Thursday, October 11, 2012

Computers, Safaris and Very Special Guests

Today has been a good day. A lot has happened in the past months leading to today being a good day – let me catch up with that first.

I’ve had four very welcome visitors from the States since last April.  (Five if you count getting a new computer, which, of course, I don’t count. But others might count it.) I sure do feel loved these days.
Selina came to visit in April. J That was a lot of fun. I also got to show her off to my Ugandan friends here and fellow PCVs. And, seeing as my kids (or at least my neighbors’ kids who show up at my doorstep throughout the week) had been asking to meet my madam, they were also very happy to meet her. Selina also had a good time, I am told (from her). She even had a chance to tie my headteacher’s baby on her back Ugandan-style. It was nice for her to be able to see how I live and to get a sense of how “out in the village” I am. And I really am out there. And I also thoroughly impressed her with my engineering skills. Feel free to bug her for more details.

My engineering buddy, Mike Shi AKA Shibot, was my next visitor. He was introducing himself as Shibot (She-bot) but, seeing as “Robert” is pronounced “Robot” here, many people thought his name was Shebert. When Robot went me a letter to send my greetings to Shebert, it made me crave some Sherbert. If anyone can think of an easy way to send me some Sherbert then the joke will be complete (or at least completely overused).

And then came April. At with it came the two people who were largely, if not solely, responsible for my existence: my parents. We had planned to see as much as we could during our short week in Uganda and by golly I think we did a good job. Things really could not have worked out much better: From doing a three day Safari to arranging private transportation (ask me about public transit if you want to hear about how fun it can be), everything came together flawlessly. My parents were quite thrilled (and my mom was impressed with how clean/well organized my house was (THANKS SELINA! YOU ARE MY FAVORITE!) AND with how well I planned everything). My dad even had a good time hanging out with the chimps on our safari.

Then we went to South Africa. Wow-wee. Fun stuff! We did another three day safari but this time at one of the best game parks south of the equator: Kruger National Park. We saw quite a bit there: hippo, zebras, giraffe, and the like. I even managed to spot all of the Big Five: elephants, buffalo, leopards, lions and rhino. (Though this was my fifth safari, I had never seen leopards or lions here in the Pearl of Africa – and rhinos are extinct in the wild in this country.)

While in ZA, we stayed in the mountains of Drakensberg for a week and then spent a couple days in Cape Town. Drakensberg was fun and a very relaxing interlude between Cape Town and how busy we were in Uganda. We went horseback riding, did a noteworthy zipline, saw the world’s second best boys choir, and saw some cave paintings dating back a thousand years or so. Also, we played a lot of banana grams and Pinochle.

Cape Town is beautiful. Sheer cliffs and mountains cover the coast around the tip of the continent where the two oceans meet. The Cape of Good Hope (AKA Cape Point) was some breathtaking views. Literally. I didn’t realize how close to the edge I was as I climbed up it and then, all of the sudden, I found myself looking over. There was a short wall there indicating the edge of the walkway but…the suddenness and severity of the drop took me aback and I must have nudged someone behind me as I tried to regain my sense of balance. We saw some whales from the shore and a nice little penguin colony and ate some good food. It was also pretty neat seeing the place where Nelson Mandella gave his speech after being released from prison after 27 years. (It helped that I had just read his autobiography, “The Long Walk to Freedom,” which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to hear more about the incredible life he lived.)

My favorite part about their visit, though, was just hanging out with my parents. Also, I have never seen my mom laugh as hard as she did in my whole life. Quality time with my parents in Africa: A+.

But by now you may be forgetting that I am a Peace Corps Volunteer here and that I am supposed to be working or something. Well, let me tell you. The Ministry of Education brought computers to my school! I did not expect to see them while I was still around but here they are (I am even writing this blog on one of them right now). We have 11 new Asus EeePCs that all run on solar. All of it was setup together though we don’t have internet yet. This term I have been keeping quite busy teaching computers. I am focusing on teaching the teachers so that the knowledge can still be passed on to the students after I am gone (although I am co-teaching ALL of the students so that they know the basics and am showing them how to use resources such as Microsoft Encarta and a teach-yourself computers program that was made by another PCV somewhere).

