The Accidental Tour Guide

I arrived at the second hotel I am staying at in Entebbe yesterday feeling exhausted, but still feeling like an accomplished confident traveler. I really wanted to rest, but yesterday was the only free afternoon I had to be a tourist. Without thinking about it I decided to go to the botanical gardens by myself because I heard they were something not to miss in Entebbe. I had the hotel call me a cab without overthinking it.

The cab driver took me to the gardens and I asked him to please be sure to come back for me in an hour. He left me at the gate to a huge park. I paid the entrance fee and asked if there was a path or any sort of map and suddenly I had a man who was showing me around. I had heard there were guides at the entrance to the park, but since I never quite asked for one I was a bit confused. However, a few minutes into my impromptu tour I was so glad they decided I should have a guide.

The gardens are 47 acres of greenery. I had a nightmare of getting lost and trying to use google maps in the middle of the garden (“I swear I already walked past this tree”). I also scolded myself for not wearing sneakers because we were walking through the dense grass in sandals. My tour guide plowed ahead of me at a fast pace climbing over rocks and little streams. I forgot to tell him I am clumsy and he seemed confident I would be fine following behind. He picked flowers off each tree for me to smell and had key sites to show me. As we navigated through the garden there was an easy silence as I trailed behind his steady pace.

Apparently the gardens are where they filmed the original Tarzan. Parts of the garden feel like a park with open spaces, but then there is the “Tarzan section” with the long branches that the actor in the original Tarzan swung from. My guide told me that kids still climb them today to get certain fruits at the top of the trees.

I have been pretty into flowers after reading The Language of Flowers  but these gardens were more than just flowers. I saw a tree that they use the sap from for latex; bougainvillea in every color (I learned the leaves are what make them different colors and the flowers inside the leaves are all the same color); orchid-like plants in all sorts of shapes (one is called a pipe flower because of its shape); a flower that looked like a sea urchin; flowers that were so fragrant I stuck them in my bag to smell later (of course I ended up throwing them out discretely in the cab); fruit trees; a Ugandan Christmas tree; leaves that are so rough women in Uganda use them as nail files; and that was just the flora!

My guide ripped into what seemed to be a mound of dirt to show me what termites looked like and explained if you are ever in the wilderness and need stitches you can take a bunch of termites on your wound. He put one on his shirt to illustrate how they bind to the cloth. I kept my distance from the termite pile and nodded feigning interest. If I am in the wilderness and develop a big cut and turn to termites I have probably been kidnapped and have way bigger problems. We saw all sorts of birds and anyone who knows me knows I am not the biggest fan of birds, but these ones kept their distance and so I was okay with looking at them from a distance.

As we were walking through one section of trees the guide told me that these trees are eaten by Colobus monkeys and asked me if I knew what monkeys he was talking about. I lied and said yes. We walk a short bit and then my guide tells me to look up and I see one of those monkeys staring down at us. They are the black and white monkeys who have the white beards that make them look wise and earnest. We stare at the monkey for awhile. I can’t tell if my guide thought I was crazy when I waved at the monkey and said hello, but I felt a connection there. Then we hear a quiet rustling across the way and see a tree filled with more of these monkeys including a baby one which is all white. If I had not been with a guide and known to look up I would have completely missed the fact that these monkeys were just watching me from above. It was spectacular.

We moved next to the spider area. I do not consider myself someone who is scared of spiders, but without warning we walked into a little area in which I was surrounded by spider webs and rather large spiders. I take a few pictures, but try to get a move on. The tour guide throws something at the spider web he says so I can get a better picture. I jump out of the way and reassure him my pictures are not that important. Once I convince him to leave the spider area I ask him if the spider bites. He nodes. I follow-up with tentatively, “is the spider poisonous?” He responds, “not very.” I laugh and he explains that basically one would not die from a spider bite by this spider, but just would get very sick. I definitely do not need to deal with that adventure.

There were no other tourists in the gardens which made the experience feel even more special. As we were leaving a school bus comes in with students who had a class party in the gardens. It was nice to be in a place that was enjoyed by both tourists and locals.

