Monday, December 8, 2014

The Science of Dating in Kampala

Firstly let me say, I’m a dater.  I love dating, I have been on thousands of dates, I feel like I could write a manual just on the subject.  Internet dating?  You name the app, I’ve applied it.  OK Cupid is my favorite because I just have too many deal breakers to not sort through some of that shit before spending my precious time on a date.  I tried picking up a guy from a bar once, he told me he didn’t believe in gay people.  Didn’t believe they existed.  I left him at the subway stop.

In the US I got so good at dating I would take my dates on a randomized control trial of dates.  I’d take each man on the same date, each date with the appropriate number of stops in case things got weird/boring.  Coffee, then dinner, then drinks, then my place (for-another-drink-nothing-more-ma).  But through such a rigorous scientific process I was able to directly compare and contrast.  Do I pick the burly man twice my height with muscles etched deeper than the grand canyon?  Who picked me up and tossed me over the railing when I tried to get onto my roof?  Or the one who on the same roof got giggly off two glasses of wine but made me laugh until my sides hurt? (I always pick humor.)

The moral of the story is: science wins. 

Except when there is a complete dearth of people to date.  The sample size is just too small for anything to be significant.  I’m out of my country but still recognize the importance of someone being similar enough in education and upbringing to me to make things work.  Most expat men here either have beautiful wives/girlfriends, are leaving in a week and are just passing through, or feel they can do better, because after all, expat men outnumber us expat women 5 to 1 (or something.). 
I tried my old trusted methods.  On Ok Cupid I was asked “could I date a squid?” and “could I lift him?”  On Tinder I mostly get “I’m a pilot who is here for the night an hour away from Kampala.  Could you meet me ‘cause you cute.”  I’ve been told “I have curly hair too. We’d make some great curly haired babies.” 

This week I hit the jackpot.  A Jewish man from the states who loves Louis CK and makes jokes about schtetls.  WINNING.  He and his mom were visiting the family that they helped put through school for the last 10 years.  We went out with his “sister and brother” to various clubs.  He was flirtatious.  I started planning our son’s bris. Then I turn around and he’s making out with his 18-year-old Sponsor a Sister.  Oi.

SO now dear readers, I’m giving up.  And not one of those: I’m giving up but only to keep looking behind me to see if he’s “been there the whole time” kind of giving up.  That’s it.  Fin.  Shesh.

I'm just going to buckle down and save more babies from Malaria.  Because that's the science that matters.  Right?

No I cannot lift you.
Thursday, December 4, 2014

26th Birthday

I was an extremely ugly newborn.  Slightly squished, yellow with jaundice, I had hair on the palms of my hands and eyes that took up most of my head.  My mom likes to lovingly share how she was a little scared of me.  But I grew up to be (a little) less yellow, proud to say I have no more furry palms, and celebrated my 26th birthday with 11 other new friends on the beach of Zanzibar.

I first flew to Dar Es Salaam to spend Thanksgiving with my good friend Valerie who is working on malaria in Tanzania.  Val fights malaria by day and by night retires to her beautiful house on the beach.  We lounged on big throw pillows on her balcony 6 stories up and drank cold white wine in the hot sea breeze.  It could have been an illustration in Eat, Pray, Love.  And then we did eat.

We went to somebody’s house who does somethin’ with the American Embassy, for Thanksgiving.  There were around 50 expats with their children and their grandma’s pumpkinpie/stuffing/gravy/biscuits.  It was proper.  I brought the caramelized dates stuffed with blue cheese wrapped in bacon, so I won.  After stuffing ourselves until our stomachs were reasonably pooched, we sat around and watched American Football.  We all stood up, in Tanzania, thousands of miles away from our home, put our hands on our hearts and sang the American Anthem.  I was moved.  Which is a lot of patriotism for someone who got in trouble in high school Homeroom for protesting the National Anthem. It was nice.  It made me miss my family a little less and appreciate this stupid crazy life I’m living.

