July 11, 2010

T a k i n g I t S l o w . . .

Before beginning, I must say that actually feeling really positive at the moment, despite the way this blog might come off sounding—I mean it to be light-hearted commentary, not a bitter rant, though I suspect it might read either way since you can’t hear my tone of voice…but rest assured, all is well—I love my counterpart (which I am aware that I still need to tell you about) and my village (same as before) and am actually at one of the more peak-like portions of the PCV mood-swings…so please read this accordingly!

Before I left the States, as I researched Peace Corps service, life in developing countries, etc. I was inundated with trite clich├ęs about how life outside of the States “moves a little slower,” as well as romanticized notions about how people don’t really put much emphasis on time, and instead just follow the “rhythm of daily life.”  As an American—and, in fact, an especially impatient American (as almost anyone who has ever met me can attest to…am I done writing this blog yet?!)—this change in pace was actually among the adaptations I was most looking forward to…how nice to slow down a bit, relax, and be a little more prepared to roll with the punches, right? 

It all sounds so great.  But in retrospect, I don’t think I actually delved into what those phrases actually entailed (probably because I was too busy being an industrious American to really give it a second thought).  I mean, really, what does “move to the rhythm of life” even MEAN?  Don’t we do that in America—if I need to go to the store, I go to the store…if I need to make dinner, I make dinner…if I want to spend an evening relaxing and hanging out with friends, or in my jammies with a cat on my lap and a movie on the TV, I do it…that sounds a lot like “taking life as it comes,” right?  Upon thinking about it, it IS a bit ambiguous, is it not?

Since my arrival in Botswana, the idea has become a tad more lucid.  Let me illustrate. 

My NGO needs to repaint several rooms and the exterior of a building, and I was assigned to obtain an estimate for this task (I will be doing more substantive work after IST [in-service-training] in August, but during our first two months of lockdown, our primary task is getting to know our counterpart organization and our community, so we are doing more menial tasks at work).  I was instructed to contact a local handy-man, who I was told would be able to swing by and give us a figure.  Simple, right? 

Of course, in order for me to do that, I would need to get the handyman’s phone number.  But it shouldn’t be hard to get, because my NGO works with him all the time, so someone there has to have his number, right?  Except that no one was quite sure who had the number.  So I asked my counterpart.  She said she didn’t have the number, but referred me to another person, who she was sure would have it.  The other person was in a meeting, so I waited.  I caught her when the meeting was over, and she said she didn’t have the number, but referred me to another person, who she was sure would have it.  That person was teaching and not available until recess, so I waited.  I caught her on her way out of class.  She said she didn’t have the number, but referred me to another person, who she was sure would have it.  I think you see where this is going.  So, eventually, after waiting and talking, waiting and talking, to person after person after person, I found out that the person who actually had the phone number was out for the day.  So that was Day 1 (the whole process probably took about 6 hours). 

Day 2: SUCCESS!  I was able to track down the person with the phone number, use the phone, AND when I called the handyman, he actually answered the phone, AND had time to answer my questions!  Except that he said that he couldn’t do it, but that if I measured the surface area of the rooms that need to be painted, I could calculate how much paint to buy based on the coverage area indicated on the paint cans.  No sweat. 

Of course in order for me to do that, I would need measuring tape.  So, I asked my counterpart if my NGO had a measuring tape.  She said that we had one, but she didn’t know where it was and referred me to another person, who she was sure would have it.  The other person was on lunch, so I waited for her.  She said she didn’t know where it was and referred me to another person, who she was sure would have it…I think you can guess where this is going.  So, another 6 or so hours later, I reached the end of the line, the one person that everyone said for certain knew where our measuring tape was.  SUCCESS! 

Except that he said that we actually don’t have a measuring tape.  Awesome.  So I asked if he knew where I could get one.  He said that a nearby NGO had one.  So, I walked to the other NGO, praying that someone would be in the office (just because things are “open” here doesn’t actually mean that anyone is there, or that if there are people there, they are the people you are looking for, or know where the people you are looking for are or when they will be back).  Fortunately as I walked in, I saw just the person I was looking for.  So I introduced myself and exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes (as is socially required).  Then I explained the situation and asked if he had a measuring tape and if we could borrow it.  He said that they did!  And that we could borrow it!  SUCCESS!

Except that the measuring was currently being used on a project in another village, several hours away, and he didn’t think they would have it back for a couple of weeks.  Sigh.  I was frustrated, but not defeated.  So I asked if he knew of any other place where I could obtain a measuring tape.  He didn’t.  So that was the end of Day 2.  Bring on the defeat.

