“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” – Frank Herbert
“I went ahead and ordered some for the table.” – Tony Soprano
“I have had it with this mother****ing cat on this mother****ing plane!”
– Various passengers, KLM flight #567 / Dar Es Salaam to Amsterdam / Oct. 16, 2014
Well, I can’t blame technical challenges for the delay in posting this. I’ve been back in the U.S. for over 4 months now and I have been putting off posting my final entry to this blog for too long. I think I resisted because wrapping up the blog means that my Peace Corps experience is really over. As much as I am happy to be back in the U.S., enjoying all the luxuries of life in a First World country, there is a part of me that doesn’t want to acknowledge that my time in Ilembo has come to an end. As my fellow RPCV and friend, Alice, pointed out the hardest part of being back is how far away Tanzania feels. There are times, especially now that I’m back in my old apartment in Los Angeles, when it feels like I never left here and the past two and a half years were just a very vivid dream. There are moments where I feel like I’ve abandoned my students and worry that they’ll think that I have forgotten about them. Now that I’m trying to keep in touch with Tanzania myself, I’m realizing how hard it was for family and friends in the U.S. to keep in contact with me while I was there. But, despite all these uncertainties and misgivings, it wouldn’t feel right to end this experience without writing about the end of my time in Ilembo and the process of leaving Tanzania. So here we go…
When I posted in September, I still had no idea when the Form II national examinations were going to happen. The Ministry of Education had originally scheduled them for October and then finally announced at the end of September that they had been postponed until November. I can’t really complain about my students having more time to prepare for a test that has an enormous impact on their future but I really wish that the change in date had been announced earlier. I extended my service an extra month past our class’s last regular COS date because I wanted to teach my students right up until the test. Had I known it would be in November, I would have liked to stay until then. Or at least I like to think that I would have. I was quite burned out by village life towards the end so who knows if I would have actually made it to November even if I had known? I had planned my lessons to cover everything the students needed to know for the NECTA (or I thought they needed to know, based on previous years’ tests and the syllabus) and to finish all of the topics by the beginning of October anyway so I just stayed with my original plan. I managed to get everything they needed to know in, but I wish I had more time to spend on some of the topics.
I was hoping my replacement, Gabe, would be able to teach my English classes after I left and up until the test but the school desperately needed more science teachers so they wanted him to start teaching Biology right away. They hired a Tanzanian teacher to replace me and he seemed pretty competent. I gave him a list of all the topics I’d covered with the students over the past 2 years and told him all he needed to do for the next 6 weeks was review old NECTA questions with the students. He also suggested that he could read another English language book with them, which I thought was a great idea. (I only had time to read one title with them and the syllabus dictates they cover several of them, even though they really only need to write about one of them on the NECTA.) So, even though I was reluctant to hand off the teaching baton for these students I had taught for most of my service, I felt I was leaving them in capable hands. My replacement was out sick the first week he started teaching. Oh, Tanzania.
Speaking of Gabe, he moved in with me in early September. It was kind of fun having a roommate for a while. Nulty only peed on his stuff a couple of times, so I considered that a big success. I don’t know how fun it was for Gabe because I made him act as my official photographer for my last few weeks at site, talked him into helping me try to wrangle my neighbor’s baby goat so I could get a picture holding it (we tried for over an hour and only succeeded in freaking the poor goats out) and then basically wandered around in an agitated state the entire last month muttering, “I can get everything done before I leave. I know I can. I have a list! I have a LIST!!” I got progressively more hysterical as the days wore on. I’m sure he heaved a sigh of relief when Nulty and I finally left and who can really blame him?