We woke up at 5am and drove to the ferry where we met up with the other 10 people on our trip.  A good mixture of boys and girls and just enough who’ssleepingwithwho to make things interesting.  The two hour ferry ride ended in Stone Town, Zanzibar.  Stone town is a revolutionary port city known for its intricate wooden doors, spices, and seafood.  We luxuriated in the tiny alleys, and velvety, salty air for two hours before taking a taxi to the beach town of Nungwi. 

When arriving at the resort, I immediately stripped down into my bathing suit, put a beverage in my hand, and didn’t change that situation for 4 days.  I ate crusteaceans the size of my forearm.  I took a little rickety sailboat out and went snorkeling among the coral reefs.  I swam in a lagoon of tortoises.  On Saturday night I met some new friends and followed them to a party on a beach.  It was a scintillating new group.  We all had to pick dares out of the basket to accomplish before the night was out.  I had to kiss a stranger.  The beat was thumping and the lights flashing.  I locked eyes with a stranger and slid over to him.  My hair grazed his neck, I wrapped my fingers around his hair, and passionately kissed him, just to turn away and disappear into the crowd.  Or something.

We danced until the music stopped.  But there were still a few more dares to be completed before the night could end.  My new friend needed to go skinny dipping in the ocean.  She ran.  We followed.  Naked as the day I was born (a little less scary hopefully), I crashed into the Indian Ocean with 4 strangers.  It was warm and the sky was bright with stars.  Two pairs split off to be romantic and I kept dodging the one guy left like a 5 year old.  But I was in Tanzania!  In the Indian Ocean!  At 5 am!  I just turned 26 and blew out candles in a lobster!  It was as magical and twinkly as it could get. 

I think skinny dipping in the ocean is a sure way to get Giardia.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Church in Uganda

I went to church.  I haven’t been to a proper church since my grandmother insisted I receive my communion and my mom bargained with the nuns to make sure I only had to go through one year of religious classes and not two.

“I taught her all the prayers,” she said in her thick Brooklyn accent, on the phone with the nuns.  “She knows the Hail Mary, she knows the Godfather…”  My other mother almost peed herself laughing in the background.

I did go to classes for a year, and I did receive my communion.  And I did learn the difference between the Godfather and the prayer: Our Father. I haven’t been back since.

But Uganda is religious, and primarily Christian. And if I’m going to live in this country, I might as well try to understand it.  It may be a good opportunity to continue my personal pilgrimage (ChelseaToSea: On Science and Faith) to get a little faith myself, or at least not be so afraid of it.

I got up early on Sunday morning and met up with my coworker, her two sisters, her mother, her father, and her tiny niece.  Her niece loved me. Took my hand, looked adoringly in my eyes.  And then hated me, scowled whenever I looked at her and insisted she sit next to mommy and not Chelsea in the church pews.

The church was simple and not at all like the Catholic church I grew up going to.  The pews were movable wooden benches and everyone had to bring their own bibles.  The ceiling was high and white and cracked.  Cows looked on through the windows.  And there was music.  Not the high, silvery notes like the Catholic choir, but deep belly notes coming from drums, alto singers and a saxophone player.  There was a TV screen in the background sharing the lyrics so that you could sing along. I loved it.  I swayed and danced and clapped and sang and the niece started to like me again (kind of), so I could use her as security blanket and danced with her.  They served a delicious lunch and then we kept singing. 

“I could really get used to this.  This is a ton of fun.”
And then it started. 

“We have a lot of money to give to the needy today, but not, of course, if you’re gay!!”  The crowd burst out laughing and applauding.

“I am married, to a wife, she is a woman.”  Another round of laughter and applause.

I felt like I was undercover.  A gazelle wearing a lion skin in a pride.  A black woman hiding under a white pointed cloak. 

If there is a god, wouldn’t it want us all to love in every possible way? Why would it punish us for acts of love?  Wouldn’t it want us to be open and loving and caring toward everyone?

