Sunday, August 21, 2011

Worst. Date Night. EVER.

The story I am about to tell is humiliating and gross.  It is only in the interest of literary truth-telling that I am sharing it. 
The weekend started out well. The Lilongwe Wildlife Center had a showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 on Friday evening.  We had a quick dinner of pizza and showed up at the center, which had a fabulous child-sized mountain to climb, replete with a knotted rope that the kids used to pull themselves up. They did so repeatedly, sliding down the dirt afterwards, so that they were completely orange with dust within minutes of arrival.  There was a fabulous wooden playground, and a small thatched-roofed bar selling drinks and chips. The movie was being shown on a makeshift screen that consisted of a white sheet folded in the middle and held together with a clothes pin.  There was a bowl of marshmallows for toasting (not too bad), and bags of cheetos which substituted for the popcorn that had been promised, as the machine had broken.  In typical African fashion, the movie started an hour late, and suffered multiple technical problems before it went into full-swing, and the fold in the sheet tended to distort the character's faces to the point that they were occasionally unrecognizable, but overall it was really enjoyable.
Saturday was Date Night. I put it in capital letters because anyone who has been married for a long enough time recognizes the importance of that sacred night when adults shed their stained sweatpants, pry the sticky hands from around their legs, and briefly escape together in pursuit of that illusive and legendary holy grail of parenting: Adult Conversation.  This night was going to be special.  One of the Baylor doctors was having a party at her house (to celebrate "the revolution"), and I took the opportunity to dress up in my snazzy black leather boots and apply makeup.  I even went so far as to pilfer a gorgeous African print skirt that belonged to my (much younger and hipper) nanny. 
When we first arrived at Leah's house we were handed a glass of white wine and given a tour.  Her husband Jared is a truly talented artist, who does murals of famous people, as well as family and friends, using stencils he has created from photographs.  The work is amazing, and as I admired it their home filled with people and I had my second glass of wine. The partygoers were doctors, peace corps workers, Malawian nationals, and aspiring med students. The conversation was interesting, the wine was sweet, and I was out with my best friend.  I was having a great time.
Suddenly, I felt a rumbling in my belly.  It was not a pain, but it was enough to make me put down my glass of wine.  Within 5 minutes I had begun to sweat, and felt a cold chill sweep over my body from my scalp to my fingertips.  A searing pain began in my back, between my shoulder blades, and my heart began to feel as though it was exploding in my chest.  The world around me became gray and distant, and I held on to furniture as I made my way to Dave, interrupting his conversation to say that I had to go home.  Now.  I must have looked something like I felt, because he immediately stopped his conversation, gathered our belongings, and sheperded me toward the door.  I muttered my apologies to Leah through thick lips, stumbled to the car, and dragged myself into the front seat.
I have given birth twice.  I know what pain is.  The pain I was in last night was as profound and intense as labor, but without the blessed relief that comes between contractions.  My abdomen convulsed, my chest burned, and I felt consciousness attempting to flee as I struggled to keep from passing out.  I lay in the front seat and moaned, begging Dave to get home, wondering if I was dying, and trying to imagine where he could take me if I went into cardiac arrest.  And then it hit.
"Pull over", I begged Dave, and he drove onto the dirt at the side of the unlit highway.  I commanded him to roll up the windows and plug his ears, and fell out of the front seat.  I hunched over and was violently, explosively ill for several minutes.  I defaced my fancy boots and decimated my borrowed skirt as I hung onto the side of the truck and lost half of my body weight to the anonymous Malawian roadside.  Dave, growing concerned, rolled down the window to ask if I was OK, and I hoarsely asked him to find something, anything, I could use to clean myself up some before I got back into the car.  He found a sweatshirt of mine which I limply used to wipe myself down before hoisting myself back into the car.  Miraculously, I felt better, although still weak and lightheaded.
Despite having been together for a decade and a half, my husband and I have the kind of relationship where we do not discuss our bodily functions.  We prefer, instead, to maintain some semblance of romance by keeping these things to ourselves. As physicians and the parents of three children who have survived potty training and multiple rounds of rotavirus, and who consider flatulence to be a weapon against their siblings, we certainly discuss other people’s habits.  However we are both private people who prefer to see each other in a more idealistic, more romantically ideal way, and so we keep the bathroom door shut, both literally and figuratively.  I was humiliated, and, even with the windows rolled down and the wind in my face, I was sure that he was overwhelmed by the evidence of my roadside misfortune.  I promised, with tears in my eyes, never to drop embarrassing stories of his sleepwalking misadventures into casual conversation again, and made him swear that he would never share the details of this night with anyone.