I awkwardly tell my tour guide that I need to meet my driver back at the entrance and he takes a short cut as we hike up a few grassy hills back to the front entrance. I felt a bit nervous about how to deal with the fact that I had inadvertently hired a guide and had no idea what he cost and if I had enough Ugandan shillings. I ask him what I can give him and he immediately says $10 to use for school books. I wonder if that is what he tells tourists, but I was more than happy to do it. I pay him in a mix of US dollars and Ugandan shillings to ensure I have enough to pay for a cab home. As I pay my accidental tour guide I ask him his name and it is Rafiki – which is my favorite out word out of the five Swahili words I know – it means friend.


My First Date with Uganda

A couple weeks ago I caught a smell in the air of burning wood and had this weird visceral memory and turned to Shaun and said, “This is what I remember Kenya smelling like.” After three years it was weird that that smell could suddenly link me back to a place. When I left the airport in Uganda I breathed that smell in again and felt comforted at the familiarity.

One of my favorite parts of travel is the cab ride from the airport. It is the first date with a new place. You are forming your early impressions and noticing all of the places’ quirks. Last night when I arrived I was immediately charmed by Uganda. I cannot explain why. I think one of the reasons was the ease of the travel experience. Customs was easy and comfortable, I spotted my luggage on the carousel right away, and when I exited the airport the hotel driver Esra was waiting for me outside. He was friendly and immediately made me feel calm. There was a sense of quiet around the airport not like the hussle and bussle of the Nairobi airport. On the cab ride to the hotel Esra opened all the windows and I inhaled the smell I remembered. I looked out and saw an election poster sign and far off lights, but mostly it was dark and there was not much to see. I struggle with whether in academia I am what we call an “Africanist” and I realized regardless of that label there is certainly something about the countries I have been in Africa that enthralls me.

When I got to the hotel (which has a motto based on making their guests feel like a friend) they told me they offered each guest a complimentary drink. When I had wine in Kenya it was never very good, but this woman assured me it was a nice dry South African red. Obviously being me I immediately spilled it on the floor of my room and had to call the front desk to help me clean it up, but that is not the point. I slept that night in my mosquito net canopy bed and didn’t feel the anxiety I expected. I felt cozy and excited.

I went down to breakfast this morning and realized I had never traveled by myself before internationally. Everyone else was paired off at breakfast and I was there with my book and eating my beloved African mangos. Being by myself gave me this new sense of confidence. After breakfast I walked to the hotel’s “beach” saying hello to everyone and snapping a few pictures.

The scenery feels more like a jungle than a beach lake type town. It is overcast today which adds to this mystical feeling. It is either overcast or the smoke from things burning. I am sitting on my hotel room balcony watching people bike and walk by on the dirt roads. It is peaceful here and I enjoy listening to the sounds of birds chirping and people starting their days. I am excited to see how this relationship progresses.


Into Africa

I started this blog almost exactly three years ago when I was traveling to Nairobi for a research project. I wanted to use it to write about what I was experiencing and had no idea what kind of blog it would turn out to be. I didn’t I realize that it would mostly be me laughing at myself like when I broke the shower and almost flooded our Nairobi apartment or when I cried my eyes out on 4th of July.

I am writing this before I leave for Uganda and I feel a lot different than I did three years ago. I am tempted to even say maybe I have grown and the more adventurous things I do the less anxious I feel about them. I shudder to even think about how I felt before I left for Kenya. I can still feel that paralyzing anxiety in my gut.

I made some rookie mistakes that I do not think I will make this time. I completely over-packed and planned as if I was going to a remote village instead of the city of Nairobi. I did not realize that I would be living right next door to what is basically a target and became one of my favorite places while living in Nairobi. Also, I failed to think about the fact that a lot of places do not have elevators and so I would be dragging two huge suitcases upstairs (or more accurately asking a cab driver or hotel employee to haul them up the stairs as they laughed at me).

More importantly I have now realized I can’t really imagine what the trip is going to be like and that might be the best part about it. I do not have to control or predict every aspect of the trip and to be honest I can’t. I can deal with things as they happen and the most challenging experiences always make the best stories.

