Holiday Break: Part 3 (of 3)

14 02 2012

The third leg of my holiday journey consisted mostly of time spent in town with other volunteers, ex-volunteers who now live in town working for various NGO’s, and expats. It also consisted of a Christmas tree hunt/Christmas party preparations, my discovery of the underground weightlifting gym, and me surviving my second bus accident by jumping out of a moving vehicle. I’ll describe each even in detail, chronologically.

Earlier in the month of December I threw out the idea of a Christmas party to some of the people in town because hey, it’s an excuse for everyone in town and from the surrounding villages to get together for the holidays before many people went back to America and beyond for Christmas and plus, the people’s houses I was staying at these days were certainly an upgrade from the guest houses I’d been frequenting for the past year or so. I also think that since Thanksgiving was amazing, I thought why not try to make Christmas just as good? I also had it in the back of my mind, and was determined to make this holiday season much more enjoyable than last years. For those who know me, it was probably one of the lowest points emotionally of my service here. The combination of the first Thanksgiving without the family, first Christmas away from home, and on top of that girlfriend issues all came at the same time. All of that plus not knowing the language or knowing how things worked here in general combined for a pretty terrible time. But enough moping. This year I was going to, as Burl Ives says “have a holly jolly Christmas” one way or another. After pitching the idea of a Christmas get-together before everyone left, they instantly loved the idea. So about a week and a half after Thanksgiving I went into town to help with the planning and setup. I brought in all my Christmas napkins, plates, cookie tins, stuffed animals and whatever else I received two months after Christmas last year. I and two other volunteers combined to collect quite a sizable pile of real nice looking Christmas decorations. The one thing we did need to make the party thought was a Christmas tree. Now you may think a Christmas tree is impossible to find here but that’s not quite accurate. Just outside of Iringa there are huge tree farms, some of which actually grow pine trees. However, these farms were just a little too far out for us to get to without a car. They do however deliver and sell trees in town, but most people here don’t put up a tree (if they do at all) until the day before Christmas. Therefore we had to take the hunt to the trees and not wait for the trees to come to us. So I, Katie, and Teri set off on an overcast day to see what we could find. After only a short period of time a small rainstorm moved in and we were forced back home to Teri’s apartment to re-group. We didn’t want to come up empty handed in our mini-quest so we called our friend Monica who recently got a job in town to see if she had any interest in joining the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree. Thankfully she was totally into the idea and offered her car up to help us. So Monica met up with us and we proceeded to drive all around town hanging out the windows, blasting Christmas music, and keeping our eyes peeled for anything that resembled a Christmas tree. While joyriding around town singing along to Christmas music was great fun, we started to doubt if we would achieve our aim. Just as we were about to pack it in and as the rain picked up, we spotted a patch of smallish trees that resembled Christmas trees and me, Katie, and Teri all screamed in unison to Monica, who almost swerved off the road, “Christmas trees!!! Dead ahead!!” We pulled a U turn and drove into an old dirt lot and walked down to the patch. After trudging through a small swamp, we saw it, bathed in heavenly light, OUR