good that those of us with the means do what we can to help aleviate suffering and bring this country up to a higher standard of living. There are reasons, however, that this is the poorest country. Not to say that one lifestyle is good and another bad, but the ethos here simply does not lead to rapid industrial and economic devolpement, and thus western values and lifestyles. When money comes in it is nice and it buys a couple of extra meals. But it doesn't change anything.

My point, and what I had to realize, is that when someone tells you of the horrible imbalances in the world and that you should give up xyz to help, think a minute. Yes we should help. Yes I could sacrifice a lot more than I have already and give more to help the people here. But we can only help so much so fast with any efficacy. Am I doing all that I can to help these people? No. But I am doing more than will actually make a difference. And that is enough.

Yes we have all these gadgets and technologies that allow us nigh on infinite ways to spend our liesure time, we are also slaves to many of those same technologies. If the wrong computers die, our world collapses. If the power goes out, life practically stops. Here, none of that is the case. On the other hand they have to worry about getting enough rain to grow enough food.

But my point is that while we are all human and need to help eachother, we are also from different worlds that can only help eachother so much if we do not help ourselves. So do not feel guilty for what we have and what they don't. If you liquidated your net worth and distributed the total to enough people that you all were now even, it would not change their lives any more than yours. They would buy food for a while, and a lot of random gadgets they thought they need, until it was gone and they would go back to subsistance farming, because that is their way of life. You would find ways to invest what you had left, or start a business, or some other way to make more sustainably, because that is how your world works.

Do not try and bear the burden for the world's unfortunate differences. The world is how it is. Do not feel guilty for being different. It will drive you mad.