Here are a few things that have kept me much calmer this pre-trip time when I am usually the most anxious version of myself:

  1. Read travel memoirs of people doing much more adventurous things. I am currently reading Love with a Chance of Drowning about a woman who decides to sail across the pacific with her new boyfriend despite the fact that she had 1) never sailed before, 2) suffered from seasickness, and 3) was afraid of the ocean.
  2. Goodbyes do not have to be dramatic. Shaun suggested this one to me as I find the pre-goodbye usually puts me in quite a tizzy. They can be loving and warm, but do not need to be blown out of proportion.
  3. Don’t get nervous about being nervous, there is a chance I am not even going to be that nervous. Before I left for Nairobi I was an anxious wreck for weeks. Granted, that trip was almost two months and this one isn’t even quite two weeks, but in hindsight was it really worth the wasted energy in advance? I think my strategy is to put off being nervous for as long as possible and then embrace the nerves if/when they arrive. This time I got pretty anxious a few days before and then had one small crying meltdown while finishing packing and preparing to leave for the airport. I can deal with that!
  4. Exercise hard– now that I am a “crossfitter” (which is really a whole separate blog post) pre-trip I put all of my energy into getting through crossfit classes and that left me with less energy to use being anxious.
  5. Break down the travel into steps of things that might be challenging. For example, on the way to the airport just focusing on getting to the airport, do not think ahead to checking-in, boarding the plane, the plane ride, etc. Then once I get to the airport I can go to the next step – checking-in and so on. I even made a list this time of the different steps so that I could remain focused on each one.

Finally, if I wasn’t at all nervous then it wouldn’t be an adventure would it? Stay tuned for more posts from Uganda! And please feel free to include some “Uganda be kidding me” jokes.

*Editor’s note: I wrote this before I left, but I am posting this from Uganda (made it here!). I will have a post about the trip and Uganda up soon!

Doggy Mindfulness Practice

We have had Bucky our dog for two months now and if it wasn’t for me being busy worrying about my PhD program this blog quickly would have become the blog version of Marley and me. Bucky is now all we talk about and my parents will call to ask about or facetime with their granddog.

Before I got a dog I knew all of the research about how dogs are helpful for people with anxiety. My psychiatrist even jokingly wrote me a prescription that said, “get a dog,” about a year before we got Bucky. What I didn’t realize was the ways in which having a dog would make me connect with the world in a way that was far and above the mindfulness practice I attempted to do.

When you have a dog (unless you are an ass) you do not look at or talk on your phone when you walk your dog. Therefore, walking a dog is like a mindfulness walk where you actually notice your surroundings (especially when your dog poops on them). If your dog is afraid of a lot of things like Bucky, you notice the noises that your neighborhood makes and recognize where the fire hydrants and mailboxes are located (because your dog crosses the street to avoid them), as well as where the garbage barrels are because you are always looking for places to throw out poop bags.

As a dog owner you are part of a whole new culture and community. Before I had a dog I never knew there were dog groups where people met every week to take their dogs to play. Shaun and I have “shopped around” the dog spots in our neighborhood. We eased into dog park culture by meeting our friends and their dog there. We met the crazy lady who knows the ropes of the park and talked our ears off. We learned that you should always stand with your knees bent or you will fall flat on your butt in the middle a group of dogs like I did last week. The next week we tried a dog park in a fancier neighborhood and were shunned by the older dog owners. We learned there was a “popular dog” that everyone (dogs and people included) loved, but who we decided we hated as soon as he picked on Bucky. Finally, the next week we found our group at the Saturday morning meeting spot at a field near our house. We luckily drove by one day and were welcomed immediately. The group of people we see once a week is not the people we would normally be hanging out with regularly on the weekends as they range in ages and backgrounds. However, every Saturday for the past four weeks we bring Bucky there and he catches up with his friends while the parents make small talk. We have learned about each others lives and the dogs’ personalities. They have seen Bucky come out of his shell every week and get over his fear of tennis balls. It is comforting to have the routine and familiarity and Bucky seems pretty thrilled too.