Christmas tree. I chuckled to myself as it vaguely reminded me of the scene in “Christmas Vacation” when the Griswold’s find their own Christmas tree in the middle of the forest. So I whipped out the machete I had just purchased in town for the rock bottom price of $1 and started to hack down our Christmas prize. We got plenty of pictures of all of us holding the machete and holding the tree as we cut it down. It was fairly small, didn’t smell at all like evergreen, but had long needles similar to a Christmas tree so we threw it on the roof of Monica’s car, fired up the holiday tunes, and started back into town. As we climbed the large hill that leads back into town we all noticed a small bunch of trees that looked like evergreen on the side of the embankment. We all agreed to park at the top and walk down to check it out. So I, Monica, Katie, and Teri started down the hill on the side of the road, still with machete in hand, as confused Tanzanians nearly ran off the road watching the curious group of 4 white people, one with a machete hike down the side of the road in the rain with a machete. We arrived at our destination and immediately inhaled the smell of Christmas, fresh evergreen and knew we hit the jackpot. We looked at each other and decided we needed to cut a few branches down to take back to make a wreath (or what ended up being about 100 jars of floral evergreen arrangements compliments of Teri). We proceeded to chop off a few small branches but one larger branch caught our eyes. I tried to do a modified jump cut and chop the thing off but I was just too short. So we decided the best idea would be for Teri to get on my shoulders, take the machete, and cut the branch down. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the safest thing, although the machete was extremely dull. And plus, we had that determination and had spent too much time on this adventure to come so close and fail. After about 5 minutes of Teri vigorously chopping and almost squeezing my head off with her legs, we cut the bad boy down. We hadn’t noticed but in the process we had gathered a crowd and as the branch fell, a group of 10-15 Tanzanian women and children started clapping and cheering for us. We waved to them and thanked them for the mti was kristmas and started our trek back up the hill to the car, this time not only with machete in hand but several huge evergreen tree branches dragging behind us. If people weren’t starring at us before they were now, but at least they knew our intentions because of the Christmas tree limbs being dragged behind us. We got more than one “Happy Christmas!” which is apparently what they say here and in the UK as well. We all would respond back with a jolly old American “Merry Christmas!” completely giddy with our successful Christmas mission. We threw the extra branches on the roof of the car, all stuck our hands out the windows to hold onto our precious cargo and continued back to Teri’s to unload the goods. When we got back we setup the tree, made a wreath, made (or rather Katie made) about 1,621 paper snowflakes, made or tried to make a popcorn garland strand (which is a lot more work than it really looks), and baked several batches of cookies. We happily decorated the entire place while listening to Christmas carols on Teri’s roommates’’ new large speaker system. I stopped for a second during all the festivities to realize how much of a difference the past year made. There were many other adventures in preparation for the holiday party which included shoe shopping and Christmas tie shopping but in the end it turned out to be a blast. We had candles, a makeshift fireplace, a tree, jingle juice, ugali snowmen, and Christmas movies such as the Grinch playing on a projector in the background. Thus far, the holiday season was shaping up to be a merry one, and I couldn’t be happier.