If this god preaches that my parents belong in the bubbling circles of hell just for loving each other, then this god is not my god.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Bill Clinton

I was 16 and getting my hair cut.  I was going to high school in Key West, was obsessed with the idea of becoming a top journalist one day, and was wearing my hair in long curls.  I wanted to be an undercover journalist to be exact.  One that put herself in dangerous situations to expose the truth.  I went to summer camps dedicated to journalism and was the editor in chief of my school paper.  
Luckily I was too oblivious and happy to know just how nerdy I was.

On this day I was sitting in the salon chair when a local reporter burst in.
“Bill Clinton is walking down the street!”

This is my chance.  MY CHANCE TO EXPOSE THE TRUTH.

I jumped out of the chair, borrowed a clipboard and camera, and ran off toward the former President.  He was surrounded by Key West tourists in their parrot shirts and bodyguards who stood out in all black. 
“I’m a student reporter!  I work for the newspaper! I’m a student reporter!” I screamed, wet hair flying.

Then, former President Bill Clinton said, “Let her through.”  Like Moses parting the damn Red Sea.
Bill, Billy, put his arm around me, and we walked and talked for 3 blocks.  I asked him how he was liking Key West and what advice he would give to aspiring young politicians.  He told me he liked my name.  I blacked out with happiness.

When it was time for him to visit Margaritaville for a burger (poor choice President Clinton) I left him to get the second part of my hair cut.  The journalist from before met me in the salon. 
“Chelsea!  You were the only one to get the story!  Can you write it up for ALL THE PAPERS?”

And I did.  After that, the local paper hired me and I wrote from them every summer until I graduated high school.  And I realized, I gotta get some kind of specialty because general journalism is not nearly as sexy as I thought it would be.  And so I studied health.

Now, 9 years later, I work for a public health NGO owned by Bill Clinton. 

Isn’t that something?
Check out my two-lengthed hair

Thursday, November 6, 2014


I have two mothers.  Two mothers, one sister, one female dog and one female cat.  There’s a lot of estrogen and that’s the way I like it.  I never really noticed that I grew up in a “nontraditional” family.  It was never a thing.  My parents were proud but not loud.  Generally

I grew up in Brooklyn.  Coney Island then Park Slope then Red Hook.  These days, Brooklyn is almost oppressively liberal.  If you’re not seeing through rainbow glasses you are shunned as close minded and obsolete and worst of all, unhip.  As it should be.  But growing up in the nineties, there were still a few kinks to be worked out.

My kindergarten teacher in P.S. 321 was Trudy.  Trudy had a beehive grey haircut and smoked like a chimney.  She liked yelling at us and telling us the raunchy parts of Greek mythology.  I was 4.  We had to share a picture of our family.  I drew one with three cats, one curly haired mommy and one blonde mommy. 

“Where’s your dad?” She rasped.
“I don’t have a daddy, I have two mommies.”
“That’s impossible. You’re a liar.”

I went home and told my two lesbian mothers.

They came in the next day, in their nineties high rise jeans and cowboy boots, and went straight up to Trudy in the middle of the classroom. 
“Hi.  We’re Chelsea’s moms. She has no dad.  Don’t ever fucking call her a liar again.”

Generally not loud.

In the 6th grade I learned how to make the genetic predictor tool: Punnett squares.  My mother has blue eyes, I was told my sperm donor had blue eyes, and I have brown eyes.  I worked and reworked my Punnett squares.  This can’t be right, could it?  Two blue eyes and a brown eyed child?


I went home and told my mom.
“Eh, maybe he had brown eyes.  I don’t really remember.  But I know he was a doctor.”
Growing up with two moms was never a thing because they never made it a thing.  But being a doctor was a thing.  Is still a thing even though I’m not a doctor.

“Chel, I have this rash.  Take a look at it and tell me what to do.  You’re the doctor.”
My mom gets naked.
“Ma, the rash is on your arm, why are you naked?!  Also, I’m not a doctor.”

