Friday, April 19, 2013

The Bike Saga Continued: The Return of Cecelia

I got a call at school the other day, in one of the brief moments I was sitting at my desk. It was the main police station, they found my bike!

When I arrived there, I walked up to the main desk and all I had to say was "Watashi no jitensha..."  (So, my bike...) and they said "Akasu-san desuka?" (Are you Ms.Akcasu?) and a lady in the back jumped up.

I had to fill out more papers (no mistakes this time, phew), sign two papers for each working brake of my bike (so, one for the left hand brake, one for the right), and then I had to get fingerprinted. Every individual finger, four fingers together and my palm. Apparently, they looked for prints on the bike in order to possibly catch the thief.

About 45 minutes in, I got to ride Cecelia away and I took her to the park. No damage except the sticker of Omuranchan's face was scratched off.  Apparently the thief didn't like Omuranchan looking at him.

Whether all of the paperwork and signings and fingerprintings and crime scene investigation was necessary and added to their efficiency of finding my bike, I can't be sure- because it still seems a bit overkill. Regardless, they did a great job finding my bike and I'm grateful that missing bikes can be so high-up on their priority list- as the city (and country) lacks more dangerous crimes. In America, I don't think the police of most cities would concern themselves with something so trivial.

Also, I have some thoughts on the thief. The bike was found behind a hospital just a couple blocks from the station. I actually had to pass by the hospital on my way. I have three ideas about this guy:
1. He really needed to go to the hospital, but for some reason couldn't call one of the FREE ambulances.
2. He's actually a nice guy and felt bad about stealing my bike, so he dropped it off near the station, but didn't want to go through all of the paperwork of turning in a "lost item"- yes, there's plenty of forms for that as well.
3. He's not the smartest thief and didn't realize how close to the police station he left my registered bike.

The End.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Bike Saga -

I didn't study on my usual study days this week so I headed to McDonald's for a study session before a birthday party. I study at McDonald's because it's one of two places (the other being Starbucks) that I can sit and study for few hours, without having naps or internet to distract me. 

So anyway, I rode my bike to Mac (the Japanese abbreviation) and when I went to park my bike I bumped in to one of my old students. "How are you?" - "... 'How are you'...?... I'm-fine-thank-you-and-you"- "Oh, I'm good, thanks. I'll study now." - "Oh! Do you remember my name?!" - "...No! I'm sorry. Tell me again." There was some more conversation in there too, but the point is, somewhere in that timeframe, I managed to forget to take my key out of my bike lock. 

Normally, it's not a big deal if I forget to take my key out. This is Omura, the place where I had my dropped wallet returned to me not once, but twice, with nothing missing. Granted bike theft is about the extent Omura's crime (this came from the police officer's own mouth), McDonald's, Aeon (a shopping center) and the bike parking lot in front of the station, are often prime targets for the bikeless wandering "hoodlum" kids that have somewhere to go and only their feet to take them.  Or maybe his friends all have bikes and he didn't feel like running along side of them (I see this a lot). The stolen bikes are usually just tossed aside somewhere else in the city.  

I should have seen the foreshadowing a few weeks ago when I walked out of the community center to find a junior high school boy just sitting on my bike talking to his friends. He wasn't planning on stealing it, or even riding it, but it was a pretty awkward situation. 

Back to the story, I walk out of Mac a couple hours later, to find my bike gone. Well, shoot. It was pretty late, so I'd just have to report it in the morning. Which I did. 

I walked into the nearby koban (mini-police station) and told them what happened. I registered my bike when I bought it, a measure taken so that in case it did get stolen, there would be official record of it. It's also a way for cops to check and make sure people aren't stealing bikes at night. I once took my bike from the station and an officer cross referenced my name and registration just to make sure it was mine. 

I knew this process would take a long time, so I left two and half hours before I had to catch a bus out of town. I didn't think it would actually take that long though. And so the saga begins. 

First both of the working officers come out from the back office and start taking down my information. Name, address, job place, etc. Then I explained the what, when and where of the incident. Notes were taken and then they got out the official documents.  We went over my personal info again, and then I described my bike. Every detail. Not just the maker, name, and color, but also the color of the basket, the style of gears, how many gears, "where is the name of the bike written?" "what's that part of the bike called, anyway?" and the position of the Omuran-chan stickers I stuck to it. The other officer in the mean time was typing all of this into the computer. He clearly did not know the alphabet keyboard very well because typing "Cecelia" (the name of the bike) took about 4 tries. Oh wait, that was supposed to be in capital letters, let me do it again, CECELIA.  Then because my bike is teal, there was some fuss about whether they should circle blue or green on the form. 