It is not only the regular groups that form a sense of community. When your dog is as excited about seeing other dogs as Bucky it forces you to talk to strangers with dogs. I have already written about the power of talking to strangers, but it is even more powerful when you have dogs to aid that interaction. You watch the dogs interact and comment on their quirks. This week we even started our own dog party because we saw our neighbor (who we have barely talked to) out on a walk with her dog and encouraged her to join us at a nearby field. Before we knew it people passing by joined with their dogs and there were six dogs frolicking on the first spring night. We got to know our neighbor and her dog and made plans for summer barbeques in our adjacent backyards.

It has not all been smooth sailing transitioning to life with Bucky. Just this evening Bucky pooped in the middle of the kitchen floor while Shaun and I were in there preparing dinner. As a clean freak Bucky has challenged me to let go of obsessing about whether everything is always clean and neat. When I was worrying out loud to Shaun about whether our house smelled like poop despite my cleaning and I explained to him that this was hard for me as a clean freak he responded in his straight forward manner with a smile, “Well why did you get a dog then?” Recently, Bucky’s new habit of tearing apart toys and dispersing the stuffing around our living room leaves me to spend every morning picking up toy guts.

Before we got Bucky people loved to tell us how much hard work it is to have a dog with some people even telling us not to get one. I always found it strange because it was often people with dogs. You never hear people warn you about this with kids. I guess I didn’t quite believe the warnings. But the thing is even with the frustrating moments of picking up poop in the middle of the kitchen or from our living room rug (maybe he has IBS like his mom) I have realized that having a puppy is like any other loving committed relationship. It has enormous highs and has certainly changed our lives for the better, but just like with any relationship you have to accept the person (or animal) you love even with their flaws. No one said unconditional love is always easy.

Bucky day 1

Our first day with Bucky – lots of smiles and nerves (him too)

Do Men Get Coffee?

I don’t usually write about my research or political issues on this blog which could be an act of avoidance because it certainly is a big part of my daily life (as it is for most women who are aware of and experience sexism in our society). I think there are important questions of how certain situations in daily life are different for men and women and men and women of different positions.

Part of my problem is that I notice I put myself in subservient positions because of several reasons. One, I am a people pleaser and care about customer service after spending my late teens and 20s working in a make-up store and on a political campaign trying to get people to donate money. I also think I still feel like I am in a lower position or still see myself in that first job as a paralegal in New York City when I thought I would get ahead by being helpful and friendly (but really there was no getting ahead in that job). I look back now on my performance review and a male attorney praised me because he noted that even when I was making copies I did it with a smile. Now I am not saying a good attitude shouldn’t matter, but can you imagine this ever being part of a young man’s performance review? Why should it matter if I smile while making copies as long as you get your organized copies? Is it to make the people asking me to do these menial tasks until 10pm at night feel better?

Finally, I think I have been trained differently than my male peers. In order to get ahead I have always been taught to work hard and go above and beyond, but this looks different for young men versus young women. When I have been given this advice by well-intentioned people I don’t think they have the same image of a hard working woman versus a hard working man. A hard working man does not have to be always smiling or pleasant or subservient. He asserts his role, intelligence, and position, which is not related to being friendly or accommodating? If it is, terrific, but it is not what he is judged against.

This thinking all started because of a frustrating situation I was in today where I organized an event with a speaker. I am a PhD candidate and was with two professors in a room full of younger masters’ students who are at this event because I invited them. For some reason I let my role becoming giving people food and make everyone comfortable. The professor speaking at this event is someone who I think does not particularly like me or my research and in my nervousness instead of trying to demonstrate what a bright researcher I am and competent individual, I got up immediately to get him a water and as a side note asked if he wanted coffee. I guess I stupidly thought it wouldn’t feel like I was a waitress and that he would turn down the offer for coffee, but he took me up on my offer and asked for water and coffee. I did not receive a hello, or eye contact, and felt I had to make myself invisible as a person to get this coffee and water and deliver it quietly so as not to disturb the men having small talk. Then he asked for food and instead of someone sitting near the food helping pass it along I had to quietly walk across the room as the designated female caretaker to get it for him. I was not acknowledged when the event started except to ask questions about the food I ordered for everyone.