It’s cool, I can be their daughter who is a doctor in Africa.  As long as I keep getting hip points for having lesbian mothers.

You’re a queer, Sudanese refugee who speaks 5 languages and has her own urban garden?
I have two mommies.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Climbing Luwazi Rock

I carried a Jansport with my sleeping bag, tent and climbing gear dangling from the bag with carabineers, one arm supporting a grocery bag with beans and booze, and the other a gallon of water and a large saucepan on my head.

I hiked with 9 other people knee deep through rice paddies, through the weedy farmland and up onto Luwazi Rock.  The famous Ugandan rock is higher than anything else around it for as far as the eye can see.  The sides are scraggly and jut out into deliciously shady and climbable overhangs.  The top is smooth and clear except for the few collected raindrop puddles.  I’m with a group called the Mountain Climbing Club of Uganda: young, fit, stupidly attractive men and women from all over the world.

The sun was scorching and slapped me silly.  We pitched our tents toward the center of the rock—so as not to roll off in the middle of the night.  With nothing to directly stake the tents, we piled our bags into them and hoped they wouldn’t fly away.

After a few bites from a hunk of cheese and loaf of bread (when I’m camping, the only thing that satisfies me is to eat like a peasant), we set up our climb.  Those more experienced, knotted the ropes around the bolts in the rock.  I leaned over and tested my bravery.  I put on my harness, grabbed the rope, and literally stepped off the cliff, repelling down.  So. Much. Fun.  Once down, the point was to climb back up.  Village kids came to watch us and think “only white people.”

I love rock climbing.  It’s adrenaline inducing.  It’s a riddle to try to figure out where to place your weight, your foot, your hand.  At the bottom of the rock all the beautiful people are cheering you on, then at the top they get bored, and you’re alone with your heartbeat and the sun. 

I climbed up a few times but couldn’t climb up the hard one.  “The Crack.”  Kept swinging off the rock when I jumped to reach this one grip.  I’m going to go back and I’m going to climb it.  Might need to beef up a bit first though.

We climbed until the sun set.  We set up a big roaring bonfire and I cooked my signature: beans and bacon stirred with an oversized spoon in an oversized pot directly nestled in the fire.  We drank whiskey and beer.  The kids stole our speakers so we had to dance to the frog croaks.  I snuck away to quiet spot of the mountain, laid out my sleeping bag on the rock, under the stars, and fell asleep.

At 3am I awoke to a crack of thunder.  All the late night dancers peeled themselves from the rock around the fire and ran to find shelter in the tents.  There were far more tents than people so we crammed in.  The sky was dark green.  I picked up some friends who were too drunk to make it into a tent.  I was afraid they would walk right off the cliff in the night.
“Come with me!” I screamed in way of nurse during wartime battle.

The thunder got louder and the people in my tent started to count the thunder from the lightning. 
“It’s getting closer,” said my German friend in a doomsday voice.
Should we pack the tent and run off the rock?  We were in structures with metal poles, on the top of a rock, in a lightning storm. 
But I was too tired.   Eh, if I die, I die, but at least I’ll be well rested.

We woke up at 6am.  I hadn’t been drinking heavily the night before and was too chipper for some people’s liking.  I’M ALIVE!!  I made some bonfire coffee, my fave, and went to a secluded part of the rock to look out on the villages’ own fires starting up and dotting the green farms far below us.