As my days remaining at site counted down, I became more and more frantic about completing my cataloging project in the school library. My goal was to create as simple a catalog of books as possible, giving each book a unique ID number and entering them into an Excel spreadsheet. This makes it easier to keep track of which copy of a book was borrowed by which student, as well as give the school an idea of what titles that already had enough of and which ones they needed to order more of when buying books each year. This was an ongoing project throughout my service but I tended to work on it in fits and starts. Once I started pulling each book from the shelf to enter it, I started to realize the school had lots of books that were out of date (editions created for old versions of the national syllabus, outdated science manuals, etc.) and started to weed out the books that were no longer used by students in order to make more space on shelves for the books the kids wanted and needed to use. There were probably about 5,000 books in the library when I started and I ended up entering about 4,100 of them into the spreadsheet. This was repetitive, mind-numbing work and I had to pull an all-nighter in the library just to get it all done. (There is electricity but no lights in the library, so I required the aid of Gabe’s solar lanterns, my headlamp and a couple of candles.) You would think I would have learned my lesson about procrastinating from this experience but the lateness of this post is proof that I haven’t.
As it got closer and closer to my COS date, I grew more and more paranoid that Nulty was going to escape and not come back and I’d have to leave without her. I felt like it had taken all of my energy just to keep this cat alive for the past two years and I could vividly imagine some terrible fate befalling her right before it was time to leave for us to get on the plane for America. So starting in September, I put Nulty on what I called “24-Hour Vest Lockdown”. Her harness/vest seriously inhibits her running and jumping abilities so I figured it would be harder for her to escape if she was wearing it. All the time. She didn’t actually have it on 24 hours a day but it was on her from the moment I got up in the morning to the moment I went to sleep at night. And all of her courtyard time was done under my strict supervision. I became obsessed once again with the idea that a giant bird could swoop down in the courtyard and carry her away. It was nerve wracking trying to keep her safe. Meanwhile, Nulty was oblivious to all the potential hazards that lurked and was clearly annoyed by all my attempts to keep her alive.
When a teacher leaves the school, it is traditional to have a farewell ceremony during the day (which the whole school attends) and a party in the evening (which is for teachers, school staff and invited guests). I have been to several of these ceremonies during my time here so I knew what to expect: scouts escort the guest of honor and staff into the ceremony, various groups of students perform dances, songs & skits, gifts are presented and speeches are given. My ceremony was held in the newly completed assembly hall. (Thank you all for your contributions!) It was both fun and a bit strange to be the guest of honor at one of these. Tanzanians are big on giving gifts so I wanted to be sure I gave the staff something they would appreciate and actually use. Generally, most of the manufactured stuff you can buy in Tanzania is very cheaply made and breaks after a brief period of use. When I went home last year, I’d brought back some office supplies with me because it was such a hassle trying to use the ones the school had to staple tests, etc. The Tanzanian teachers were always asking to borrow mine so I asked my parents to send a variety of items from the U.S. that I could give to the school. (Thanks Mom & Dad!) I packed it all up in a basket and presented it to them during a chai break in my final week there. Tanzanians don’t just open a gift, poke around in it a bit and say thank you. Instead, each item is pulled out, displayed to everyone and a short description is provided. They didn’t just do this once, they did it several times: during chai, during the ceremony, during the party and I feel like they showed it off a couple other times. It was hilarious after a while, but also really satisfying to give something that you feel is genuinely appreciated.
Later that evening, Gabe and I went back to the school for my farewell party. Most of the teachers and staff were there, along with some invited guests from the village and surrounding area. There were a few people there that were involved in local government, some teachers from nearby schools and some of the villagers who had helped me out in various ways. The party is held in the teacher’s lounge, which is much smaller than the assembly hall, but they still go all out with the AV system. After a fancy dinner (all formal meals in Tanzania seem to involve pilau rice, which I’m actually not a fan of – Tanzanians think I’m nuts for preferring plain old white rice), there were more speeches and gifts (some Form II students came to present me with my gifts) and then lots of dancing and posing for photographs. It was a late evening, but lots of fun and a nice way to say goodbye to everyone at the school.
And there was plenty of posing for photos during the party. I wish I could post all my pictures here but at some point I’ll get my act together and upload them all to Flickr.