Then it was my turn to fill out my name, address and job on the official form. Thank goodness I can write it myself, but too bad I messed up my job title because then he had to redo that paper, staple it to the old version and I had to fingerprint it to verify that I was present when this new form was filled out. I made a mistake on the next one as well, but this time I just fingerprinted the mistake instead. I have an inkan (name stamp, which you can usually use for mistakes), but since it's in katakana (the writing format used for foreign words/names), they called the main station who told them they can't accept that- only kanji inkans.  This is also when I learned that police officers have a special pouch in their vests for inkan cases. 

Forty minutes, three forms, and 4 calls to the main station to verify different things (whether to write my name in English or katakana, etc) later, it's time to go check out the "crime scene." 

They police officers are really nice guys and asked me questions about my life in Japan and where I'm from, the usual. They seemed pretty excited to be driving the first police car I've ever ridden in.  I sat in the back seat where I was surprised to find no seat belts. I thought this was strange. Granted, it's only law for the front seat, but not even having them in the backseat? in a police car? Odd. 

When we got to Mac, it was crowded, so they did a common move here of just stopping, not in a parking space. When I got out of the car, my back lightly bumped the side view mirror of this other car, that apparently had someone in it. When I say lightly bumped, I mean, it was so light I barely felt it. 

While I was showing one officer where my bike had been and he was measuring distances (it seemed pretty arbitrarily), the man in the car started telling the second officer that I hit his mirror with the police car's door.  When the second officer came over, he asked me about it and I essentially said, "The police car has sliding doors, it would be physically impossible for me to hit that man's mirror." The guy in the car was being aggressive and rude to the police officers, clearly just being a ****.  I could tell they were just trying to appease him and were on my side. He eventually just left, but because it was an "accident," the traffic accident team had to come and take more seemingly arbitrary measurements and pictures, even though the guy was gone. There were more official forms too, but they didn't involve me in this new incident any further, since it was a bunch of bullsh*t to begin with, except taking a picture of my back where it touched the mirror. 

Finally, it was all done. Instead of taking me back to the koban though, they offered to drive me to the airport, from where my bus was leaving. A free ride to airport, sweet. On the way there, while waiting at a red light, three of my 6th grade boys walked by. When they saw me in the back of the van, they waved, but then realized I was in the back of a police car and their jaws dropped, eyes widened and they looked panicked. The officer rolled down his window and told them I wasn't in trouble and all three of them clutched their hearts and I could seem them sigh with relief. It was very cute. I can't wait to go to school on Tuesday and find all of my students talking about it and all of my teachers asking me about it. At least maybe I can get word of my missing bike out and increase my chances of recovery!

I'm not going to say I'm glad my bike was stolen, but I am kind of glad that I had this wacky experience. I'll definitely be remembering this one. 

(I am indefinitely borrowing by friend's extra bike, so I am still mobile.) 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Khumbi Ride

Warning: This will be long

I've pondered upon the best way to approach writing about my trip to Africa and my mind always comes back to the khumbis.  The what?! The debilitated,  cramped, time-consuming public transportation of Swaziland.  I remarked to Mia at one point, that we should calculate the percentage of my trip spent in one of these mini-buses. While we never got around to it, rest assured, it was a significant portion. Don't get me wrong, I loved riding in khumbis.

Swaziland is not big.  It's half of the size of Kyushu, four times the size of Nagasaki prefecture, and not even 1.5 times the size of Los Angeles county- remember this is an entire country. I didn't have the chance to venture into the southern half, but I saw my fair share of the north through the windows of khumbis.

Public transportation in Swaziland is like none I've experienced before and I actually didn't really get it when it was first explained to me (and I'm still no expert). There are a few options, but I'll start out with the most straightforward.

The bus rank. In Mia's hut, I saw an indiscernible picture drawn by her 6-year old brother, Nsika, that said "bus rank." I assumed the words were as non-sensible as the drawing. In hindsight though, it was actually a pretty good drawing and labeled correctly.  Depending on where you are the bus rank can be a very intimidating mad-house or a quite parking lot with some ladies selling goods.  It's just a bus stop, pretty much.  Khumbis are 16-seat, privately-owned (but for public use) minibuses. Each has a set origin and destination, often painted onto the van. You find the khumbi going to (or at least in the direction of) your desired location and grab a seat. Here's the sticky part, the khumbi doesn't leave until it's full. If you're the first person on, you could be waiting for a long time. My first trip, we spent longer waiting to leave, than it took to get to where we were going; 48 minutes for a 20ish minute ride.

So, I said it doesn't leave until it's full, and I meant full. Every seat filled and usually every nook and cranny crammed with stuff. I saw jugs shoved under seats, eggs, live chickens, huge bags of maize meal, children. Children are no exception. If they don't take up a seat, they ride for free, so babies and kids sit on laps or stand between seats.  Don't even ask about seat belts...