I can’t believe the progress that people are making. It seems that most of the students and all of the teachers are starting to understand my computer lingo now! Phrases like start menu, double click, scroll, maximize, close and the like are becoming second nature! So, people are getting the basics. I’m also seeing that many of the school documents are being typed up on the computers now, which means they can easily save and organize their documents, spell check, make copies and even, perhaps soon, start making there exams on the computers.

Today I have another lesson with just the teachers. I am going to be teaching them about making documents using Word. There are two teachers in particular who I am focusing my training on. One of them I even walked him through the steps of taking out a harddrive from an older desktop computer. As we worked, I pointed out different parts on the motherboard and explained there function. And he was actually picking up what I was saying! I am trying to approach computers in small bits so that as people get more used to what they know I can teach them more or, more importantly, they can teach themselves or each other.
My lesson this morning co-teaching the S1 students went well. I can’t wait to see where all of the students and teachers are at by the end of the term! It is nice to finally have my passions and my strengths lining up better with the work that I’m doing! This concludes my writing about today being a good day. Thank you, please.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Wild Animals and New Adventures

The Christmas break is a long one here in Uganda. It is their summer vacation; this next term starts the beginning of the school year. I have managed to do quite a few things during the over two months I’ve had off from teaching.

I spent most of my time hanging out in SW Uganda. Right now it is the dry season and possibly the hottest part of the year but in the mountains in the southwest the air is cool, the grass is green, and the banana trees are spitting up more fruit than can be consumed locally. As I toured the region, I caught up with other volunteers and picked up a few new recipe ideas. Let’s just say that I am definitely going to start making my own cheese. And pizza. And cheese pizza. (…And, if I can get ahold of some pepperoni, then I can make…PEPPERONI PIZZA! My favorite!)

I hung out with Kirk a bit and we started to put together some documents for the new Peace Corps Uganda Tech Committee. For starters, any technical resources or advice is only found by word of mouth from other tech-savvy volunteers. We are going to make such information easier for volunteers to acquire. As we travelled, I got more ideas about what technical issues volunteers face and even found some nifty solutions.

For example, after some tinkering, I NOW HAVE GOOD INTERNET AT MY HOUSE! I can video Skype without having to travel somewhere to use the good connection! So if you are dying to chat, look me up!

My Christmas and New Years were good. Hot, but good. I keep hearing about all the snow in Seattle as I sweat quietly in my room. Hah. For Christmas I was with over a dozen of other volunteers (hanging out in the SW) and we made some fine frame cooked chicken and goat with a fruit salad and potato salad and such on the side. Mmm. For the New Year, Kirk and I were with Emily and Ryan (married PCVs) and they opened my eyes to the possibilities of making some great food from scratch. The first night they had made a three or four cheese lasagna. Then they made some a Mediterranean dish. Then we made soya Phad Thai. And soya enchiladas with corn-tortillas chips and salsa and guac. All made from scratch locally. So good!

From the city of Kasese I headed to Queen Elizabeth National Park and did my first safari drive and boat expedition. I saw too many cob and buffalo to count, at least 30 elephants, probably over a hundred hippopotami, and a couple of crocs and lizards and monkeys and warthogs. Seeing these creatures roaming freely in their natural habitat is something else, for sure.

I also got to go to Rwanda! Boy, Kigali (the capital) is a world apart from Kampala. There are traffic lights, maintained streets, no litter, the power is reliable, and the motorcyclists all where helmets and carry helmets for their passengers. It was truly a nice vacation. Also, Peace Corps Rwanda has had some major renovations in the last couple years so I was able to stay at their headquarters for free. The lodging there is a dorm for PCVs (from any country) to stay in. There is a kitchen with TWO refrigerators, a stove, a flippin’ ice cream maker and a nice drinking water setup. Also, (this blew my mind!) there were showers. Legit showers. Scalding hot showers. Scalding hot, high pressure showers that would make Kramer from Seinfeld very envious. So that was nice. I had some jelly doughnuts and we bought fresh ingredients from the German Bakery nearby and made tons of ham and salami sandwiches. The showers and the sandwiches alone make me want to spend some more time in Rwanda.