We spent another day climbing on the cooled down rock.  On the way home we stopped at a village to share a warm beer from a bar without power.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014


One of my supervisors in the field was using a car with a driver to go into the field to help collect data for our study.  The driver hit a boda (motorcycle) that had a mother and her two children on the back.  4 people on one motorcycle.  The mother died and one of her children is in critical condition.  Our supervisor is a physician and she stayed with the family in the hospital for days.  I feel sick.
Friday, October 24, 2014

Travel tips for solo female travelers

I have been traveling alone since I was 19.  I love it.  I feel it’s the best way to actually see and experience where you are.  That being said, being a solo female traveler can be risky and tricky.  I’d like to share a few tips that I’ve learned over the years:

1)      Carry a roll of toilet paper.  Because drip drying is the worst.
2)      Bring a fake wedding ring.  This is a really god trick to avoid unnecessary attention.  I usually just switch over my thumb ring I always wear.
3)      Be compact and sensible.  Don’t carry a big sloppy purse.  Carry a little messenger bag that latches, an organized wallet, a watch, minimal jewelry, shoes you can run in, hair pulled out of your face.
4)      Always wear a scarf.  The perfect lady companion.  To cover your head if in a mosque, to cough into, to dry your hands, to cover your boobies, to crumple up into a pillow.
5)      Don’t give away money.  The kids are cute.  And they have no arms.  And that’s sad.  But don’t give away money.  The act of taking out your wallet in public is always a bad idea.  Even if the kids are harmless, look at the periphery, they are often being watched and so are you.
6)      If you are taking public transportation and you are in a car with only men, get out and switch transportation.
7)      Don’t hook up when you’re traveling.  You don’t want to be in that kind of vulnerable position and you don’t know what kind of creepy crawlies he/she has. Thas nasty.
8)      Protect yourself physically.  Mace, alarm, self-defense.  Personally I’m afraid to carry mace or a knife because knowing me I’d fuck it up and spray myself.  But I do carry a rape alarm with me at all times and in my hands when in a scary situation and I plan on taking a self defense course.
9)      Don’t drink past tipsy, don’t do any drugs.  Watch your drinks and always have enough cash for a lengthy cab ride home.
10)   Ask for help.  It’s ok to rely on the kindness of strangers.  I think it’s inevitable.  But don’t be simpering.  Power stance, clear voice, directive.  Always be gracious.
11)   Don’t pack a bag too big for you to carry.  Even if that means you have to buff up a bit for travel.  I have actually done this for this reason.
12)   Mosquito repellent, wet wipes, sunscreen, fluconazole. 
13)   Always let someone know where you are at all times.  Email your itinerary, give numbers of your friends.  I called my parents before following a new friend into the red light district in Bangkok.  They had his phone number, place of work, and his medical history.   
14)   It’s ok to be pushy.  Don’t be worried about people perceiving you as a bitch.  Fuck them.  It’s ok to speak up and push back for what you want, especially if you feel uncomfortable.  Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for putting them out.  Guilt is a wasted emotion and often acts as permission for unwanted situations.
15)   It’s ok to be nice.  Be friendly, be polite, be kind, make friends.  Just because you’re cautious doesn’t mean you have to be cut off.  That being said, men, just because woman is nice to you doesn’t mean she wants to sleep with you/give you a green card.  Doesn’t mean you can follow her and doesn’t mean she owes you a phone number/email/Facebook.

Enjoy. Write. Take pictures.  Try everything.  Open your eyes, mind and heart. You’re going to end up taking shelter in a hut with five men, one armed with a rifle, no cell reception, in the middle of nowhere.  This is not a controlled environment.  It’s probably the farthest thing from it.  This is the adventure.  This is living.  Scary shit happens, gender based and otherwise, so protect yourself where you can.  And then just wing it.  It also helps to have a family who would cross the world to cut someone for messing with you. 

I’d rather be out here than in there, wouldn’t you?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Volcano

I ate a breakfast of fir fir: Injera from the night before, tossed in spices and a sauce, then eaten with more Injera with Injera.  With injera with injera. 