The hardest part of leaving was saying goodbye to my students. I was surprised how choked up I got when I taught my Form IIA kids for the last time. Teaching was incredibly difficult, frustrating, maddening, heartbreaking and, at times, rage inducing. I can’t say I handled myself with dignity and grace the whole time but I really, really loved teaching these kids and I tried to do the best I could for them given the circumstances. There are so many students with so much potential and the education system in Tanzania flat out fails them on an epic scale. I started out in Tanzania trying to put a positive spin on the situation but by the end of my service when people asked me how I thought the system could be improved I usually said, “First, you’re going to have to burn down the Ministry of Education…” (Now seems a good time to reiterate that the views expressed here are not those of the U.S. Peace Corps. And I am kidding. Sort of.) I am going to miss all my students but I told them that I was going to do my best to try to return to Ilembo in October/November 2016 for their Form IV graduation. Gabe took tons of photos of me with the students but, again, there are too many to post here. Here are some highlights:
One of my favorite parts of teaching was hearing the students sing during morning assembly. I had been meaning to get video of them for the past year and finally got my act together and planned to do it on the last day. Of course, I ended up getting distracted by something and didn’t arrive at school until after they had finished singing. Mr. Babuleghe, the mkuu, saw I was disappointed and said, “Don’t worry. I will just have them do it again!” And they did, just for me. My camera work isn’t great and they ended a little abruptly but they sound great, so enjoy!
After all the goodbyes, it was finally time to start preparing for departure. As I mentioned in September, I had learned that Fastjet didn’t allow animals on their planes and I was reluctant to try to take a 15 hour bus ride with Nulty if I didn’t absolutely have to. I was all set to disguise her as a baby and sneak her through airport security but I decided to get a second opinion. As always, I turned to Mr. Komba for advice. When I explained my dilemma, first he expressed the typical Tanzanian response which was, “They won’t let you travel with animals? That is terrible. What are you supposed to do with your chickens?” Then he thought about it for a moment; he’s a pretty religious man so I wasn’t sure if he was going to telling me that lying is wrong in every situation. Instead he said, “If they catch you with the cat dressed up like a baby, they will know you were trying to fool them. If you just pretend you thought it was okay then they might let you do it. Just tell them that you were told it was not against the rules.” I’ve said it before, but I really hit the jackpot having Mr. Komba as my counterpart. He is the absolute best. With his advice in mind, I started concocting my story. I figured the worst that could happen is they would turn me away at the airport and I’d still have a day to take the bus up to Dar and be there in time to start my COS process. I had purchased my plane ticket on sale, so the worst case scenario was that I’d be out $35. Of course, things never go as planned in Tanzania.
I was up late packing the night before I was scheduled to leave. My plan was to get up early and take a minivan into Mbalizi in the morning. The flight to Dar didn’t leave until 4pm so I would have plenty of time to get to the airport and I’d arrive in Dar in the evening. My phone rang at 11pm, which was strange in itself. It was an automated message telling me that my flight had be cancelled (no explanation at that point) and would leave the day after it was originally scheduled. Had they informed me of this earlier, I might have had time to get to town to buy a bus ticket for the next day. Instead, I was stuck because all of the buses leave Mbeya at 5:30am and there was no way I could get to town that early. Call me paranoid and bitter but I’m pretty sure Fastjet was aware of this and intentionally announced the flight cancellation late so they wouldn’t have to refund everybody’s tickets. I was already starting to freak out at that point because if they refused to let me on the flight, I would end up being at least a day late arriving in Dar and it would throw the whole COS process out of whack.
Instead, I finished packing, spent the next morning giving away the stuff Gabe didn’t want (mostly women’s clothing and shoes) to teachers and some of the Mary Ryan Foundation girls. Gabe and I were able to get the house pretty well cleaned out of my stuff and organized for him, with the exception of my stash of wine bottles. As I have mentioned before, women and alcohol do not mix in my village. A woman who drinks is thought to be “easy” (this does not apply to the bibis in the pombe huts – bibis have put up with so much crap during their lives that they pretty much do whatever the hell they want in their old age) and, as a teacher, I didn’t want my students to see me drinking and lose respect for me. So, I would buy a bottle of wine when I went into town and smuggle it back up to the village in my backpack. At first, I used the empty bottles as candle holders and then any other utilitarian purpose I could think of (TP holder?) but after a few months, the bottles were starting to accumulate. I couldn’t burn them, I didn’t want the little kids to see me dumping them in my giant choo tank (the noise alone would have alerted the villagers that the mzungu was up to something) and I didn’t want to carry a large, clanking bag into town withe me and arouse suspicion so I just let them accumulate. I told Gabe he could dump them all after I left. I’m sure the drunken mzungu lady was the talk of the village for a while.
