Sunday, January 31, 2010

Setting Up House

Last Sunday, I and my new housemate J moved into our new house. It’s not a new house, but it is new to the organization. So, while the house is furnished-beds, chairs, tables, stove and fridge- there are many things that are lacking. Since it is considered group housing, the organization will pay for common furnishings- pots and pans, shower curtains, etc. This also means that there is an entire purchasing process to go through. We can’t just run out to Target and be done.

As I do want to enjoy these extra furnishings, I’ve inserted myself in the process of buying them-otherwise it would be left up to the men in the purchasing/logistics department. Not that they couldn’t do it, but frankly, when it comes to quality and color coordination I need to be involved!

Day 1: The whole process started with me making a list in English of items and checking it twice with J. Then I wrote out a requisition form listing the items in French for the admin/purchasing guy. The list had to be verified and signed by the head of office.

Day 2: I went with the driver and another random office guy (he works in water and sanitation, but I’m not really sure what he does except that today he is helping me shop) to price items and find quotes. We all hopped into a Hilux pick-up and headed toward the commercial center of town. When I say commercial center, you need to picture dark dirt, pot-holed roads with volcanic rock laying here and there (we’re only 8 miles from an active volcano!) and small shops made of concrete with single open doors lining the streets. Merchandise spilled out of the stores giving one a good idea of what one might find inside. Most stores seemed to be a hodgepodge, but could be loosely grouped into a few categories- apparel, housewares, hardware.

At store #1, which looked more like a hardware store, they had one item that we needed out of a list of 50. Next!

At store #2, they had 10 or so items. This store was like walking into the poorly organized, dusty garage of your great uncle who happened to be a hoarder. It too leaned toward the hardware category with pipes, toilets, brooms, boxes of water filters and display cases packed with assorted electrical doohickeys all dumped together. A dozen light fixtures for sale hung from the ceiling and walls, most memorably a chandelier with chartreuse glass bowls around the bulbs and another that looked like a foot-long pink log.

Store #3 was more about home furnishings. If rummage sales and my grandmother’s attic could cross-breed, this store would be the result. The entire store was approximately 15x25 feet, but stacked from floor to ceiling with just a narrow walkway to the back. There were women’s high heels, glass end tables, office chairs, gaudy framed art, coffee makers, jewelry, strollers, water coolers, dishes, pots and pans and a meat grinder exactly like the one my mother used to use. Not a price tag in sight.

Instead, we played a game of pointing, asking and pricing. There were a few items that were reasonably priced, but for the most part I was in price shock!

In French:
Me: How much is this? (iron)
Shopkeeper: Um, that’s $65.
Me: $65!!

Me: How much is this? (coffee maker)
Shopkeeper: $70
Me: $70!!

Me: How much is this oversized leather chair (just for kicks?)?
Shopkeeker: That’s $2,000
Me: $2,000!!!!

As we were leaving the shopkeeper asked if we’d be back to buy and I told him we were comparing prices and wherever had the lowest price is where we would buy. Amazingly, prices dropped after that.

Store #4 finally had a stove. (The countertop electric oven and hotplate combo that came with the house is taking 30 minutes to toast bread....). Despite being a small oven and of mixed energy use -three gas burners, one electric burner and an electric oven (who’s ever heard of such a thing??)- the price tag was $750. Ouch. I think I repeated the price back to the store clerk 5 times and the price didn’t get any lower. Thankfully, when I went to the grocery store later on, they had a gas stove/oven for a much more reasonable $370. The only downside is that we have to cross the border and buy the tanks of gas in Rwanda.

In store #5, I felt like I hit the jackpot. It was all cutlery and cooking. My helper and I walked in and behind the counter and stacked all along the walls were oodles of pots and pans, serving utensils, bowls, plates and almost all the kitchen tools one could want. After seeing a lot of overpriced electric coffee makers, my big find of the day was a French Press. I asked and they actually had one for just $15.

Now that the list of items is all priced, the list had to go back to the admin guy to do a price comparison.

Day 3: Oops, we need to get a proforma from all the vendors! Going back to each store, each vendor had to write the price for each item on their business letterhead. Back at the office, I gave the administrator the proformas. He called me into his office at the end of the day and told me that we needed to find one store with all of the items. He's Congolese so he knows there isn't one store with all of the items on the list. I gave him a blank stare and told him exactly that. He said he'd have to do a comparison between the proformas and wanted to know which items I wanted. To make things a bit easier I volunteered to make an Excel table and circled the item from that I wanted to buy.