Apparently, you're supposed to get a ticket on the khumbi. I don't think we got one the first 4 or 5 rides, but no mind, we still paid and we made it. Every khumbi has a driver and a "conductor," a guy that takes the money, (gives tickets) and tells people where to sit. I was really proud of myself when Mia and I were separated on one of my last khumbi rides and I paid for myself.  It's cheap, by the way. Less than two bucks for a 40+ minute ride.  (If you're on the side of the road and a khumbi going in your direction has already let someone off so has some extra seats is going by, you can wave them down and jump in from there, as well. )

The doors don't always close, the windows don't always open, but don't worry, the music will always be pumping. Almost every khumbi had a new stereo and the drivers just blasted their favorite tunes throughout the Swazi countryside.  This is the closest I'll get to a good time to mention that many of the khumbi have a name- like a ship has a name. Some of them were pretty funny, like "Cup of Dreams."

So why did I like khumbi so much? Other than seeing the Swazi countryside, I saw the country people-side. There were so many interactions in, on, or around the khumbi that made it so memorable. What I learned on khumbis:

Swaziland has diverse, beautiful scenery: When I left the airport in Johannesburg, I saw what I pretty much expected of African terrain: flat and grassy. But the closer we got to Swaziland I saw a whole different world. Vast rolling hills, tall trees, lush vegetation. Granted it was rainy season so there was a lot of new growth. Later on in the trip, I saw the flat fields of maize and sugar cane. Apparently in the south, the terrain is even more different.

Swazis are friendly: Probably the story I've told the most thus far, occurred at my first bus rank. I'd been with Mia for maybe 45 minutes and we are standing in line for a specific khumbi and Mia starts chatting away in siSwati with this make (pronounced ma-ge, means "mother" or "woman old enough to be a mother"). I thought it was so weird that Mia happened to know this lady, even though we were no where near her community. They were laughing and joking. "Must be old friends," I thought. Nope, just some lady standing in the same line?! I was shocked at the time, but over the next week I realized that it really is just how the Swazis are: super friendly (and talkative). Everyone I met in Mia's community made me feel like one of the family instantly. It was weird and so different from Japan. In Japan everyone is very polite, and I realized that this can make them seem cold and standoffish.

People watch out for each other: Okay, this was neither in Swaziland nor on a khumbi, but it's related. As we crossed the border to Mozambique, we were a little worried about getting to the bus rank from the border gate, but we were taken under the wing by this nice Swazi woman. The trick to getting to the bus rank is to catch a ride on the back of a pick-up that makes trips back and forth from the gate to the rank. The back of this specific pick-up was run by one tough 13 year old boy, who was trying to charge us for 3 people, the third being our big bag full of camping stuff. So this woman got in this huge argument, just for us. Other passengers piped in in our favor as well, but in the end we still had to pay.
Again in Moz, but this time it was a khumbi, heading back to the border from Maputo- our big red camping bag was again the star of the story. This time, it was in the back of the khumbi, no problem except that the driver and conductor were talking about it, wondering whose it was, but only speaking in Portuguese! We had no clue! So this nice passenger, decided to ask us in English, just in case. What a pal! Things like this happened all the time. Anywhere from a simple translation like that to guiding me to a more direct khumbi and then helping me carry all of our stuff from one khumbi to another while Mia was out doing something else.

You can eat on the go: While it wasn't as bad as Maputo, there was quite a bit of trash on the ground around Swaziland, which made me sad.  A lot of the litter, however, was maize cobs and mango peels, which is not so bad. It seemed that in every community you could find someone selling grilled maize and mangos (I think it's mango season). Unlike in Japan, eating on the go is fine here. Once you're done with the maize, just chuck the cob out the window of the khumbi. This was really hard for me to do that, especially on the right side, I was scared it would hit another car. Everyone else, including Mia, were seasoned pros.
Another favorite story involves eating maize in a khumbi. We were sitting in the back row and there was a big gogo (grandmother) between Mia and me. I was just picking at some leftover maize I had and the gogo saw it and asked me if it was maize. I took that as, "Can I have a couple kernels?" so I offered some. She readily accepted and took a few. A couple minutes later, she mentions the maize again, but this time, she takes the cob, breaks it in half and hands one half back to me, keeping the other for herself. I really didn't mind, it was just funny. We proceeded to throw the cobs out the window.

Swazis like their picture taken: Maybe it's because not many people have cameras, but so many Swazi people asked me to take their pictures. It was nice for me because I got some pictures of everyday people, but I still don't understand their logic, they're never going to see the photos. Another odd part of this is that when they want their photo taken, they yell out "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" Again, counter intuitive.