I tried to use my extra time in the village to get some more work done in the library but just ended up stressing myself and everyone else out, trying to cram a million last things in. I wish my exit could have been a little more graceful but eventually Mr. Komba and my mkuu talked me down off the ledge and convinced me it was time to relinquish some control (Nooooooo!!) I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see Rozy before I left because her mother had gone to town the previous week but my whole mood improved when she popped her little head into the library. We walked back to my house together and I gave her some coloring books and crayons and some other things I’d put aside for her. Some students came by to help me with my bags, my neighbor, Mwanaidi, stopped in to say goodbye and then, suddenly, it was time to go.
I went back to the school to say goodbye one last time. All of the students were standing outside of their classrooms or lined up at the windows, waving. They could not believe I was actually going to bring my cat to America with me in a bag. They were just amazed that anyone would do such a thing. But a few of them yelled, “Goodbye, Nulty!”, which was hilarious and adorable. Gabe had to teach so we said goodbye at the school. Then Mr. Babuleghe, Mr. Komba, Madame Ombene (who was going to travel with me to make sure I made it safely to Mbalizi), a couple of other teachers, the students carrying my bags and Rozy, Nulty and I formed a small parade, heading up the hill to the village. When we got to the top, Rozy had to split off and go home, so I gave her a big hug and a kiss. We finally made it to the spot where everyone waits for rides and Mr. Babuleghe started negotiating with the driver to get me a reasonable fare. Nulty was quite confused at this point, she was meowing and looking around but didn’t seem too freaked out, which I took as a good sign.
Eventually, a fair price was reached for the journey and Madame Ombene and I were off. It was getting late at that point, so when we got to town, I went straight to a guestie in Mbalizi (which is relatively close to the Mbeya airport) and Madame Ombene went home, but promised to return in the morning to see me off. While Nulty amused herself exploring the room, I got some food and called George, my favorite taxi driver, to arrange a ride to the airport the next day, as the flight left in the early morning. There are some shuttles to the airport that are slightly cheaper but I always pay a little extra and have George take me because he’s reliable and honest and keeps his car super clean. Well, thank goodness I did because the alarm on my phone didn’t go off and the only reason I woke up the next morning was because George kept calling me over and over again. I quickly packed up the few things I’d taken out for the night, tossed Nulty in her carrier and ran downstairs to meet George and Madame Ombene, who also had been frantically trying to reach me. We were running late so, after a quick hug and goodbye with Madame Ombene, we headed to the airport.
In addition to having the Nulty issue, I also had 2 extra bags that exceeded the airline limit. If I checked them myself it was going to be super expensive so my plan was to find someone who was traveling without baggage (lots of people travel to Dar just for the day on business) and pay them to check them for me. The line for security was already quite long when I arrived, so I got a cart and started to scope out potential mules. I finally just walked down the line and asked various people if they had baggage with them. (None of this would ever work in the U.S., for obvious reasons.) There were a group of professional looking ladies that said they did not have any bags and I asked if they would be willing to take a couple of mine and told them I’d pay for the checked bag fee and give them each 50,000 Tsh (about $30 USD) for their trouble. They said they would only take the money for the checked bag fee and didn’t need any other money. I offered to buy them chai and food when we were inside but they couldn’t have been kinder and said they were happy to help out. I decided that this was a good omen for the trip and, after I dropped the extra bags with the ladies, I got back into line. There was a female ex-pat in line in front of me and she (very nicely) asked if I had gotten permission to fly with the cat. I said, “Um, sort of?” She understood right away and told me that she had tried to fly with her cat and Fastjet wouldn’t let her on the plane. She said she had heard of some people doing it before (as I had) but that they had absolutely denied her the one time she tried it. I started to get nervous.