The second major even during my time in town over break was the discovery of the underground gym. A few weeks previous as I was walking through the main bus stand, a shorter Tanzanian who was jacked, I mean built like a house, greeted me. After exchanging greetings he asked me if I worked out. Slightly puzzled I said yea, occasionally I would hit the gym (aka P90X videos) but that it had been a while. He sounded excited, so we exchanged number and he told me to give him a ring when I was in town next time and we’d go to the gym. I thanked him but immediately after continuing on didn’t know if I’d actually take him up on it. But there I found myself in town two weeks later preparing for the Christmas party with a little free time so I decided, what the hell, I’ll give him a call. We decided to meet back at the bus stand where the guy works then we’d walk over to the gym. So at the appointed time I ran over to the main bus stand and spotted the guy. We immediately took off for the gym and talked about things like how Batistia, the WWE superstar wrestler, was what this guy wanted to look like, the importance of exercise, and about his family. The amount of Tanzanians that regularly exercise is low but understandable when you consider many people in the village spend hours in the farm each day. Still, in town you’d be surprised how many overweight or unhealthy people there are since the diet mainly consists of the three main food groups of sugar, salt, and oil. So we started out to the gym and after some time I began to wonder where we were going. I know there was a small little gym with actual treadmills and a handful of machines because it happened to be across from one of the local watering holes that volunteers liked to frequent because they have a dartboard, but we had long since passed this small, clean, friendly establishment. I asked my new friend, whom I was blindly trusting not to take me into an alley and mug me, if we were perhaps stopping by his house first to pick up some gym clothes. He said no, and assured me we were going straight to the gym. I shrugged my shoulders and just decided to accept my fate, mugging or no mugging. Either way it would be a good story, assuming I came out alive. At last we arrived at the building that apparently housed the gym. Of course we didn’t go in any type of front door, but proceeded around the back. Just to emphasize, this wasn’t some ritzy building, in my judgment it looked like an abandoned drug house. Not that I really know what one looks like firsthand but it sure looked like all the ones I’ve seen in the movies. It has paint peeling, windows busted, bars on the windows, and other such features. We continued around the back, down an alley I imagined would be perfect to mug someone, but came to a final doorway where I heard music and the voices of people and the distinctive sounds of metal clanking. We opened the door and I got a nice whiff of a dirty sweat smell that assured me we’d arrived at the gym. As I walked in and everyone starred at the new white guy, I realized the “gym” was nothing more than a not so glorified 12×12 room. It was plastered in dust and dirt with posters of various WWE wrestlers on the wall. All machines and plate weights for that matter were homemade out of old car parts. I can assure you there were no shinning new nautillis machines or any type of disinfectant spray bottles like you’d find at any gym in the states. The plate weights consisted of old car gears and all bars were old plumbing pipes. Every piece of equipment was welded together out of scrap metal. I immediately loved it. In a place like this you know everyone is serious and I was warmly welcomed. My friend told me that he usually came for 1.5-2 hours a day, every day after work. I knew I was in trouble and would be hurting afterwards but I wasn’t about to look like a pansy in a room full of completely jacked Tanzanians. I followed everything my friend did, even though that included about 312 sets on the bench press. However I couldn’t really argue with their methods as it appeared most, well all, of the guys were in damn good shape. As it began to get dark, candles were lit because there obviously wasn’t any electricity. However, as much fun as I was having, I had to bow out after an hour as I could already feel my entire body getting sore. I assured him I’d call again when I was in town and I stepped out of the blood, sweat, dusk, and dark into the early evening setting sun. I jogged back to the apartment where I was staying and immediately collapsed from exhaustion. As I suspected, the next week I couldn’t even sit-up in bed; I had to roll over, do a modified pushup from my knees just to stand up because I was so sore. Because of my escapades at the prison gym, a few select Peace Corps friends started to call me “snowflake”, a name thought of by my dear witty friend Dan after he heard my story. Seeing as it was so close to Christmas though, I didn’t mind the name all that much….