We drove deep into the desert and the sand became black lava rocks.  For 3 hours we bumped and drove our way over huge lava rocks.  My neck couldn’t move by the end of it.  I became very close with my German carmates.  Then we stopped at a herd of camels.  Got out, loaded our sleeping bags and water onto the camels and ate dinner on the rocks until the stars came out.  Then we put on our flashlights, and walked the rest of the 3 hours up to the volcano.  The stars were brilliant and even though I was stumbling over the big rocks, I was still able to look up and appreciate the expanse.  As we got closer to the volcano, the rocks became glasslike and shattered beneath our feet.   We started to smell sulfur and could see the glowing red get bigger and the heat get stronger. 

I got to the top.  I looked over into the big circle of fire.  Magma was bubbling up through the black layer of cooled lava floating on the top.  The magma exploded up and splashed the sides like a Jackson Pollock painting.  And I thought “Oh my god.”  Over and over.  Like a mantra.  “Oh my god.”  It was pulsing and scary and comforting.  I am the goddess of fire and light.  I couldn’t turn away, it was too powerful.  I stayed staring into the pit for at once 2 minutes and 3 hours.  We threw water bottles into the crater to watch them catch fire and sink into the lava.

I am the goddess of fire and light

At 1am, we grabbed our sleeping bags off the camels and laid them far enough away from the volcano so that the sulfur smoke didn’t kill us but close enough so we could still hear the volcano bubbling and crashing.  Like an ocean’s lapping in hell.  I woke up at 5 am, sooty, hair standing up on its own accord held together by dirt, ash and sand, and went to the volcano again.  A few people already had that idea and were there when I got there.  I spent 1 more precious hour with the volcano before hiking again, driving again, taking a plane again, and preparing to leave the country the next morning.  I slept in a plush bed but didn't, have never, slept as deeply as I had next to the living volcano.

Volcano at 6am
Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sulfur Lakes

I woke up a little sandy, drank coffee out of a plastic cup, had a quick wet wipe wash, and jumped into our jeep again for another day of salt seeing.  Our cars passed desert, got to the salt lake, AND KEPT GOING.  INTO THE WATER.  It was amazing.  I kept being scared that we would break through the crackly salt beneath us.  Then this guy did.  We had to get onto the back of the truck and jump around until our weight lifted the front end out of the cracked salt.

We parked our cars at the salt mountains.  Pillars of salt and rock reflected off the salty water beneath it.  The pillars looked like gnarled humans looking back to watch their city burn.  Or something.  There were twisty caves beneath the pillars but were flooded and we were warned not to explore them.  So I didn’t.  But some boys with underdeveloped frontal lobes did.  They said it was cool.

Back in the Jeeps we drove until the water disappeared beneath us and we were in a dryland with white salt as far as the eye could see.  Men bent over in the sizzling heat prying the salt up from the ground and hacking at them with machetes until the crystalline structures fell away in perfect lines to form salt blocks.  The salt blocks were loaded onto the back of the camels and sold for $1 a brick.  They could sell about 200 bricks a day split among 11 people.  The men had fading eyes from the reflection of the white salt.  The camels were all “fuck this, it’s too hot.”  The tourists took pictures and tasted the salt.  “It tastes like salt!”  Has to be the hardest job in the world.

Next we went to the sulfur lakes, one of the lowest points in the world.  Green, yellow, orange, magenta, painted the sky into a Martian landscape. Sulfur bubbled up from the green lakes and created little vertical poops.  I bent down to touch one non-acidic area and it felt like oil.  I rubbed it into my skin because it’s supposed to make you look youthful and beautiful.  I just kind of looked oily.

We slept in a little room, on the floor, and played cards.  I took a welcomed bucket bath (fill bucket with water, use cup to splash all over yourself), ate injera for dinner, and went to sleep very (very) close to my new friends.
Monday, October 20, 2014

Salt Caravans

One hotel change (mold, leaking walls, dirty sheets, non-locking door), one room change (roaches), and one sad little phone call to my mom later, I gave up and checked into a room which could be a dirty tomb and got drunk at the bar downstairs. 