When we finally reached the x-ray machines, a security guard asked me to hand him Nulty’s carrier, not realizing it wasn’t just another bag. I asked him if he wanted me to remove the cat so the bag could go through the x-ray and told him that’s what I usually did. (Which is true! That’s what they want you to do. In America.) At this point, he waved a supervisor over and I knew I was in trouble. The supervisor was very nice but clearly took his job seriously. He said he had to double-check with the head office but he was pretty sure animals weren’t allowed on the plane. At this point, I just started lying my ass off. I made sure to remain very pleasant and polite but I insisted that I’d asked at the office the last time I was in Dar (I kept the date vague) and that I was told I could absolutely bring the cat on the plane. I also tried the old, “I don’t think we need to get headquarters involved” angle but the supervisor was totally by the book and said he would have to get permission before he could let me on the plane.
Nulty and I made our way through security and got in the line to check in, while the supervisor tried to get in touch with someone in the Dar office on his phone. By this point, everyone else in the airport had figured out that I was their entertainment for the day ad they were all hanging on every word that the supervisor and I exchanged. I managed to check in my bag and get my boarding pass, thinking I could just slip into the boarding lounge while the supervisor was on hold. I was hoping that he’d eventually get frustrated waiting, hang up and just forget the whole thing. But this guy was actually a very dedicated employee, which 9 times out of 10 is a great thing. The 10th time is when you’re illegally trying to smuggle a cat on a plane. Still, he was extremely friendly and polite the entire time and I just kept up my, “Gosh, I would have never spent money on a plane ticket if I knew that I couldn’t fly with the cat” routine. Eventually, the supervisor got someone on the line and my stomach started to sink. But in for a penny, in for a pound so when he told me that pets were definitely forbidden on Fastjet, I asked him if I could speak to the man at headquarters directly. He handed me his phone and I tried to explain (in a mix of English and Kiswahili) that I had specifically gone into the office in Dar, the one behind the post office, and asked “a woman” who was behind a desk if I was able to bring a cat on the plane with me and she said that I definitely could. (I’m actually a really bad liar but I’ve read enough detective novels and watched enough TV to know that you want to keep lies as vague as possible and avoid over-explaining things and offering too much information.) The guy on the other end of the phone just kept repeating that it was company policy and there was nothing he could do. However, he made the fatal error of thinking he could out-talk me. I remained polite but would not give up. I said that I had to leave for the U.S. “right away” and that if they hadn’t waited until the last minute to inform me that my previous flight was cancelled, I would have had the option of taking a bus but now it was much too late for that. I knew I was losing the argument, so I went for a Hail Mary and started speaking loudly in bad Swahili (so I could claim I misunderstood later, if necessary) and repeating, “Okay, so you are giving me permission? Oh, thank you so much!” while the guy continued to drone on about airline policy. Then I hung up the phone, handed it back to the supervisor and said, “He said it’s okay!” and pretty much ran into the passenger lounge. I tried to be as nonchalant as possible as I ordered a coffee and then sat down in a seat in the corner, praying that my pathetic attempt had worked. Meanwhile, every other passenger is watching everything I’m doing, many of them with their mouths hanging open.
I was just starting to calm down when I saw the supervisor walk in with another man in a suit. Uh oh. As they walked over to me and indicated that I should get up I said, “But I have permission! He said it was okay. Why would he change his mind?” I was still being pleasant at this point, just pretending to be exasperated and confused why everyone was making such a big deal of things. I’d say 90% of the people there realized I was lying through my teeth but the supervisor was still giving me the benefit of the doubt and saying, “I don’t know why he said that. But you’ll have to come to the office to sort this all out.” The man was very, very nice and a part of my felt terrible for lying to him. But the larger part of me really wanted to avoid a 15 hour bus trip with Nulty. I got up and we all went into what turned out to be the man in the suit’s office. When they closed the door, I started crying (at that point, it was real) and said, “I need to get to America. What am I going to do? I’m already a day late because the flight was cancelled. I would have never bought a ticket if I’d known. I could have taken a bus yesterday and I’d already be in Dar…” I went on like this for a while and both of the gentleman clearly felt bad that I was crying. At that point, Nulty apparently decided she’d had enough of this dog and pony show and I smelled the distinctive odor of cat pee emanating from her carrier.