While in the country, I went trekking and so the famous Mountain Gorillas! Some of the photos are already up on Facebook if you want to see them. My friend Kevin and I got lucky on the trek: we got to spend an hour with the most popular and largest of the gorilla families. You don’t have any say on where you go – you buy the permits, show up and see where the trackers place you. We saw almost all of the 30-some gorillas in the family, including the 6-month old twins and the menacing silverback leader. We were standing no less than four feet from the gorillas for a large portion of the time. Kevin and I on separate occasions were pushed out of the way when a gorilla decided to pass through where we were standing. Now I can take “Being spanked by a gorilla” off my bucket list.

I had a blast in the SW and am now back at my house as I post this blog. The new term and the start of my first full year of teaching begins in about two weeks. I will continue teaching my old students (now in S4 mathematics) and will take on the new group of third year students. Supposedly there will be some new teachers so I am praying that this next year starts off smoothly as I change my focus from touring to teaching.

As if they were trying to welcome me home, when I entered my region again I saw wild giraffe first the first time in my life on the side of the road, munching on some trees. It is good to be back.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Little America, My Home

Well, I just took my second shower at my house. Fixed the small leaks with the sink and shower and now I am good to go with my 500L tank. Running water is amazing. I certainly appreciate it more here than I ever did in the states.

At this point, my house is feeling a bit like home. I look forward to coming back to it when I am traveling around the country. My neighbors always give me warm greetings and the people in town when I get off the taxi are slowly learning my name (or at least that my name is not “white man” or mundo). Right now I am sitting at my new desk in my room with the light on and my lovely solar fan keeping me cool. I guess you could say I have my own small version of America set up here.

It is already time for mid-terms! I just finished covering vectors. Some students are really getting it but there are still many students who cannot explain what a vector is. When talking with other teachers and PCVs, the best advice I seem to get is to be the best teacher I can to those who learn. I want to motive everyone to learn, but it is not easy to motivate the students and if I try too hard to keep the students interested I will find myself not covering any material. We will see how things go; I have hope and I hear that is a good place to start.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The New Term Has Begun, Somehow

Well, it has been a while since my last post. I’d say at least a few things have happened since then. Let me recap:

My first term of teaching ended. I was only teaching two stream of S3 mathematics, but it was tough. The end of term exam I gave was a fair exam, I think, but the best student’s score was still less than 50%. This is apparently true for teachers of other subjects as well. I have my work cut out for me there.

I am starting to set up an internet café in my town. A businessman approached me about starting one up with the intention of increasing computer literacy and allowing easier access to the internet. We will see how that pans out.

Been setting up my house more. Got new furniture, I bed I can fit in, a place to hang my clothes. Just the ma-bear necessities!

Visited the US. My bro got Mari’d. Got to see Selina. Got to hang with my parents. (They are great, they even send me gummy candy and Cookie Crisp!) (:-P) I also got to see most of the old Moyer Gang! Great fun! Gained about 15 pounds in two weeks. Good food.

On the way back from the states, I flew through Dubai. Had a 10 hour or so layover (with free hotel accomodations!). I got to see the town. It is crazy. There is the world’s largest building of course, then there is the world’s only 7-star hotel (which looks like the USS Enterprise is coming out of the top of it), an indoor SKI SLOPE (wanna check it out, Scott?), and way too many 6-star hotels everywhere you go. One of the famous hotels has a room that costs at least $15,000 a night. I asked about it and no the room does not come with an indoor golf course for that price – just a private pool. I met this chap from South Africa who knew a bit about the town. He told me the odd and ends of the place as we took a $30 2-hour tour around the self-proclaimed tourist capital of the world. Nice town. Little tid bit about Dubai: No crime. No crime to the point that you can literally park your car on the street, with keys in the ignition and it still running and the AC on high, go shopping and come back out to your cool vehicle. It won’t get stolen. Also, the cost of fuel is half the cost of water. Gas costs $0.35 per liter, which is about $1.40 per gallon. Anyway, I had fun in Dubai.