It turns out that Dave had been having GI distress for about 24 hours, as well.  However, given the nature of our relationship, he had opted to keep this information to himself.  We do not know exactly where it came from, but we strongly suspect the Cheetos on Friday night, as the bag had been passed among multiple children before reaching us, and Laura and our children did not have any.
So why am I sharing this story?  Because, as much as the golden sunset over the burnt-amber fields behind our backyard each day, it is part of life in Malawi.  Plus, even one day later, it's pretty funny...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Life in Malawi

Finding the opportunity to blog has been difficult. After almost 3 weeks here, we finally have something called a "dongle”(about which I cannot help but make obscene jokes), which connects us to the internet from home.  It only really works upstairs, has not allowed us to access our e-mail consistently, and is extremely slooooow.  Nonetheless, I will attempt to summarize what life has been like for the Fitzgerald family for our first few weeks here in Malawi. 
My day usually begins about 6:30, when I wake up praying that there will be electricity, so that I can make coffee.  There have only been two work-mornings when I have had to go without, leaving me desperately plotting ways to come by caffeine at work.  One embarrassing day I stooped to pouring hot tap water over three tea bags and wringing them out into my travel mug because there was no electricity at work, either, and I could not boil water in the staff room.  I dress, slather on sunscreen, and set off into the crisp morning for a 3 1/2 mile walk to work.  It is my favorite part of my day, believe it or not.  I have chosen to walk because we truly cannot afford to buy a second car, and because fuel is so exorbitantly expensive and difficult to come by, that we are reluctant to drive anywhere we can conceivably walk.  Dave spent 7 hours waiting for fuel the other day, and it is $10/gallon.
It is "winter" here right now, and the dry season.  There has not been a single drop of rain the entire time we have been here, and everything is covered in a fine layer of orange dust.  In the mornings people sweep their yards and the roadsides, so the dust fills the air, mixing with the smoke from all of the fires burned each day to rid the city of garbage.  There is literally a haze over the street as I walk, and the sun sifts through it to warm my face.  My journey starts in our residential area, then I pass through a small market, where women squat selling bananas laid out on colorful cloths.  I then join the cadre of morning commuters who walk the busy road to the hospital, and pass women in bright sarongs, with their babies slung on their backs and baskets of fruit or grain balanced improbably on their heads.  I walk through a busy market where white vans crammed full of people idle as touts try to cajole more passengers to pack in.  The market consists of wooden stalls lined along the road, strung with wares ranging from CDs to hubcaps to fruits and vegetables.  I have even seen someone selling Obama candies, with the slogan "Yes we can!" across the top.  Just as I begin to wax poetic over the sounds and sights of Africa each morning, I am slapped with the stench of rotting trash from the dry riverbed beside the market, and my pace quickens while I attempt to keep from inhaling as I pass.
     I reach work about 50 minutes after leaving home.  The Baylor building is beautiful, a brick and glass structure with manicured gardens and a playground outside.  Early in the morning families arrive and wait for the clinic to open.  The vast majority are women carrying children who are wearing their best clothing, which is often an eclectic mix of worn and dirty princess dresses, with tattered crinoline and shredded ribbons.  I spent my first week in training, and have only recently begun to see patients with some of the other doctors, most of whom have been with the program for several years, whether in Malawi or in other countries. 
     Some days I run home, others I am picked up by Dave or I walk.  The evening is spent cooking meals that I hope the kids will eat, praying the electricity won't go out before I finish, and getting ready for work the next day.  It is very dangerous to drive at night here, as there are no street lights, people drive with their lights off to conserve gas (??!!), and the roadways are teeming with people walking or on bikes, so we rarely leave once we are home.
We live in a gated compound with 4 other townhouses, almost all of which have recently been rented.  Our neighbors all have children, many of whom go to Bishop Mackenzie, the international school our children (finally) got into.  We have also befriended most of the Malawian children who live outside our compound, and it is not unusual for us to have 5-10 children running through our house or jumping on our trampoline each afternoon.  Despite the expense (food is outrageous, and petrol ridiculous), and the power outages, and the constant need for sunscreen and bug spray, we are truly, truly happy here, and life is starting to develop a rhythm.
There are still so many stories to tell (our first trip to the market, how we got strong-armed into a housekeeper, etc), but I will have to continue another time.  I'm going to put on my headlamp, crawl under the mosquito net, and go to bed.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Departures and Arrivals

So, our adventure begins with the ringtone on my alarm clock at 4:30 am in our dark hotel room in Houston, about 2 hours after Dave and I had finally zipped the last bag shut and fallen into bed, and about an hour after Aine had climbed into bed with us and begun kickboxing me. Delirious but energized, we dressed the sleeping children and started piling our bags by the front door. The night before had been spent with several beers and a scale, doing luggage gymnastics, as we rearranged objects to ensure that each duffel bag contained exactly 50 pounds worth of goods and clothing. We arrived at the airport with time to spare, only to encounter a fastidious AirTran employee who not only weighed each bag individually (which revealed apparent deficiencies in our scale and forced us to pull our shoes and underwear out onto the airport floor in order to exactly meet the 50. Lb weight limit), but then measured the length, width, and height of each bag and charged us $50 more per bag for being over 66 inches. I do not recommend AirTran.
$500 and at least an hour later, we had 20 minutes to get through security and to our gate. As luck would have it, the Albuterol in our medicine bag apparently looked like darts of some kind, and Aine's mechanical dog Fluffy aroused suspicion, so we were bomb-checked, and the dog was wiped down. We ran for the gate as they were announcing final boarding.
Unbelievably, the check-in on Ethiopian Air the next morning was smooth and uneventful, facilitated by a kind gentleman who did not even weigh a single bag. The trip across the world was similarly (dare I say it?) pleasant, and the children watched movies until their eyes glazed over, then passed out with the help of Melatonin.
We were met at the airport on arrival by Joseph, one of the Baylor clinic's drivers, and 7 of our 21 bags. We rode through Lilongwe in one of the clinic's outreach vehicles, a battered white Land Cruiser with rows of seats across the back. The intoxicating and familiar smell of burning garbage and diesel fumes that is typical of the developing world hit me as I looked across barren orange plains sparsely populated with dry brush. Women in bright-colored skirts carried bundles on their heads along the roadside, children carried their siblings on their backs, and young men pushed decrepit bicycles along paths through the desiccated fields.
We were taken to our home and met by Tiya, the administrative coordinator for the clinic, and Tiwonge, the landlord of the property. The townhouse is amazing, by any standards. It is brand new, with black tile floors and stainless steel appliances in the kitchen. Of course, they have all been manufactured in China, so we can not read any of the instructions on how to use them, and we have occasional "brown-outs", when the electricity doesn't work, but we are making do. Each bedroom has an entire wall of gorgeous built-in closets with drawers and shelves, and sliding wooden doors, and there are no less than 4 bathrooms, two of them with both bathtubs and glass-enclosed showers. Our complete set of bags arrived two days after we did, and the children have been content to read and play with the toys they had not seen in two months, and to bounce on the trampoline (yes, we brought it...) for hours on end. They obviously feel safe and comfortable in their new home, and even survived our first actual blackout last night, putting on their headlamps to navigate the darkened house without fear or complaints.
Aine, as predicted, refuses to eat anything but potato chips and nutella, despite my daily shopping trips and hours spent laboring to make dishes that look familiar to her. At home our diet consisted mainly of Quorn vegetarian products, which I made into soups, stews, and casseroles. Here I have tried to make seitan, using a time-consuming method which involves kneading flour into a dough and washing away the carbohydrate portion, leaving only the gluten, then boiling it in vegetable broth to give it flavor. The rest of the family ate it with enthusiasm, while Aine carefully picked the pieces out of her meal. I keep telling myself that she will eat when she gets hungry enough, but seeing her induce gagging over everything from quesadillas to mashed potatoes (typical staples at home) has me wondering. We heard a rumor that tofu could be purchased from a Chinese food store nearby, so I will walk there today to try to purchase some, and hope that it is not rejected for being "different". Food here is exorbitantly expensive (8$ for butter, 10$ for 4 asparagus stalks, etc.), and each supermarket carries different foods, so assembling a meal often takes several hours of shopping and cooking, as well as proficiency in Mandarin in order to use the stove. We have been walking to most places, as fuel is not only expensive (10$/gallon), it is hard to come by, and it is not uncommon to see lines of cars stretching seemingly for miles outside of petrol stations, with people waiting for gas as long as 8 hours, hoping it does not run out before they reach the front of the line.
There is so much more to write, but using the Internet requires leaving Dave with the kids to walk 40 minutes roundtrip to town, and I still have to hunt for tofu. Tomorrow I start work at Baylor, so I'm sure there will be updates coming in the near future.