Friday, April 27, 2012

How To Catch A Bus Thief

I never thought it would, or could, happen to me. Peace Corps staff warned us repeatedly about it during training. I took note of their warnings, but I trusted my gut instincts and skills of perception/observation. I never imagined that I could be the victim of bus theft.

I was naive.

I (and my possessions) was targeted, and I didn't even know it.

January 2011. Aboard Elgon Flyer, heading back to site after spending Christmas with my homestay family, my Mac computer was snatched from my backpack after I left my seat for a short-call. I had stored my backpack in the overhead luggage space above my seat amongst other passengers' belongings. I couldn't have been away for longer than a minute, but it was a minute too long, a minute I still regret, a minute in which I left my backpack, and everything inside it, unprotected.

No, the bathroom break was not worth $1,800 (the value of my ex-MacBook Pro).

The thief was smart. He/she did not steal my backpack, as I surely, hopefully, would have noticed its disappearence, but only my computer and power cable. Upon returning to my seat, it never crossed my mind to check inside my backpack to ensure that everything was still there. It didn't feel any noticeably lighter when I carried it, pack on back, getting off the bus in Mbale. I was completely unaware that my computer was gone until I arrived back in Kachumbala. By then, it was too late.

From then onward, I've sworn to myself never to again make such a stupid, costly mistake. This would soon be tested.

Traveling back to site after Easter weekend a few weeks ago, I was targeted for a second time. This time, I was prepared.

1) Halfway through the trip back to Mbale, the suspected thief quietly moved from the back of the bus into the seat across from mine, even with plenty of other vacant seats available. This was my first warning sign.
2) He continually looked at my backpack. When I'd catch his glance and stare back at him, he'd instantly look away. This happened numerous times.
3) He wore a winter jacket, a winter jacket on a hot day, and carried a briefcase, a briefcase large enough to stash away and hide a stolen laptop (claiming its his own).
4) His body language and facial expressions came off as apprehensive yet alert and preoccupied, as if he had a specific target (my backpack) and objective (to steal it). He did not come off as just any other normal passenger.
5) He seemed to really focus in on the passengers and things around him when the bus stopped for a pit stop midway through the trip. He was actively looking around at the seats in front of, behind, next to, and across from (my seat) his, as if looking for the ideal theft opportunity.

What You Should Avoid:
1) Never fall asleep without first securing/locking your possessions.
2) Never leave your things unprotected and open for the taking, for any period of time, especially if you are traveling alone.
3) Never let your attention get diverted. It only takes a few seconds of distraction for a thief to steal your stuff when you’re not expecting it. Also be aware of potential secondary parties that could be assisting the thief.
4) Never entrust any stranger you just met with your things, even the friendly grandma sitting next to you.

What You Should Do:
1) Always remain alert.
2) Use travel locks to secure bag pockets and zippers.
3) Trust your gut instincts. More often than not, they're right.

My intention for writing this post is not to garner sympathy from readers by recounting my situational stupidity. Rather, I hope that other PCV's, travellers, volunteers, and anyone else reading this can learn from my experience to avoid repeating the same mistake.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter in Wakiso

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with my homestay family in Wakiso, having not seen them since Christmas 2010.

Journeying back to the Town and house I called home for the first two months in-country, it felt a little surreal, and brought back a lot of memories. Much has changed in the last 1 1/2 years.

What's changed at my homestay?

The family employed a new housegirl, Vira.

Joanne, my homestay sister now in Primary 5, left Wakiso to attend a private, Catholic boarding school near Mukono.

Kathy, my other homestay sister, is working a secretarial job in Tororo, about 1 hour outside Mbale.

Kalinda Betty, my homestay mother, retired from her secretarial job in Kampala.

David, my homestay brother, is studying at university to earn his undergraduate degree in Education (he previously taught business, computers, accounting, and entrepreneurship at a secondary school).

Achilles, my other homestay brother, finished his studies, and now works for Umeme doing electrical repair and wiring in Kampala.

Gulu Gulu, the pet goat, met his ill fate last December. He was the victim of a Christmas family dinner.

I feel very fortunate to have been placed with such a great family. There is no better feeling than, upon entering the compound, members of your homestay family immediately running up to hug and greet you with, "Bry-an-ee, you are most welcome. You've been lost for far too long."

Just how great are they? Instead of cooking just the usual matooke, rice, beans, and goats/cow meat this Easter, they accomodated my picky eating preferences by also preparing chicken, irish potatoes, greens, and a variety of fruits for every meal.

The Easter weekend also included attending Sunday mass, watching a Manchester United soccer match, and paying a surprise visit to Joanne at her boarding school.

I couldn't have asked for a better time.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Flea Infestation

Do you easily get "bugged" out?

If so, be glad that you are not serving in the Peace Corps. If you are serving/going to serve in the Peace Corps, I hope you can learn from my unfortunate run-ins with bugs.

First, it was mango (tumba) flies. Next, it was nairobi ants. All the time, it's mosquitoes. Now, it's fleas. Hundreds of fleas.

I still have no explanation as to how my room, and only my room, was infested with a family of fleas, who presumably attacked while I was asleep. Don't believe me? See the visual evidence below:

After overspraying my room with two cans of insecticide, I am cautiously optimistic, though making no guarantees, that this flea infestation is now eradicated.

Only in the Peace Corps - "the toughest job that you will ever love" - can one get so well-acquainted and personal with countless bug species.

A Man's Best Friend

"He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart."

Perhaps the most glaring difference between the U.S. and Uganda are the attitudes towards and the treatment of animals, in particular household pets such as dogs.

In the U.S., dogs are like additional members of the family. They are our protectors, our friends. They provide us with unconditional love, companionship, and loyalty. In return, we feed them, play with them, treat them, and provide them with a place to sleep each night.

In Uganda, dogs are often neglected, feared, starved, and frequently sick. In the village, it is not uncommon to come across a dog fearful of any human contact because it was previously abused by its owner. It is not uncommon to come across a dog scavenging for food in a garbage pit because its owner can't afford/doesn't bother feeding it. It is not uncommon to come across a dog lying visibly sick, untreated, on the side of the road. It is not uncommon to come across children throwing stones or rocks at a sleeping dog, as if it was a leisure or recreational activity.

Having owned a dog in Uganda for almost a year now, and being a self-proclaimed dog lover, I was not initially prepared for just how much dogs, as well as cats, cows, and other animals, are regularly mistreated. I've been disgusted and downright horrified by some of what I've witnessed firsthand.

Yes, I am living in another culture, a culture similar in many respects but more so different from my own, a culture with vastly different attitudes and beliefs on how animals should rightfully (or not) be treated. It doesn't mean, and nor will, I accept them.

At times, it has been great owning a dog here. Many primary and secondary school children play with, greet, and pet Fugoso everyday on their walk home from school. He provides constant protection from thieves for which everybody at the Mission can feel safe at night. For all the positive experiences, however, there have been equally as many negative experiences. For example, how do you rationalize and clearly explain to a person who asks you "How can you feed a dog milk every morning and evening when people are starving in the village?" My answer? People can work to provide for themselves. Dogs can't.

Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons, it is not feasibly possible for me to bring Fugoso back to the U.S. I am legitimately concerned about what will happen to him once I leave, but I believe that I have modeled good enough "dog-parenting" skills for Silver, Flo, Emma, Junior, and everybody else at the Mission to continue taking care of and looking after him long after I'm gone.

A Man's Best Friend for life.