It’s the small things that make the difference. I don’t know about you, but I am deeply affected by simple, daily events. If I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I am going to be grumpy the next day. When I’m not sure what I am supposed to be doing, I become depressed and realize that my life is meaningless.
I left my home in New York City at 4pm on Thursday and arrived in Jinja, Uganda at 7pm Saturday. My flight was delayed out of Newark. We stopped in Lome, Togo for a few hours and weren’t allowed to get off the plane. I missed my connection in Addis Ababa and the airline sent me to a strange hotel for the night. None of these things bothered me. I enjoy the liminal space and the expectationlessness of travel. The directions are specific: stand here, line up there, take off your shoes, give me your passport and ticket, fasten your seatbelt, eat this, watch this. If I stand in line long enough, I will get to where I want to go, most of it is out of my control.
So I finally arrived and things got difficult. I needed money, food, and a local cell phone number. I had to make decisions: use the ATM or wait for the bank to open on Monday? How much to withdraw? Which will give me the best rate? Eat fried chapati or negotiate for vegetables and cook? Which cell phone company? Buy a cheap phone or put a SIM card in my American phone?
Each decision is followed by another. The $100 bills aren’t the newest and will get a lower rate. Do I still exchange them? The vegetable lady is definitely overcharging me, but it’s only by $2. Do I argue? The phone is registered, but stops working after an hour. Do I go back to the same woman on the street who I bought it from or throw myself against the masses at the actual store?
The decisions multiply and become more challenging. I go from bank to bank to see which has the best rate for the old bills. I negotiate with the vegetable woman, who doesn’t lower the price, but throws in an extra tomato. I go to the cell phone woman again and again, each time thinking the problem is solved only to have the phone stop working a few hours later. Then I shove my way to the front of the line at the store, declare my problem in a loud voice, and am told I have to get a passport photo and a copy of my driver’s license in order to register my phone.
My accomplishments are unfortunate. I get Ugandan money, bring it straight home for safe keeping, and don’t put enough in my wallet to buy what I need. I shop and cook and eat all the food immediately. No one answers my phone calls.
I can’t sleep. I go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 2am and fall back asleep at 6am and sleep until noon. I’m inadequately feeding myself, making unanswered phone calls, and staying in my room for more than 12 hours. I am at the functional level of a 3 year old.
Through the grace of the Internet, I meet with Gerald and talk about work and family. He tells me Group B has already scheduled a meeting for the following morning, no phone necessary. I put money in my wallet and drink nice coffee. Harriet from Group A answers the phone. Betty from Group C answers the phone. Joyce the tailor calls me! Betty and Kymbi answer the phone. I sleep through the night. I find the tiny purposes of my life: walking around a strangely familiar tropical town, talking with my friends about the work we will do, eating a peanut butter and banana chapati, and somehow, it’s enough.