Also while in the US, I acquired more stuff. As I lay here in bed, I have my awesome DC clip-on fans keeping me cool. No more night sweats, if you want to know the truth of it. Everything I brought back with me made it to my house, save my headlamp. (I couldn’t save my headlamp, that is.) But, as the Ugandans say, “It’s okay!” as in “The way that most my stuff made it to my house is just okay.”

I have made some recent adjustments to my house as well. I added a solar panel, rewired my house and custom-made outlets so that each room has 12V car charger plugs (Selina rocks), upgraded my battery, got a water tower for my 500L tank (Oh yeahh!), Kirk installed a sink in my bedroom (seemed a good place for a sink), and I love my house. This weekend we (Kirk the Mechanical Genius and I) will finish the plumbing now that the pipes have arrived and we will install my new shower! Indoor plumbing, it’s gunna be big!

The new term has started, but teachers were on strike, demanding a pay raise. The government agreed to a 15% increase. Unfortunately, that 15% does not go far with the rising costs of goods (many foods are doubling or even tripling in cost). A can of cheese cost 1000Ush when I got to Uganda. Now it costs 4500Ush. Some teachers are having to really struggle to supplement their salary.

Anyway, I am back online for the new term! This week was sort of the first week of classes. Hopefully more students will show up next week when everyone realizes the strike has ended. We will see. I am starting to give lessons on computers to my fellow teachers as well as continuing to teach S3 math during this next term. That may be changing soon, however...

Until next time,

Mark “Parombro” Cotton

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Contact me in Uganda!

Hello, friends! Thanks to those of you who having been taking time to read my blog! Just wanted to let people know how to contact me (as I begin teaching her in about a week).

Mark Cotton
PO Box 100
Nebbi, Uganda
(Letters will take a few weeks, small packages, which could easily contain sour gummy worms or cereal, take anywhere from 1 to 3 months. Send me some snail!)

You can also text me directly for FREE at (425) 247-1812. I can't receive calls or pictures this way though, sorry.

I'd love to Skype with you as well! Send me a text and I will get on Skype if I can. My username is mark2d2.

That's all for now from toasty Parombo.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Beans and Scorpions

Refried beans, tortillas and rice. Not bad. Scorpion in my room as I'm going to bed: Not cool.

I thought it was just another one of those overgrown radioactive spiders that move really fast in the night and appear to have 10 legs. Nope. It had 8 legs and two pincers (and...the tale). First wild living scorpion I have seen in my life. Crawling in my pile of clothes. Allrright! Hoo-ra! (At least I have a flock of goats to protect my house. They probably eat scorpions.)

Friday, May 6, 2011


I am now, and have been for two weeks, at my site in Parombo.

So much to say, so much time. But I will be brief. What five words would I best use to describe my life right now? Well, since you ask, I'd have to say French solar Scrabble pancakes.

French - I hitched a ride back to town in a pickup. I tried speaking with the driver but he didn't really speak Alur and spoke even less English. Fluent in French, though. Sadly, je ne parle pas francais. I wish I could remember more...

Solar - My town does not have power. A couple shops use generators and such. I got my solar setup the first full day...(not out of extreme anxiety but due to my headteacher's on-the-ball-ness). It's nice to have lights (as I type this and my battery has been depleted for the evening).

Scrabble - My headteacher is not bad at it. We play it every couple nights. He scored 99 points off the word "Donkeys" so...Scott, you down for some scrabbs?

Pancakes - Parombo has one, uh, restaurant. They serve beans sometimes. In Uganda, sometimes when you walk into a restaurant and ask for food, during meantime no less, the waiters will come out and stare at you like you are crazy and then eventually tell you they have no food. ("Food? Why would you want food?" I hear them thinking.) I am starting to cook. Made my first every batch of completely from scratch (banana) pancakes. SO good. I will be getting syrup soon.

Alright, that's all for now. Though I do have some sweet Spiders, if anyone is interested.