Day 4: I was given a check advance for the items. Off to the bank to get cash -- $1,000 in twenties and back to the stores to actually purchase the items.

Now, J and I can actually set up house! We have a stove and dishes and bath mats and hangars-- we just have to wash layers of dust off of everything first!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Twisted Linguistics

I received my cell phone today with the key pad in Arabic.
I open a web browser, it pops up in German.
I communicate with my colleagues in French.
I am starting to pick up some Swahili.
I am teaching a few phrases of Haitian Creole.
I think in English.
And, every once in a while a phrase of Spanish slips in.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

VIP Palace

Until my new home is ready with a higher wall and a safe room, I'm staying in the VIP Palace Hotel. A reviewer on Trip Advisor said that this hotel is neither a palace nor for VIPs. They must not have had my room.

The charm begins with what I call "The Stairway to Heaven" that leads only to my room for that special VIP feeling. The room's decor is decidedly log cabin-esque with dark log walls, floor and ceiling and is finished off with two 3-foot tall lamps of half-naked women. One is placed by the bed so that the first thing I see in the morning is a wooden boob.

There are also two toilet-brush head birds (real name Grey Crowned Crane) that like to hang out on my stoop. It was a bit disconcerting to open the door the first morning and find them there taking their morning poop.

I do love it though, and wouldn't trade my little mini-log cabin for any other room....except the one in my new house.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

First Impressions

Evening humidity and the sweet smell of wood fires and damp earth greeted me when I stepped onto the tarmac at 8 pm in Kigali, Rwanda (Jan 14). I breathed in deeply. I love the first smell of a new place.

Kigali was my point of entry into the continent from Brussels because it is only a 3 hour drive west to Goma just over the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rwanda is neat and orderly. There was no pushing in the immigration line, no shoving at the baggage claim and no porters competing for my suitcases. There were porters, but all I had to do was ask for a cart (it's free!) and I managed my own luggage.

A driver from the office met me outside and took me along perfectly paved, perfectly clean streets to a small hotel where I promptly encountered someone who I had first met in Port-au-Prince a few years ago. He would also be working in Goma.

I felt immediately at home at the hotel with CNN on the TV and two cockroaches scurrying across the floor. (I shortened their lives.)

The next morning at 8 am the driver picked me up and we started the drive toward Goma. It took an entire 20 minutes for me to spot a piece of garbage on the side of the road. Shakira and The Dave Matthews Band sang out on Voice of America.

We climbed a hill and drove along green mountains with a red earth background that remind me of the Haitian mountains. I could have been in Kenscoff or Furcy. These mountains were broader, but have the same sloping features and garden plots etched into the hillsides. Banana plants, eucalyptus trees, sorghum, beans, potatoes, calla lilies, impatiens, birds of paradise were everywhere. Houses cropped up here and there. Men and women walked along the road many carrying produce to or from market.

When I am first in a new place, I like to ask local people what they like and don't like about their country. The first people I tend to meet are the office drivers. The Rwandan driver responded promptly to the first question, "Ah, I love that my country is clean." I had to agree!

When I posed the second question in English- what he doesn't like- he asked me to repeat it, then asked for the question in French then said,"We have a lot of security in our country. I cannot answer that question." I remembered Rwanda is the place where everything is neat and orderly and the people reserved, but with very little trust between them.

We met the Congolese driver half way to the border and I posed the same questions to him. He quickly said,"I'll answer first what is not good. The government is not good. They do not take care of their people. They do not take care of the roads. What I love is the beauty of my country."

We arrived at the border and were across within 20 minutes--no fees, no bribes, no pushing, no waiting. It made my memories of the Haiti/DR border experience all the worse!

Crossing into Goma, the road deteriorated- mostly dirt and potholes (although nothing worse than the side roads in Port-au-Prince!). It certainly is not as tidy as Rwanda, but it still looked cleaner and less chaotic than Port!

I think I'm going to like this place.

My New Home in Goma

I left Port-au-Prince January 3. I arrived in Goma January 15. In between, everything changed. My home city for 8 years was destroyed by earthquake. Instead of simply looking forward to new adventures in Goma, my journey here was filled with thoughts, prayers and longing for my friends and former colleagues in Haiti. Even now, I compulsively check e-mail and Facebook updates to check-in on the situation and send whatever encouragement I possibly can.

It doesn't seem fair that I am not there to share in the tragedy, but rather here, where the birds are singing, music is playing and food is in ample supply.

But, this is where I am. Although my heart is heavy, I know I must dive into my new life, my new home here in Goma. And so, I am writing to share with you my new adventure.