To distract from the smell, I started on a new angle, “I’ve been in this country for two and a half years as a volunteer. I’m going to be leaving the country in the next couple of days. It’s not like I’m going to be doing this all the time. It’s just a one time thing, I swear.”
At this point I tried to float the possibility of a bribe but didn’t want to insult them by being explicit so I said, “In the U.S. you have to pay extra to bring a cat on the plane. I am totally willing to pay the money if that is the problem.” Hint, hint. To their enormous credit, both men said that it wasn’t a money issue and did not take me up on what was a golden opportunity for both of them to make some easy cash.
“If it were up to me, I’d let you bring the cat. But I have to do what headquarters tells me,” the supervisor said. Then his phone rang and he had to step out of the office to answer it.
As soon as the door was closed behind him, the guy in the suit turned to me and said, “Listen, I don’t work for the airline, I work for the government. There is no law against animals flying on a plane. It’s just the policy of the airline.” He said this in a way that was respectful but still conveyed that he knew I was lying through my teeth and didn’t really care.
“Here’s what you’ve got to do. When he comes back in, tell him you want to speak to the pilot. If the pilot gives you permission, it doesn’t matter what the people at the office in Dar say. What the pilot says, goes. No matter what he tells you when he comes back in here, just say you need to speak to the pilot.” He shrugged and sat back in his chair. There was something in his tone that made me think that he knew the pilot was a white guy. He sent the message “you wazungu can sort this mess out amongst yourselves” without actually saying it.
Fortunately, when the supervisor walked in a few minutes later, he had the same solution. “They said you can wait and ask the pilot. But if he says no, there is nothing else we can do. I’m very sorry.” He said this so nicely, I felt about 3 inches tall. I really did feel bad about lying but I knew I was doing attempting to do something that was perfectly safe and wouldn’t harm anyone. And, yes, I am trying to justify my bad actions here.
I thanked both gentleman profusely, apologized for causing so much trouble and said I’d accept whatever the pilot’s decision was. At this point, I was happy to take any reprieve, even if it was possibly a temporary one. The supervisor escorted me to the boarding lounge at that point. Apparently, the plane had just arrived from Dar because the pilot came in a few minutes later. He was an older South African guy. I was pretty happy about this because South Africans tend to have more of an international perspective. Surely this guy had flown for airlines where pets were allowed at some point! My hopes were soon dashed.
“You want to take the cat on the plane? In this bag? You’re never going to be able to get her on a plane to America,” he squinted at me, as if I’d just told him I wanted to board with an elephant.
“Oh, I’ve flown with cats many times before. I’ve already booked the reservation on KLM and Delta for her. See, this is a Delta approved pet carrier.” I pointed to the insignia on Nulty’s now stinky bag, hoping the cat pee smell wouldn’t kill the whole deal. I really wanted to scream, “Everyone flies with pets in America and Europe! How can you not be aware that this is a thing?!?”
He sort of squinted at me for a while and then said, “A cat on a plane? I don’t understand. But I guess it’s fine. I’ve just got to put you in a special seat. But it’s fine. You can get on.”
I thanked him profusely and as I got into the end of the boarding line, the female ex-pat from the security line winked at me and congratulated me quietly. Of course, as I was boarding the male flight attendant had to get his two cents in.
“You’re not allowed to bring animals on a plane,” he said, snottily.
I didn’t want to blow all the progress I’d made but I couldn’t resist saying, “Well, I guess someone should inform Delta of that because they do it all the time.”
Of course, when the captain pointed out the “special seat” he had selected for me, it was in the exit row. This is the one place airlines NEVER let you sit when traveling with a pet. But I was not going to push my luck by arguing the point so I just said, “Thank you,” and buckled my seat belt.
Five minutes later a female flight attendant came by the row and said, “You can’t sit there with a cat! That’s an exit row!”