The last major event before the Christmas holiday was the bus accident I was in while sitting on a bus which was parked in the bus stand. It’s a well-known fact that the buses I take to my village are the cruddiest ones in the bus stand so they are easily recognizable. I’d be willing to bet most people wouldn’t set foot in one if they were paid, but if I want to get to my village it’s the only option. On this particular day, I arrived 30 minutes early to get a ticket. I was proud of myself that I’d finally forced myself back to the village after an eventful and festive week in town. But anyway, I got my ticket, climbed into the bus, and waited for us to leave. After an hour or so, it started to rain. All the normal fruit vendors and various other people peddling junk in the bus stand ran for cover. We were already an hour late after the time we were supposed to leave, but I sat patiently as I’d become used to the fact that nothing happens on time in this country. Finally, other Tanzanians even started to complain to the guy cutting tickets and it turned out the bus we were sitting on wasn’t actually the bus we’d be taking but another bus was “on its way”. I’d been in this country long enough that this statement had an equal chance of meaning one of three things. One, it actually could be coming. Two, it was coming, but not for another 5 hours. Or three, it was never coming today and we’d all be screwed. I sat back in frustration as the rain turned to drizzle and thought about leaving and trying again the next day. After all, this time of the year the vast majority of teachers and all students have left the school and gone back to their own houses for the holidays, so I didn’t feel like I was abandoning anyone back in my village. I also learned that there is no use getting my underwear in a bunch because there isn’t a thing you can do about it and getting upset doesn’t do an ounce of good. As I sat there looking out the window watching the drizzle streamed down the window, people started standing up and yelling. At first I paid little attention, but as the yells got louder I also stood up to look out the front window to see what all the fuss was about. I quickly realized that the fuss was well justified. The main bus stand is situated on a slight decline because the city is on top of a plateau. My bus was parked behind another bus. The bus in front of us appeared to be backing into us as people screamed for the bus in front to hit the brakes. After a second or two though it was clear, for whatever reason (as I found out later the air in the brakes had gone out) the bus was going to impact us. Everyone who was standing held on tight and braced for the collision. The bus slammed into the front of ours, causing us to roll over the wooden block holding us in place, and started to slowly roll down the hill. The driver was nowhere to be seen because as we were told, our actual bus was “on its way”. As we started to pick up speed, I ran to the front of the bus were a small group of people had gathered by the door. I asked them as politely as I could, considering we were all in a runaway bus if they were going to jump. As each fraction of a second passed, the speed increased. I looked at where we were headed, and it didn’t look promising. Running along the perimeter is a 2.5 foot wide, 4.5 foot deep drainage ditch. I did a quick analysis in my head and figured the worst case scenario was that after hitting this ditch at a decent speed, the bus would roll onto its side, and start tumbling side over side into the row of shops at the foot of the stand. I decided if this bus flipped, there was a 99.9% chance the top crumbles like a tin can because the busses in this country aren’t exactly built to any type of safety specifications. As I thought about this result, I pondered option 2, which was to jump out of the moving bus door, situated about 5-6 feet off the ground. For this scenario I figured that the best case was that I jumped, did a little roll to break the 6 foot drop, and walked away unscathed. Worst case, a broken leg. At the moment I compared the worst case scenarios, a broken leg in one and being crushed in a tin can and rolling down a hill at high speed in the other, I chose to jump. The jump and landing were somewhat of a blur. However I remember being really high up, swinging my arms for balance, then slamming into and causing a pile of plastic buckets to explode as I hit the pavement, thankfully on my feet. I slid a couple of feet thanks to the slick layer of drizzle and immediately turned to watch as the bus picked up speed, slammed into two taxis (no people inside), and continued to hit the drainage ditch, buck up a few feet, spin sideways, start to roll on its side and at the last second stop, just before it was about to tumble over. Before it actually came to a stop, the entire population of the bus stand ran down to see what happened and to help people off the bus. I, still partly in shock, slowly walked towards the bus as several Tanzanians gave me high fives for my James Bondesqe jumped off the bus. I remember people yelling, asking if anyone was under the bus, but thank God for the rain, most vendors had cleared out and no one was injured. All people who hadn’t jumped off the bus, that is to say everyone but me, were also fine; shaken up but fine. I helped people off the bus in case it actually did start to roll over on its side. My weightlifting buddy from just a few days previous who worked in the bus stand ran to me first, asked me if I was okay, and asked me if I had anything in the bus. I told him I had my bag and he immediately ran into the bus, pushing past people to grab it. He asked again if I was okay and I reassured him I was fine. At that point a big smile crossed his face and he started laughing and telling me I was insane for jumping. He shepherded me away from the growing crowd and told me to relax and come back the next day. I took his advice as I was in no mood to board another bus that day. I walked back to the apartment and immediately relayed my story. After the fact, I’d be lying if I said it isn’t a fun one to tell, especially considering no one was injured. I now add things like “when I was jumping out of the door, it felt like I was in a movie and I was an action hero in one of those scenes where the guy is jumping, arms flailing, and a giant explosion is going off in the background. But anyway, I was able to get back in a bus the next day and eventually make it back safe and sound. I took the time to relax in my village, which was in fact empty, for a few days until the 25th came around. However there is no denying the past month had been a heck of a month, and maybe more exciting at times than I bargained for….

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2 responses

15 02 2012
jeremy lin

you crazy dude. i just got back from globo gym. there was a woman on the elliptical talking on her cellphone while watching the view on the attached tv. it was redic to say the least. miss you, snowflake.

15 02 2012
Aunt Lynn

Holt, your Christmas story sums up the pixs on Fb. I can see and feel that you all had a fabulous time! I guess all of James Bond marathon watching paid off for you………. I love your gym name “snowflake”. Everytime I do laundry I look at the pix I have of you sitting in the laundry basket in the sun porch in Rochester and think what an awsome man you have become. I love you! Take care. xoxo Aunt Lynn

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