I am not trying to blame this one individual, but instead to reflect on myself. I internally scolded myself for acting this way, but was it really my fault? I don’t know another way of being that does not involve trying to be polite and friendly, but when does this become more than just being friendly, but becomes minimizing myself as an academic or professional. Maybe this is just me being sensitive and maybe the option is to not care whether I get coffee, but whether I am still getting ahead at the end of the day as an academic. In the meantime, I will be getting coffee for myself so I can keep working my butt off to produce the work that will help me advance.

I Love College

I have a clear memory of starting college and feeling as if I had been waiting my whole life for that experience. My first night in the dorms was specifically memorable because I had a near death experience. I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin and there is a sizable homeless population there. The homeless people are known in the community and at times are not so happy with the college population. Our first night of college we had left piles of boxes outside the dorm and it is unclear if it was on purpose (hopefully not) or maybe just a stray cigarette, but all of the sudden there was a small fire that spread to the dorm. In my first night in my dorm I woke up to my new friend down the hall opening our door and telling my roommate and I, “You have to get up! There is a fire.” Then we realized that an alarm had been going off (I think in our sleep we tried to ignore it initially and hoped it would go away). We all ran to the stairs in our PJs and slippers and could already smell the smoke (even though we were ten floors up). I remember trailing behind someone and just hoping as we made it down a level that we weren’t going to encounter the fire on the next stairwell. We made it out safely and all stood outside laughing to ourselves (and maybe half searching for some adult supervision that was not there). However, the scars of that night have stayed with me as I always think I can smell smoke and don’t like living in an apartment on the top floor. That is the thing about college, even though its not your most “formative years” developmentally, my college years had probably the biggest influence on who I am today.

I am thinking about college so frequently because I basically live in it everyday. For the past few years while getting my master’s and now getting my PhD, I have taught yoga to undergraduates and been a teaching assistant in undergraduate political science courses. On the first day of class when I sit in the lecture waiting for the professor to arrive I like to think to that I blend in and that they can’t tell I am the teaching assistant. I enjoy eavesdropping to their conversations and wondering what I would be thinking and feeling in their position when I was in college. From the outside these students seem so much more knowledgeable and self-confident than I was in college.

Part of me still feels like a college student, from that excitement for learning, doubt about one’s path, the desire to succeed mixed with insecurity, and the earnestness. When my young girl students come talk to me about classes or want my advice on career path I see myself in their questions and hope to guide or inspire them in some way. When I teach undergraduate students about international relations, I call on the quieter ones and force them to share their opinion or encourage the type A over-achievers to relax a bit. It is like talking to past versions of myself, but at the same time I realize that I am no longer that person. I now somehow the person these students ask for advice and who potentially looks from the outside like I have it together.

Recently, a professor I had in college came to speak at my grad school. When I took his class I remember I sat in the front row and never said a word. I think I once forced myself to attend his office hours, but neither of us really knew why I was there (now I am an office hours pros always coming with questions and knowing how to guide the conversation). I sat in the first row listening to his talk and tried to take myself back to being that 20-year old girl in his class at college and never knowing I would end up in a PhD program studying what he was talking about. I remember one time after his class I told a friend his career path looked appealing and that maybe I should be a professor and he said, “Well it’s really hard…” At the time I accepted this and thought that meant I couldn’t do it.

After this talk at my grad school I purchased his book and dutifully stood in line feeling to get it signed, feeling more confident and adult than last time I saw him speak. He gave me a look of recognition and when I shook his hand I told him I was in his class he said he knew I looked familiar. He seemed delighted that now I was in grad school pursuing my PhD. I left feeling as if I had won some sort of award. I am not sure why it meant so much for me to be recognized. I think I had felt I was invisible in classes in college, even though the classes had an enormous impact on my life. I also realized that this professor’s excitement at seeing how I had progressed after his class was the same gratification I feel after advising a student.