I leaned over to her and said in a quiet voice, “You know that and I know that. But the captain, he doesn’t know that.”
She nodded and waited until the door to the cockpit was closed before she very quickly swapped my seat out with someone in another row. Once we were in the air, the flight was a breeze. I was still reeling from the fact that I’d actually gotten away with it. Nulty was well behaved and quiet, which I thought boded well for our flights back to the U.S.
Unfortunately, when I got to Dar all of my COS plans went out the window because somehow the medical office forgot that I was COSing that week. Dr. Sulamanji (the PC doctor that I saw normally) was on vacation and it was too late to schedule new appointments. So they did what they could for me in the office and I had to get most of my medical done when I got back to the U.S. (A warning for any PCVs that might encounter this situation in the future: DO NOT DO IT! It is a headache wrapped in a nightmare. I’m still waiting to get my dental exam reimbursed.)
I still had a few days before I had to leave so I worked on a few administrative things that I had to get done for my close of service. And that weekend, I headed to Zanzibar with my friend, Alice (who was also finishing up her service that week), and my former site mate, Andrew, who came in from Dodoma for the occasion. Click here to to see photos from the trip.
Of course, the trip was not without a hiccup. While I was in Dar, I stayed at a nice, reasonably affordable hotel that allowed pets and was just a few blocks from the EconoLodge. But it was at least twice as expensive as Econo. I sucked the extra cost up because it was one of the few hotels that allowed pets that was not either staggeringly expensive or just plain frightening. Things were going well- Nulty was happy to have a real litterbox in the room (which Alice bought for me and had waiting for me when we arrived – thanks, Alice!) and she was content to stay in the room and snooze or look out the window. I planned to take the ferry to Zanzibar on Friday afternoon and return on Sunday afternoon, which I knew wouldn’t be a problem for her because she’s stayed alone in Ilembo for longer than that. I filled up her food bowl, left her plenty of water and planned to hang the “Do not disturb” sign on the door when I left but thought I’d just check in with the front desk to make sure no one entered the room while I was gone. Big mistake. Huge. The guy at the front desk was another “by the book” type and he got all worked up by the potential breach of hotel policy. At this point, I didn’t have any patience for it so I just said, “Don’t worry. It’s not a problem. Pretend I never said anything,” and went back upstairs to get my bag before heading out. As soon as my key was in the door, the phone in the room started ringing. I ignored it and proceeded to ignore the next five calls as I packed up my last few items, gave Nulty a smooch and hung the “Do not disturb” sign on my way out. I attempted to sneak out a back staircase, but ran into a bellboy that not-so-helpfully escorted me to the lobby. Apparently he didn’t understand the “sneaking out” concept. The front desk clerk was still all worked up and kept saying, “You can’t leave your cat in the room! You can’t leave your cat in the room!”
Again, I would have loved to handle the situation with more grace and diplomacy but instead I said, “For the money you’re charging me, I can leave the cat. I’m going, I’ll be back Sunday. Do not screw with my cat and it will be fine.” I employed the classic 90’s “Talk to the hand” posture and hurried out. Of course, then I worried about Nulty being seized from the room by the gendarme but Alice assured me she was having more of an “Eloise at the Plaza” experience, so I relaxed. When I returned on Sunday, Nulty was fine. The air conditioning was off, so I assumed that someone from the hotel staff entered the room as some point, looked around and realized everything was under control. In classic Tanzanian style, we all pretended none of it had ever happened during the rest of my stay.
The last couple of days were a whirlwind of COS paperwork and running around Dar to buy last minute gifts and get Nulty’s health and export certificate squared away. Then a bell rang and just like that, my Peace Corps service was over.
