I wrote a random post for the fitness blog declaring my love for my spinning teacher, George.
I wrote a random post for the fitness blog declaring my love for my spinning teacher, George.
My mother likes it when I make calendars for her with photos I’ve taken. I was trying to put one together as I did other work, and realized I’d somehow misplaced all my photos from Vietnam and China in a computer migration, and had to unearth an old back up. I found some images I didn’t even remember I’d shot. Hoi An during the full moon lantern festival, during Christmas. Young girls dressed like Santa selling lanterns for $1 that you float it on the river with a wish.
I’ve been away almost every weekend this summer, doing all the summer things — riding my bike in PEI and from Toronto to Montreal, hanging out at my sister’s off-grid cottage in Quebec, doing the Triadventure, and last weekend, canoe-camping with some friends in Algonquin.
I haven’t actually done a back country paddling trip for a number of years, and I wasn’t fully in the mode at first of remembering all of the things that had to be done. And I was super nervous about the paddling. I was in a boat with my friend’s 72 year old mother, who is very game and strong but who had never camped before last year. I’m not remotely skilled at sterning — I’ve never been able to really internalize how to be in the back of the boat with any finesse, because most of the people I’ve paddled with have wanted my steady paddling power in the front.
But I did it, and I had a lesson in sterning and got way better at it (Bev and I were an amazing team by the last day), and I carried a 17 ft, 62 lb boat by myself across 6 portages.
Sam blogged about the trip also: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2016/08/31/whats-strength-good-for/
It’s been a big summer for Feats of Strength for me — paddling, riding 160 km in one day and 605 in 6, persevering through a painful 14 km run in the triadventure, just sticking with things that call on my stamina and the strength I’ve been trying to build for two decades. Physically and mentally. This weekend, I loved that we were a group of women, including someone old enough to be my mom and Susan’s 15 year old daughter (and 7 year old female lab). It’s elemental, this kind of female presence in the woods, stretching ourselves and pushing ourselves past comfort.
I have a super busy fall coming up, and the notable feats of strength will take a back seat. At least, until a major Asian adventure in December. But there’s something deeply grounding about having this summer of effort and strength behind me as I tackle complex work that I need to bring my best, most mindful self to.
How did it get to be mid-July? I feel like I’ve spent it entirely a) working and b) on my bike.
Have posted about how my bike keeps me sane when the world is blowy. The past couple of months have had a lot of dark news, including a hard family death. I keep riding. Someone said the other day, “I keep seeing your long rides and wondering, where is she GOING?” “I’m looking for that portal to another dimension,” I said. Some other timeline where the world doesn’t feel so chaotic.
I’ve posted about riding and what it means to me on Fit is a Feminist Issue a couple of times:
The more I ride, the less I run, I realize. Funny how these shifts happen when we’re not paying attention.
In the melange of 52 people who have been students of Nikibasika, Dorcus is kind of like the middle child — I’ve always noticed her as smiling, sweet, not talkative, very happy to participate in everything we do. One of my most indelible images of her is with a huge grin, singing loudly, face turned up to sing as fully as possible, stuffed into a minivan on the way back from an outing. When she was younger, she liked to sit by me, quietly.
Like every youth in Nikibasika, though, inside there’s a hard story, a history I know I can only begin to catch the shape of, only if I listen hard.
Dorcus finished her O levels last year with okay results, but not the kind that would indicate an academic path. After some career guidance, she chose plumbing. She stood up in our first meeting on this visit to Nikibasika, again with her enormous smile, and said “I am going to be a plumber because I want a job that keeps me healthy and strong. There are not many ladies in plumbing, but you can do any job with love and confidence.”
Her fellow plumbing student, the equally quiet and sweet Angella Brown, nodded.
I made a swirl of a “decision” to go on a little road tour after our annual visit to Niki. I wanted to see Smith, who is in medical school, and I wanted to visit the village of two of the boys who’ve been asking me to do that for years, and I wanted to go to Rwanda to the village of another family. Somehow in the planning, we realized Dorcus’ grandmother lived right near the other two boys’, and she wanted to see her. So we got a bigger van and set out, three women — me, Dorcus and the associate director Tina, and four boys. And two drivers (the second is to look out the side window to tell the first it’s okay to pass. Way more necessary when you’re stuck being a crawling fume-belching truck on a narrow dirt road than you’d think).
Ten long hot hours in the sweating van, the bumpiest of roads, dust flying everywhere. I fretted about the integrity of the dental work that would have paid for five kids to go to university, wished I’d worn a sports bra, kept dropping my little airplane pillow into the filthiest wheel well. Produced an endless supply of puzzling snacks for everyone, dried dates and energy bars. Dorcus smiling behind me the whole way while the boys cocooned themselves in their phones. A little chat about her happiness with her course, her joy at seeing her grandmother, but mostly just quiet, some giggling about the magnetic Frida Kahlo finger puppet that is my travel companion, which driver #2 took a shining to.
When we finally reached the point that marks the triangular border between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, Dorcus announced for everyone. “We shall go to home tonight, no point in spending money on a hotel.” The grandmothers lived a 10 minute boda ride from the town (motorcycle taxi). The other two boys with the nearby grandmother erupted in flurry of angry Kinyarwanda. I didn’t understand the words but knew they were protesting staying in the village instead of in a hotel with a tv. Dorcus stared them down. Minutes later, they were climbing out of the car and onto the backs of bodas, holding the soap, bread and sugar we’d purchased for the grandmothers.
In the morning (yes, the hotel had a TV and there was apparently the final of the FA cup on, and one of the Rwandan boys didn’t even eat dinner he was so engrossed in the game), we drove up to the grandmothers’ houses. We passed the bore hole where they fetch water, which has to be carried at least a kilometre up a hill.
Dorcus’ grandmother’s place was set back from the road, dusty, hot and exposed. There was an aunt, a couple of small children, an ailing woman lying on a pallet out by the small building two ducks were trying to get into.
Her grandmother had splurged on sodas. A huge gesture of welcome. We drank the warm sodas quietly in the small sitting room papered with newspaper. I taught everyone how to clink and say “Sante”. After, I asked Dorcus to show me around.
She was a bit hesitant, and I put my arm around her. “Just show me what you want to show me.” I realized she was worried I would judge, was hesitant to reveal the shabbiness, the need. “This is the kitchen where I cook – it is not cleaned up because I just got here.” Kitchens are generally separate buildings with a fire, a few large pots, wood. This one was filled with rubbish, looked like there had been no recent fire, maybe no porridge for breakfast. Dorcus stood, worried. “I’m sure your grandmother is glad you’re here.” She nodded and held my hand.
I confirmed a bit of history about how she’d gotten into the project. The first wife of the man who selected the initial group for the project lived nearby. Her father is dead, her mother is around but unable to care for her. She prefers her grandmother. Her grandmother is 95, runs this little farm with no male help, looks after the woman with cancer. Dorcus’ worry about her radiated off her.
Dorcus showed me where she sleeps. Again, I could see that she felt a bit embarrassed. I felt the conflict of language, of class, of privilege. How to explain that I like to see this because it helps me understand her, understand myself and what I am doing here, not because it makes me pity her. “Do not cry aunt,” she said. “Be strong.” I wasn’t crying, but I understood what she meant. She was showing more of herself to me than she ever had. A lot was held in this moment.
“I’m really glad you will be able to work and earn money to help your grandmother,” I said. “She is a strong woman.” She nodded. “Like you,” I said.
We took a few photos, me and her and her beautiful grandmother, and a small cousin who boldly crept in. “She likes to sleep with me,” laughed Dorcus. “I’m not surprised,” I said.
She walked us back to the van at the boys’ grandmother’s house, hugged me fiercely, walked back alone up the dirt road, to spend two weeks making the little farm work before going back to continue her training as a plumber. Doing everything with love and confidence.
We are walking up the hill to the hotel that’s still called Kepp, even the owner who named it that has been dead for several years, murdered mysteriously, possibly by a political rival. A prostitute was charged and served a few months. We are walking up this hill in a blaze of heat, on the way to the pool, the annual visit. Time is different in Uganda. The pool is what we do when we come, sometimes; the kids in the project know the precise number of times we have come, as though December 2008 when I taught Alex to swim was as recent as the time in Kampala in December 2013 when I taught Moses. ‘Look Aunt, I am swimming!’ As though no time had passed since I saw him. We are woven together, these moments.
But time has passed, and the baby that was wrapped in a far too warm and synthetic quilt for my tastes when I first held her is holding my hand, marching up stoically and with determination up the hill. She’s a clotheshorse, this Nana, the daughter of the project Associate Director and Social Worker, and the sparkly sunglasses I’ve brought her and cheerful sundress mark her as so different from the kids in rags we pass as we walk. But she can also carry a 5 litre jerry can of water that weighs double what she does, like all Ugandan kids. She is uncomplaining, and she is strong.
On my other side is the girl who just came to the community last year. She’s 13 now and our Director found her on a street corner with two other girls, “hair crazy and skirts like THIS.” Sex workers at 12. This girl is the only one of the three who is still here. The kids and youth in Nikibasika took her in as part of their community work and are paying her school fees out of their pocket money. She stays at the project house because it’s safer, goes to school, has learned English and how to read in the last year. She’s Health Prefect at school and captain of the girls football team. She’s the only girl in this group who’s ever played football. She’s old for her grade, but so determined. In term time, she’s the only one at the house with the matron and the Askari, the guard. I ask her if she feels lonely being the only one in the big house. “No. I know what I want.” She wants to be a nurse.
Later today, when we do presentations of the year’s accomplishments, another student will present this girl as one of their “community projects.” She means well, but I see that this girl feels shame having her story told in front of the community and the officials. She tries to speak and say thank you and breaks down crying. Soon all of the kids are crying and most of the officials. We are quiet for a while, just weeping. I say, “her story is everyone’s story, isn’t it? Everyone here has struggled.”
As I walk up the hill to the pool, on my other side is the young man who has a congenital problem with mobility in one side of his body, possibly a mild cerebral palsy. That’s why his village handed him over to the project founder. He couldn’t dig or carry water. We discovered 3 years ago that he also has schizophrenia. That was a hard time. He had delusions, voices. His family tried to “smoke him” with witchcraft, which didn’t go well with his visions of demons. He now has a psychiatrist, medication, but he’s merely almost stable. He has a terrible, irritating persistence that is a kind of compulsion that makes him hard to be around. He can’t manage his own movements, gets lost going between the project and town. He asked to learn tailoring and spent a year in a program but his limited arm mobility meant he enjoyed the experience, liked feeling useful, but didn’t learn anything. He is a dilemma from our point of view — how do we help him find some stability as an adult in a country that doesn’t tolerate incapability very well? We keep looking for something he will be able to do, some place that will hold him safe.
We walk together and I call on my patience. He is telling me about the side effects of his medication, and that the doctors are deceiving him. I realize on this hot trudge up the hill, Nana’s sticky hand still in mine, that he doesn’t understand that he needs to take his medication forever. Ugandans mostly don’t understand the concept of a medication you take to keep your illness stable — they understand medication that cures. Or nothing. Our director also frequently lets his diabetes medication run out and then complains of being unwell. I try to explain to this young man pleading with me that thinking his doctors are deceiving him is a symptom of his disease, and that he will always always need to take his medicine — that it’s continually taking it that keeps his mind safe, that the failure to be cured isn’t a “lie.” “Are there others like me?” he asks. “Could I meet some people in my situation?”
It’s an excellent question and a reasonable request. And I just don’t know. I promise him I’ll try. He then asks me to buy him an iPod.
At the long broken stairs to the pool, Samson takes pity on Nana’s tiny legs and carries her the rest of the way. I wriggle her into her red polka dotted bathing suit and take her into the pool for the first time. She squeals and giggles her hoarse little laugh. We dip and dance in the pool. I feast on a buffet with everyone. Kagame’s dance troupe entertains us and then we all dance, even Daddy Gabriel, even Auntie Tina, even Lillian the matron. We dance with complete embodied love and communal joy.
Hoi An is a town of lanterns. During the full moon festival, tiny old ladies and a few children, some dressed in santa costumes, hold trays of paper lanterns, red and green and blue and yellow, candles lit.
You buy one for 20,000 dong and carry it carefully to the edge of the river, avoiding the boatman offering you a ride, eluding the other ladies trying to get you to buy a lantern, apparently oblivious to the one you have in your hand. You thread around the other walkers.
There is a floating edge to the darkness in Hoi An, streets in the old town lit by colourful lanterns strung along every restaurant, every shop. The streets are narrow and full but the noise is soft, no loud music, no motorbikes or cars. The basso thrum of the motorbikes sifts from the edges of the old town.
You lean down and place the lantern in the river, making a wish. Your lantern is red, and you watch it float out around the man’s little boat, tangled for a moment around the prow. The little fold of red paper, lit with a sturdy candle, holds an invocation, a breath to decide what to leave behind, what to bring into the next future. Every moment is fresh. Pema stays with me. I invoke the qualities I am practicing hard to cultivate. I watch my little boat shift gently, then blink. There are three or four or six, and I don’t know which one is mine. My eyes blur for a moment and all of those invocations are mine.
I weave through the surges of people, find my bicycle where it’s been moved to. I know mine in the shuffle of hotel-loaned bikes because i brought my own little blue cable lock. You lock them just so you know which one is yours, so no one accidentally rides it away. They pile up and fill the streets and the vendors, the restaurant owners, consolidate them and move them. You always find yours. I ride to my homestay and sleep in white sheets.