At times it is hard being on college campus all the time and feeling so on the outside of things. There are days when I look at the students and think how lucky they are to be in the midst of what was such an exciting time for me. Is my desire to be a college professor a form of Peter Pan syndrome? Is it just that I never want to leave the place that made me so happy – where for the first time I felt excited to learn, where I could learn whatever I wanted, and had the independence and freedom I was ready for since I was 10 years old? Hopefully it is the better alternative and I am just hoping that after taking my class, some young girl, who isn’t quite sure of herself and thinks it might be too hard to be a professor, takes the risk.



Graduating college…(the first of many graduations)

*Not what I am writing about, but always thought this was a catchy song.


Zumba is my new anti-depressant  

Lately I have been in a bit of a funk. I have battled with bouts of depression since college and while I am not feeling as bad as I have during those other periods I have been feeling down a lot and lonely. I think this is a December thing for me. I already wrote about how I often get a case of the shoulds during this time, but December is also a time of transition which tend to be tough for me. December was frequently a tough and boring time for me as a Jewish kid in the suburbs whose friends were celebrating Christmas. I was often bored at home imaging what Christmas must feel like. At least that part is now over since I get to celebrate Christmas with Shaun’s family!

As a perpetual student December is also a time of breaks and transitions. In the past my transition has been pretty clear though, transitioning to a new semester, and being able to count how many semesters I have left. Now I am still a little fuzzy on what my career will look like in the near future. This is a bad recipe for me – unstructured time, alone, with lots of questions about my future, during a transition.

I have always known exercise could help with my mood, but I think I found a mood booster that is more than just exercise. Some sort of happiness blog or column I read recently suggested trying new things that you might not be good at. In this spirit, I decided today to try out my first Zumba class. I have actively resisted Zumba classes for years and have been unable to avoid picturing what I would look like in the class. I took jazz and ballet as a kid, but my mom said I didn’t quite have rhythm and she would occasionally have to stifle laughter while watching me. I am also a huge klutz so that also did not make me feel confident in my potential Zumba skills. When I texted a friend saying I was going to the class she said, “I would pay someone a lot of money to be a fly on the wall for that.” All this in my mind, I decided to try out a Zumba class at my gym where I don’t know any other members and felt anonymous. Even if I was embarrassingly terrible I would probably never see anyone in the class again.

When I showed up there were four other women in the room all over the age of forty and with seemingly little Latin dance expertise. I told the woman next to me I was a first-timer and I was nervous and she assured me to just “keep moving” and I would be fine. When the adorable Latina instructor came in with her sparkly white high tops I felt even more nervous. She also did not seem to plan to give many instructors since she blasted music and had no headpiece speaker to guide the class. She starts signaling with her hands to start.

I started the class timid and would not take my eyes off the instructor.  I worried that if I looked away suddenly the class would be spinning in one direction and I would be jumping up and down. This also had the added benefit of avoiding watching myself in the mirror. I started out nervous and rigid in the moves, trying to treat it like a science, move hip left like instructor. I would not shimmy matching the instructor because I was not sure if this was “part of the sequence.”

After twenty minutes I realized I could just forget trying to look like the instructor and could just move my own way to the music. I started moving my hips and actually dancing along to the music. I was probably jumping up and down like a crazy person, but when I got sight of myself in the mirror instead of being embarrassed I just smiled. This was fun! I would scan the room and see that no one else was that good and maybe I could actually be okay at this. By the end of the class I was shaking my hips, shimmying and adding in my own flair to the sequence. I even got distracted near the end planning whether I should start taking salsa dance classes and perhaps this was my real calling. Or maybe it was just that I should have done dance classes as a young child that were exclusively with middle age women who were not concerned about looking cool and just wanted to get their work out in.

From what I know about many Latin cultures, dancing is a big part of the culture, and maybe many Latin people are so good at moving their hips because they have been socialized to just try it out and let go. During class I felt that that people in many cultures in the US have been deprived of this joy. Why shouldn’t I dance more and move my hips even if I don’t look quite cool yet? Maybe eventually I will (wishful thinking), but even if I don’t there is something powerfully cathartic to just moving and having fun. We can’t all be Shakira, but why shouldn’t we all get to give it a shot? You won’t know if your “hips don’t lie,” if you never try. If you end up looking like an idiot (or Elaine from Seinfeld) at least you got some endorphins flowing, listened to good music, and smiled.