One of the last things I had to do was buy some Valium for Nulty. The veterinarian in Dar told me it was what he recommended to keep animals calm for travel. He gave me a formula for calculating the correct dosage and I felt confident that I could figure it out. I stopped by a duka la dawa (pharmacy) and when I told the woman working behind the counter it was for a cat she said, “Make sure you don’t overdose her!” When it was time to leave for the airport, I gave Nulty the prescribed dosage and figured it would kick in by the time we arrived. The taxi ride was long and loud and stressful so neither of us were feeling calm when we checked in. I gave Nulty another dose to make sure she would be relaxed for our red eye flight. There was some scrambling to repack bags and pay some overage fees and by the time we arrived at the gate, it was almost time to board and Nulty was starting to meow. With the pharmacist’s warning in my mind, I decided to give her one more dose but no more than that. At this point, she had ingested three times the recommended dosage for her size. And she was still meowing. And it kept getting louder. By the time we got on the plane, the meowing was nonstop, about every 2 seconds. I tried petting her, talking to her, giving her treats but she was not having any of it. The people seated around me started to throw looks my way and I assured them, “She just got 3 doses of anxiety medicine. It will kick in any minute now.”
It did not. For the next 9 hours, I did not sleep. Nulty did not sleep. And I’m pretty sure no one sitting around me slept. It was literally 9 straight hours of her meowing incessantly. At one point, someone suggested I feed her the chicken that came with my meal (apparently chicken is part of the “vegetarian” meal on KLM now) and she got super excited and bit my finger hard. So now I was exhausted, sweaty, stressed out, on the verge of tears and bleeding. What would help the situation? A crabby flight attendant coming over and yelling at me about keeping the cat in her carrier on the floor and quiet. Then the other passengers started to come up to me and tell me how much they hated both me and the cat (they used slightly more polite phrasing but that was what they were really saying). A few compassionate people also stopped by to commiserate with me and tell me they felt badly for poor Nulty but they were outnumbered by the haters. And I didn’t blame them at that point. By the time we landed in Amsterdam, Nulty had reached maximum volume. While I was rolling my cart through the terminal, the sound of her yowling was bouncing off the cement floor and walls and people were looking around for the small child that was being beaten. Finally, I was exhausted and crying and the possibility of Nulty overdosing was not looking as bad as it had the night before so I found a quiet corner and managed to wrestle an a couple more pills down her throat (the recommended dosage was about a quarter of a pill). Almost instantly, it kicked in and Nulty got quiet and glassy eyed and very, very mellow. Thankfully, the effect lasted for most of my flight to the U.S.; it started to wear off a little towards the end but it was night and day from the first leg of our trip. By the time we reached Boston, I was ready to kiss the ground but was so tired, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back up once I got down on my hands and knees.
So now we’re back in America. Nulty has really taken to life in a First World country. I finally got her fixed correctly and her urge to escape disappeared. She’s content to stay in my apartment in Los Angeles and entertain herself by looking out the windows. I attempted to take her outside on her leash so she could sit in the sun for a while but she started crying as soon as we were out the front door so we never made it past the stairwell.
I am currently job hunting and I think I’m almost totally acclimated back to life in the U.S. I am still processing my Peace Corps experience. I feel grateful that I was able to live in another culture and get some insight into how most of the world actually lives. I’m thankful for the perspective I gained and I hope I never lose it. I’m nostalgic for my time in Ilembo but also revel in taking hot baths, and getting in my car to drive myself to stores stocked with what seem like a ridiculous quantity of goods. I miss my Peace Corps friends, who are now scattered all over the world and wish I could check in on my former students on a regular basis. The best news is that Mr. Komba emailed me to tell me that the Form II students did well on their NECTA exams. 175 of 192 students passed and the highest scores were in English and History. Christabel got an A in English and a few other subjects, so she’s well on her way to a bright future. (Knock on wood) I’m still planning to return for the graduation in 2016, which doesn’t seem that far away.
I will close this post, and this blog, with a huge thank you to everyone out there who read this blog or posted encouraging comments or sent emails, cards, letters, care packages and/or good wishes to me during my time in Tanzania. I was so touched and completely overwhelmed by the amount of support and warmth I received from friends, old and new, and even a few strangers. It is not an overstatement to say that having so many people out there rooting for me is what got me through the lowest points of my service. I can’t fully express how much it meant to me so I will just say a heartfelt THANK YOU!
And it wouldn’t be fitting to end without a few pictures of Nulty enjoying her new life in America: