Holiday Break: Part 4 (of 3)

4 03 2012

So I originally thought that I could write down everything that I did over my holiday break in 3 parts but as it turns out, that didn’t even take me until Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or New Year’s.

After returning to my village for a week after the holiday party and seeing all of my friends off who were headed home for the holidays, I finally had some time to prepare my garden for the upcoming season of planting.  The rains had started at the end of November, much earlier than the previous year, and most people in my village had already prepare the soil and begun planting.  Last year I did the difficult work of actually digging the plot where I planted so this year it was just a matter of clearing away the overgrowth and turning over the soil.  In total this only took me two or three days, much quicker than the two or three weeks of last year.  I again planted spinach, corn, and matembele (local sweet potato).  After relaxing in my village for the week prior to Christmas, I headed back into town a few days before Christmas.  I had been invited by some of the girls who work at the international school in town to come over to their apartment and have Christmas Dinner with them.  Since I was continuing on down south to Matema Beach (on lake Malawi) to celebrate new year’s I took them up on the offer.  My friend who went home for Christmas let me use her apartment to crash in for the two days I was in town, which saved me a decent amount of money.  Christmas Eve was spent hanging out at the girls who worked at the international school house, enjoying the Christmas tree, wonderful holiday food, and Christmas cheer.  It felt like a real Christmas, which may be a stupid thing to say but it was fantastic.  The girls who work at the international school live in a completely different world than we Peace Corps volunteers do.  They have nice apartments, cook nice meals, and live a much more “normal” life at least as compared to us who live in the village although normal is a relative term. But anyway, the menu for dinner included homemade lasagna (cheese AND noodles), Swedish meatballs, bread with garlic butter, mulled wine, and chocolate fudge.  As we were eating we went around the table and shared with everyone what our family Christmas traditions were.  It was quite interesting because we had people from Tanzania, South Africa, Holland, and America so we got hear about Christmas traditions from various parts of the world.  After dinner, all of the girls who worked at the school had gotten each other a few little gifts and wrapped them and put them under the tree.  I was completely content with just looking at a Christmas tree that had gifts under it and seeing what other people got.  But as they grabbed presents from under the tree, I was actually handed a wrapped gift.  Being extremely thoughtful and not wanting to leave me out, they had gotten me a little present so that I too would have something to open.  It turned out to be a bag full of various chocolates, which was amazing, and way more than I was expecting.  I would have been completely content with the abnormally delicious dinner and dessert of homemade chocolate fudge.  After all the gifts had been unwrapped, I headed back to my friend’s apartment.  I opened a cold beer, put my feet up, and surfed Facebook wishing various friends and family a merry Christmas Eve.  It’s amazing how connected I felt just getting “Merry Christmas!” wishes from people on Facebook.  After finishing my cold lager and sleep finally started to set in, I hit the hay early, hopefully to dream of sugar plum fairies, and threw on my headphones and listened to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by Vince Guaraldi (my all-time favorite Christmas album) as I drifted off to sleep, thinking how lucky I was to have amazing friends here in Iringa who took me in and made me part of their family for Christmas Eve.

 The next morning I woke up bright and early and decided to go for a walk to see what was happening in town.  I expected most things to be closed up or at least late to open, but was surprised to find the town center bustling with life.  I walked around greeting people with a jolly “Merry Christmas!” in a search for a Christmas morning breakfast.  As it turned out, my favorite chapatti mama in town was open for business bright and early so I went in and enjoyed two chapatti, chai with milk and sugar, and a fresh yogurt.  It was no French toast casserole like my mom usually makes for Christmas morning but it did the trick.  It was fun just sitting and chatting with chapatti mama before the rush of people would hit the chapatti stand after church got out.  I spent the rest of the morning relaxing in my friend’s pad surfing the internet and tracking Santa Clause via CNN.com since America is 8 hours behind and Santa probably hadn’t finished delivering all his presents, especially the kids on the west coast.

 As early afternoon rolled around, I again met up with some of the girls from the apartment next door who had so graciously took me in for Christmas Eve, and then had invited me to celebrate Christmas Day at a farm just outside of Iringa town.  I figured since I really didn’t have any other plans, and if I didn’t go I’d probably sit by myself in Iringa over a lunch and dinner of rice and beans, I agreed to go.  Another guy who worked for a construction company working on a road just outside of town gave us a ride over to the farm.  I had no idea what to expect but when we arrived, after a decent drive over terrible dirt roads, I was in awe.  Their house was situated on a little plateau that overlooked the green rolling hills.  The house had a decent sized outdoor patio and a huge kitchen with a quaint little wood-burning stove and oven.  The island table was laid out with all types of delicious food which I hadn’t seen in over a year.  Things like fresh romaine salad, bags full of cherry tomatoes, rosemary potatoes, sweet corn, fresh cream and STRAWBERRIES, mango crumble, mulberry pie, and eventually freshly roasted pig.  We spent the entire day enjoying the wonderful Christmas Day weather.  We also took a walk down to a little stream on the property that the guy who owned the place said they were going to stock with fish.  The adults sat on the small footbridge that crossed over the stream as the kids (a decent number of the ex-pats have kids) splashed around in the stream.  Not exactly the white Christmas I’m accustomed to back home but as I lay down in the warm grass near the little stream, I said to myself, “this ain’t half bad”.  After watching some of the British/European/Australian, basically everyone except the American’s played a game of touch rugby, my friends and I headed back into Iringa before it got dark.

 After we all got back and relaxed for a bit, my friends and I decided that the perfect way to celebrate the Christmas evening was to go to the local Tanzanian bar down the street.  For Christmas dinner I really went all out and ordered chipsi mayai (French fry omelet, which is a staple food here) and a cold Safari Lager.  For the first half hour or so until my other friends arrived it was just me and another Irish guy with an extremely thick Irish accent who worked for a company building roads around the Iringa area who I knew previously but frequented this particular bar on a regular basis.  As we sat there and shot the shit and he smoked his cigarette, and I sipped on my beer while munching on my French fry omelet, we both chuckled to think that even though this wasn’t the most glamorous Christmas evening we’ve ever had, but we sure as hell wouldn’t forget it anytime soon. Eventually our other friends arrived and we toasted to a wonderful Christmas Day.  If I couldn’t spend Christmas with my family and friends back home, I’m not sure there were many places I’d rather be then Iringa this year. 

 After getting back from our Christmas Day dinner, I was lucky enough to be able to skype with my parents and my sister.  I had my friends whole apartment to myself which isn’t the ideal way to spend Christmas Day, but being able to skype with the family completely made up for it.  It was fairly exciting me to think that this would be the last Christmas apart from my family and that the following year I would be back home.  I can definitely say that I don’t plan on spending Christmas in the upcoming years anywhere except with my family, even though all we really do is sit around the house, bake cookies, order Little Caesars hot-n-ready pizzas, and do a family Christmas show outing to a show of some sort.  Just the thought of being there for that the following year was enough to get me excited for this Christmas. 

 Early the next morning I boarded the bus to Mbeya, were I planned to meet up with other volunteers and head down near the border of Malawi to celebrate the New Year on the beach of Lake Malawi, which I had been told, was gorgeous.  My first stop once I got into Mbeya was another volunteers house who lived fairly close to town.  There was a decent number of volunteers that had celebrated Christmas there and were still in town.  When I showed up, after braving a driving rain storm, was a house full of volunteers and pots full of fresh pasta and homemade tomato sauce.  Many of the volunteers I hadn’t seen in months while others I had never met.  We enjoyed a relaxing night hanging out in this volunteers village outside town packed into her tiny house, then me and a few volunteers headed back into Mbeya town to crash for the night.  One of the new people that I met wasn’t actually a Peace Corps volunteer but a girl who was volunteering here in Tanzania at an NGO in town and actually had a house with electricity.  Since there were so many people in town, a few other volunteers and I gladly took her up on the offer to crash at her place.  It was basically in town and was equipped with nice things like a refrigerator and hot showers.  The next morning me and one of my good friends from my training class decided to head back towards his site.  The trip to his site was fairly lengthy so we headed to the banking town nearest his site and met up with yet another group of newer volunteers who were celebrating another volunteers birthday.  We were lucky enough to hang out with their crowd for the night and enjoy fresh guacamole, chili, and homemade tortilla chips.  In addition this particular volunteer had electricity, and another volunteer happened to have the N64 game Mario-kart on their computer WITH actual controllers.  So in addition to the scrumptious food, we got to play a decent amount of video games.  After hanging out with the new volunteer crowd for the night me and Eric retired to a guesti around the corner.  There was literally no room for us to even sleep on the floor.  Even if there was, the mosquitos in this part of town happened to be vicious, so we decided to spent the extra shillings to get an actual room of our own.  The next morning we headed to the “bus stand” to get a ride up to Eric’s site.  The “bus stand” was actually just a guy with an oversized land cruiser which fit 16 people.  Apparently Eric’s site was literally straight up a mountain.  So, we bought a sack full of samosas from Eric’s favorite samosa guy and packed into the land cruiser for the trek up the mountain.  I thought that Eric was exaggerating when he said he lived on the side of the mountain, but the entire 2.5 hour trip was straight up the side of the mountain range, most of it on terrible dirt roads.  At several points we had to disembark and let the land cruiser pass through especially rough parts in the road.  In spite of the harrowing journey up the side of the mountain, I was able to try two fruits that I had never seen.  One was red bananas.  As I found out, they are only grown in a select few areas within the country and doesn’t travel well so the actual name of the red bananas only existed in the tribal language, kinyakusa, as “mwamnyila”.  I also tried another odd looking fruit that resembled a pineapple but which was eaten by pulling small pieces off and sucking out the fruit.  Again, this particular fruit didn’t even have a Kiswahili name, only a kinyakusa name, and was called “maswisa”.  As we arrived at Eric’s site, I took a minute to admire the view.  We really were in the middle of a mountain range, actually in the middle of a small basin.  Apparently since we were in this basin, rain simply poured into the area at an earth-shattering rate.  Because of the extremely large amount of rain, the area was technically a rainforest, just a lot of degrees cooler.  Eric’s site couldn’t have been more different than mine, but this is usually the case, especially in Tanzania, which is a vast country that included more than a handful of different climates and terrains.  From his house, you could hear the river that flowed behind his school.  At night after we cooked a dinner of macaroni and cheese with bacon bits (thank you to those who send those life changing care packages) we walked down to the river.  As you draw near the banks of the river, you run into a bamboo forest with bamboo that tower about 2 stories tall.  At night, the bamboo and surrounding grass was absolutely filled with fireflies.  It was an unbelievable surreal sight to look straight up and see the vast number of stars, then as your gaze tracked town towards the river see the towering bamboo cover from top to bottom with glimmering fireflies.  It reminded me of the scene in the movie ‘Avatar’ where they are walking through the alien forest at night, and there was just multitudes of twinkling lights.  We packed it in early since the next day we needed to get back down the mountain for our trip town to Matema beach.  I have to say that I had a slight case of site jealousy as I fell asleep to the sound of the soothing sounds of the flowing river, not more than 100 meters away…

 The next morning we packed up bright and early, sure to include Eric’s batch of homemade wine for the New Year’s celebration, which tasted more like sparkling wine, but it was actually quite delicious.  He also told me that he bartered with it for various necessities in the village.  He’d trade them a liter of his homemade wine for vegetables, meat, and other food products.  Wine making is actually fairly common among volunteers, and some actually teach local Tanzanians the skills as a money-making activity to supplement other streams of income.  Anyway, we reached the banking town and were just in time to jump on a coaster out to another town, even closer to the Malawi border.  After making the trip in record time, thanks to our NASCAR driver, we found yet another bus from the town of Kyela that would take us out to the actual beach and the border with Malawi.  The trip from Kyela to Matema was a lot rougher due to the fact that the whole stretch of road was dirt, but after picking up a nice bright red KFC polo shirt and a bunch of about 50 bananas (still on the stem), we arrived at the beach.  The small little resort we were staying at was just outside a sleepy little village on the edge of the lake and was absolute paradise.  There were a collection of houses divided into room that were literally on the beach.  You walked out your door and onto the sand of the beach.  In addition to lounging on the beach enjoying the fantastic views, a large group of us did a hike up into the hills surrounding the lake to a waterfall.  At the top of the hike, at the peak of the mountain, was a huge waterfall that fell down into a large pool.  Upon arriving at the tropical oasis, we all took a swim, taking turns climbing up the rocks behind the waterfall and jumping through it.  I don’t really have the literary skills to describe it, but it was simply gorgeous and something out of a movie or land of the lost.  The stream that led from the large pool under the waterfall flowed down the mountain and provided water to a handful of villages lower down on the slopes.  We spent the remainder of the week and New Year’s day on the beach during the day, and basking in the glow of a bonfire on the beach every night we were there.  The only thing that would have made it a real stereotypical Peace Corps experience is if someone brought a guitar and was singing “kumbaya”.  After a phenomenal couple of days lounging around in tropical paradise with 20 or so of my best Peace Corps friends, we headed back to Mbeya.  I was again lucky enough to snag a ride with a guy who had rented a mini-van and driven down.  We decided, based on Eric’s advice to make a detour at another waterfall, just outside the town of Tukuyu, close to the larger town of Mbeya.  Our adventure included driving through the rolling hills of Africa and through various cornfields in a white mini-van.  Needless to say we attracted more than a few stares as people started to follow the random mini-van driving through their cornfields. After some uncertainty, and discussion with the locals, we found the entrance to the waterfall.  This particular waterfall was probably about 3 times as high as the one we swam in at Matema beach.  The entrance took you around the back of the actual waterfall and into a carved out area of the rock where you could look out through the cascading water and into the lush green valleys of Mbeya.  I feel like I’m running out of descriptive words to describe the sites I’ve seen recently, but the view through the waterfall out into the valley, with the cool spray of the water washing over us was simply unreal and totally worth the 2 hours detour through the cornfields of the surrounding villages.  We also were able to go down to the bottom of the waterfall and see it from the vantage point of it falling over the cliff and down into the shallow pool below.  One of these days when I have enough time and patience I’ll learn how to put up pictures on this site so that I can let you see the pictures, rather than me to completely fail at attempting to describe the things I’m seeing.  To round out the holiday trip, we made a stop at my good friend TJ’s apartment on the campus of the Mbeya Institute of Science and Technology to catch the Nebraska game (TJ’s team) and the Michigan game (my team).  A handful of interested football fans stayed over for two nights, making chili, drinking cold beers, and watching live college football on a tiny computer screen from about 2am until 10am, two days in a row.  If you do keep up with college football, you’ll know that my team pulled out an overtime thriller in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech.  A larger number of my friends back in Atlanta are VT alumni so it was a sweet victory, especially after the three previous horrible seasons that I had to endure. 

 And thus ACTUALLY ends my whirlwind 1.5 months of school vacation.  As fun as the previous three months had been, I was getting extremely anxious to get back to school and start the new year.  I was more excited than I was nervous, unlike the previous year where I was literally sweating for the first two weeks because I really didn’t know what the heck I was doing.  It was also rather exciting to think that I can now say “I’ll be coming home this year”.  The date of my actual return is still up in the air but what I do know is that my family (6 people in total; mom, dad, sister, friend of sister, aunt, and friend of aunt) will be coming to visit me here in Iringa at the end of June.  I also found out that a handful of my buddies from Atlanta want to come out immediately after I finish service to climb Kilimanjaro, go on safari in Ngorongoro Crater, relax on the beaches of Zanzibar and escort me back to America.  These two events have been enough to get me through the 1 year slump that many volunteers feel.  Unfortunately, we lost another two volunteers from our training class during the previous few months.  Both are amazing people, but just decided that one year was enough.  I can’t say that I don’t understand because as I’ve admitted before, I had serious thoughts about going home earlier the past year.  I just wish them both the best of luck and a successful “re-integration” back to America.  But yet again, my post is longer than I anticipated, so I’ll wrap it up here.  My New Year’s resolution is to be more punctual and up-to-date with these posts, so we’ll see how I keep up with that in the near future….

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