Wednesday, April 20, 2011

the joys of living without

I’m often asked what the most difficult part of living in Uganda is. It’s not an easy question to answer. There are, after all, a lot of difficult parts about living here, not just for me, but even for the people who have never, and probably will never, leave this place. When asked how hard it is to live without all of the amenities and luxuries I got used to in the states though, that is a question I feel like I can answer more readily. While it’s undeniable that there certainly is a very substantial gap between the US and Uganda in almost all the amenities that make up daily life, it is far from the hardest part of life here. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s one of the best.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not some kind of masochist. There are times when I feel like I am losing my mind. I would give anything for some decent food (or even some food without rocks and sand in it), my own seat in a safe, odor-free car, a sit-down toilet, a good friend to hang out with on short notice, running water, reliable electricity, really just for anything to work out on time the way it should. After enough time, you get used to these things, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still mentally and sometimes physically taxing. The really amazing part about this experience, however, is in the newfound appreciation that you gain for all of those things that were taken for granted before.

I once received a bag of Cajun trail mix in a care package that ants had burrowed into and were devouring. I wouldn’t say that the ants were the bulk of it by the time I got to the bag, but I would say they’d probably be up there on the ingredient list; behind the corn nuts and roasted peanuts, but ahead of the almonds, sesame sticks, and toffee peanuts. Well, I had been looking forward to this package for months, and I was going to be damned if I let a couple of ants piss on my parade. I put the bag into a Ziploc and sealed it to kill the little beasts off and set it aside for the night. Even I wasn’t about to eat live ants. I’m not a total heathen. The next day, after the ants had earned their just reward, I dove right in. I had originally intended to pick the ants out as I ate, but I’d be lying if I said that process lasted more than the first few minutes. In the end, I figured it would send a good message to any nearby ants that had funny ideas about the rest of that care package.

When I told my friends about this story, I heard two distinct reactions.

My friends from home: Dude… that’s pretty nasty. How gross was it?

My friends in Peace Corps: Dude… I LOVE Cajun seasoning. How good was it?

And the truth is it was fantastic. I can tell you without hesitation that I have never enjoyed trail mix as completely as I did for those next few days (the two pound bag lasted about half of a week).

In America, Cajun trail mix is one of my favorite snacks. I really enjoyed the stuff, but there’s something lost when you can run down to the supermarket anytime, anywhere, pick a bag up, and fulfill your cravings. Such a feat in Uganda is not just difficult, it is flat-out impossible. I had lived for months on crumby porridge, rice, beans, and a handful of other equally uninspired ingredients so that when something like a bag of Cajun trail mix finally did come along, it wasn’t just an enjoyable snack, it was an earth-shattering enlightenment for my deprived taste buds. The really high highs, the things that make this experience so unique, may not come from the act of living without, but they do come because of it.