Personal space is not a concept: I'm sure you've seen pictures or videos of Tokyo trains in the morning during rush hour, packed like sardines.  Swaziland has this too on buses and sometimes khumbis. Especially in Mozambique, where we didn't ride any khumbis within Maputo (thank goodness). There, we saw khumbis packed until butts are hanging out of windows. The buses  got pretty crowded too. We got on one early in the morning near the start of the line so it wasn't very full. By the time we got to our destination, an hour later, every seat was filled and every inch of aisle space was packed with people. Getting out was not easy, especially with a big backpack and that darn camping bag. I had to carry my backpack over the heads of seated passengers or it wasn't going to make it out with me!

TIA: This Is Africa. TIA is an acronym often used by volunteers. My biggest TIA moment was riding in a bus on the way to Hlane Royal National Park. We were just riding along looking out the window when all of the sudden there were 8 giraffe just hanging out on the side of the road. Wild giraffe! Hanging out on the side of the road! I was beyond excited. Moments later we also saw some impala and vultures!
Speaking of animals, I saw a ton. At Hlane, I went on 3 game drives (2 sunrise, 1 sunset). We saw rhinos, giraffe, impala, nyala, crocodiles, vultures, other big birds, warthogs, elephants (I got really close to some), hippos, a monitor lizard and some beautiful small birds. There is a lion section at Hlane as well, but unfortunately we didn't see any. The night we arrived they saw some lions feeding, but we'd opted not to do the sunset drive because lions are usually seen in the morning (oops!). The next two days however, the lions were nowhere to be seen. We saw their footprints and their leftover food, but no lions. It's especially hard during the rainy season because the grass is tall, there's plenty of watering holes and it's really hot (around 40C!) so the lions just lay around in the shade. Mia and I spent the daytime doing the same thing as the animals, just sitting by the watering hole watching as animals came and went. It was SO cool.
Another TIA moment happened at night when we were in the fenced off camping area, just roasting some marshmallows, when we heard a lion roar! It was awesome, but also terrifying because in the dark we could also make out forms of animals running INSIDE the camping area. Could it be that unimaginable situation like Jurassic Park when the predators get loose and cause havoc?  Were we doomed to be lion food? When we heard the safari truck fire up and head out into the wild, it didn't help. "No! They're INSIDE!" we said to each other.  We were pretty scared, especially because the lights of the truck showed the silhouette of an animal crouching near our tent, so we couldn't even take refuge. We sought out the help of our neighbors who were in the buildings so hadn't heard a thing, but they came with us back to our site, with a flashlight, probably thinking we were crazy. We realized that there were, indeed, animals next to our tent, but only impala- no lions. Mia and I are positive they were chased away from where ever they had been by a lion. I don't think lions can actually get out of their area though.

It's a small world: It's amazing that one second I was thinking "Man, this is a different world," then the next I ran into someone from Oxy. That's right. After lugging our stuff and that damn camping bag all over Swaziland and Mozambique, we were finally headed to our last stop before we got to ditch the bag. We got off a khumbi and hitched a ride on the back of a pick-up, but then had a 2+ kilometer walk ahead of us, down a straight, boring road. A car pulled over and this nice young couple, who happened to be going to the same hostel (there really wasn't anything else down the road), offered to give us lift. Turns out the woman is an '03 Oxy grad who worked there until '09, before she moved to South Africa. She was just in Swaziland for the holidays. Since she was there until '09, that means we were on campus together for 3 years! But wait, it gets weirder. Her roommate of 4 years (that alone is rare), visited her the year before and they went to the same hostel for new years as Mia and I were on our way to! Crazy!

My two weeks in Swaziland, Mozambique and Zambia were amazing. This is just a
sample of my experiences and stories, but if I try to write them all down, you may never see it.  I recorded pretty much every waking moment in a journal, so as never to forget my experience.

It's hard to portray how I felt being there. It made me feel happy and sad, surprised and impressed, worried but hopeful. Just like every place, Swaziland has it's problems, probably more than it's fair share. While I know the volunteers can't solve these problems for the country on a whole, I was really impressed and amazed at the difference that Mia alone was making in her community on a personal level. I could tell that many many people's lives were changed by her being there.

Sorry it took so long to post this. I hope you enjoyed it. Don't forget to check out my photos:
Maputo, Mozambique
Omuran-chan is a doll of the mascot of my town. I took her around Africa and not only showed her to kids there, I took pictures of her to show to my students. Seeing Omuran-chan in the photos really engaged my students more. They loved it! But were a little upset that I ended up trading her for a bag in Zambia on my last day. But hey, now she lives in Africa!