Now by this point you have probably already begun tapping into your crafty American/Western entrepreneurial spirit, devising alternate ways to obtain the surface area—why didn’t I just use a string and then measure that with a ruler, you might be thinking.  Because that would entail finding a string and a ruler—kind of like trying to find a measuring tape… Why not just buy a measuring tape?  Because things like that are quite expensive here, and we have very limited funds, so to invest our money on something we use so infrequently, and which we may, in fact, already have, is extremely wasteful; plus I would have to track down a store in this area that has one for sale.  Why not just “eyeball it”?  Because I’d have to guess in square meters, not square feet, and we Americans can’t be bothered by the metric system, so my ability to guestimate a square meter is about as accurate as my ability to approximate a “dollop,” and it’s a number of really large rooms we’re talking about, so a small miscalculation of the size of a meter will be significantly multiplied, and then squared, in order to calculate the surface area, and although the estimate does not have to be perfect, if it is significantly off in either direction, it could spell the end of the project (if the estimate is too low, my NGO would have to provide the additional funds necessary to complete it, and if it’s too high, it could cause our funders to say the project is too costly and back out).  Don’t think my mind didn’t filter through all of these ideas, and more, during the hours and days I spent searching.  Believe me, it did.  But again, being an American, it’s just entirely inconceivable to me that it could be THAT difficult to do something as seemingly simple as obtaining a measuring tape, so with each step of the way, I became more determined that SURELY I could make it happen.  Plus, the whole nature of a wild goose chase, is that you are made to believe that each step along the way will be the last…so my quest continued.

Beginning of Day 3.  Since the whole obtaining-an-actual-measurement thing seemed to be a dead end, I decided to focus my efforts on getting estimates for how much the paint would cost per square meter (so that I could then multiply that by the number of square meters we needed to paint, assuming that I was ever able to actually figure that out).  Another simple task—go to the hardware stores around town and read the paint cans, right?  Wrong.  First store: out of the kind of paint we needed; store clerk said she did not know anything about paint.  Second store: tons of paint, but none of the labels indicated their coverage area; store clerk said he did not know anything about paint.  Third (and final) store: a few cans of paint, and two that stated their coverage area.  SUCCESS!  Except that they were seemingly identical cans of paint—same type, color (paint is priced differently by color), and quality rating—but one supposedly covered twice as much area per liter as the other.  So go with whichever was most cost-effective, right?  Except that neither had a price.  And the clerk didn’t know how much they were.  And the paint I had seen at the other stores varied significantly in cost (three-fold, actually), again, without any visible difference in quality.  Awesome.  But on this one, I was ok with using my American take-charge approach, and just guessed a coverage area halfway between the two I found and used a mid-range price from the other two stores. 

So that was half of day 3—maybe about 4 hours, between all the walking, and trying to hunt down the store clerks and ask them my questions (and of course making small-talk, which, as stated before, is socially required).  But even with a ballpark cost-per-square meter for the paint, when I returned to work, I was still at a stopping point.  Since I had done so much guesswork with the paint, I was really reluctant to guess with the measurements.  But since the estimate was for a Western funder, I had an actual deadline to meet (I had foolishly told one of my European supervisors that I would be able to complete the project, which included a three-page proposal in one day—ha!  The proposal required only my work, so was done within a couple of hours, but because the estimate required outside help…well, you see how it went. [Incidentally, writing proposals is also not what I will be doing after IST—our job is to capacity-build and create sustainable solutions for our counterparts, like training a local employee of the NGO to write proposals, but before IST, as I said, we are supposed to focus on our own learning about the way our community works…so this is actually a good example of the way my time should be spent.]).  Needless to say, I was feeling a bit uneasy.

But then, just in the nick of time—dramatic pause—the person from the other NGO appeared to save the day!  He had found the measuring tape and brought it for us to use! SUCCESS! 

Of course in order to measure, I would need to find someone willing to take a few minutes to help me by holding the other end…

Ultimately, on Day 4, I was able to complete the project.  SUCCESS!

Except that the project not only needed to be completed, but it needed to be e-mailed or faxed to our funders.  Our e-mail was down, and our printer decided it didn’t want to print the document (regardless of the format—I even tried to switch to .pdf), which meant there was nothing to fax.  Locating e-mail on a computer that would read the flash drive AND had a fast enough internet connection to upload a Word document ate up the rest of Day 4 and part of Day 5…but finally, REAL SUCCESS!!!!!  PROPOSAL SUBMITTED!!!  And it only took 5 days…

And that, my friends, is what it means to “slow down” and “not be so caught up in the hustle and bustle of American life.”  I must admit that I am still clinging to my American ways on this one, and wishing that story were an anomaly.  But it’s just the way things work here.  I’ve heard similar tales from all of the other volunteers, and experienced similar situations myself.  But it’s not inefficiency or laziness; it’s a cultural difference, the actual embodiment of living at a more relaxed pace.  And, really, I don’t have the right to be caught too off-guard by it.  After all, if I hadn’t been so caught up in my fast-paced ways at home, I probably would’ve taken the time to actually interpret the implications of “taking time to smell the roses.”  And it probably is a good lesson to learn, really.  But I won’t lie…it’s going to be a tough one.