I woke up early in the morning, a little dirtier than when I went to sleep, and met up with my car going to Danakil.  My co-travelers now included an older man from China, Shong, and two German students, Phillip and Christoff.  We took a car down, down, deep into the valley’s of the earth.  The green mountains and mules were replaced with sand and camels.  The weather became oppressively hot.  Do you remember that Twilight Zone episode where the man wakes up from a coma in which he was dreaming about the world becoming so cold that everyone died to find that the world was moving closer to the sun and everyone was going to boil to death?  Moving from the icy rain in the Simien Mountains to the Sulfur lakes in the hot valleys of Danakil felt like that. 


We stopped for a lunch of pasta and mango juice in a little village in the middle of nowhere.  25 other travelers met up with us, most from Israel.  The kids asked for money and water bottles.  Then they showed us how Ronaldo was soooo much better than Messi.  Soccer is the language of the people.  And I’m a mute.

Soccer Talk 

We boarded our 9 cars and caravanned deep into the Danakil desert.  We stopped at what looked like a large lake and were told that underneath the very shallow lake was salt, as far as the eye could see and as deep as several miles.  Salt was loaded onto camel and mule caravans to be taken back into the city.  I waded out onto the salt and was surprised to feel it smooth and completely flat beneath my feet.  I watched the camels bring the salt back as the sun set.

Salt Caravan
Salt Caravan

Salt on the back of a camel
We drank tea and ate rice and greens for dinner in an even smaller, hotter village.  We slept on extremely comfortable straw cots in the open air and let the dessert breeze drift us to sleep.

Straw Cots

Where we slept

Friday, October 17, 2014

Drive to Mekele

I woke up early in the morning to drive to Mekele, 8 hours away.  The drive was spectacular.  Just mountains and farmland and beautiful villages.  The word “lush” doesn’t begin to describe Ethiopia.  It’s like Mother Nature threw up on it.

Camels on the road

My driver was an old man and we exchanged pleasantries for hours as he practiced his English.  He showed me a picture of his son.  His wife died 2 years after his son was born and was taken in by his grandmother.  2 weeks ago, the grandmother died.  Now my driver, Mengistu, has to pay more than a day’s salary to have a caretaker look after the boy. 
Mengistu started to cry and turned to me to ask “Will you adopt my boy?  He is honest and so good.  He may die if I cannot feed him.”
I hear a lot of stories.  My cleaner in Uganda has a new one for me every week.  People want me to help them and I do what I can but there are lines you have to draw around your heart when living in these countries. 
I told him, “I’m sorry, I cannot take him.”
“Please, take my number.  If you find someone who wants him, please don’t forget me.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that no one would ever adopt a 12 year old boy.  Instead, I took the number and said, “Of course.”
I gave him some money, and he took it and thanked me, but I could tell from his eyes that this was only spitting at the fire of the problem.

We stopped for some roadside coffee.  A priest came by and offered us a prayer for money, but I did not give him any.  God should not need our money, only our love.  A group of boys on a soccer team came by with a big picture of them in jerseys asking everyone at the coffee shop for money for their team.  I gave them 50 Birr ($2.50) and they ran off screaming and hooting.  An obscene donation I was told.  Shit, I probably could have bought soccer balls for the whole town.  Because in my observations, soccer sustains people more than prayers.

Money is a scarily powerful thing to have.  I never thought I had a lot of it until I realized now I could be a sultan.  A sultan of soccer teams.  Wild.

I bought a bushel of Chaat, a stimulant like very strong tobacco.  You pick off the leaves and chew them in the back of your gums.  I’m pretty sure not eating roadside leaves was in one of my trainings on how not to get Cholera.  Oh well lolz.

Eating Chaat like a damn Koala 
Edit:: Oi, bad idea.  The Chaat is rocking to sleep on my stomach lining.  But at least I’m WIDE AWAKE.

End note::: Seriously though, if you do happen to know someone who would be saintly enough to take in a 12 year old Ethiopian boy, I took all of the driver’s contact information.
Thursday, October 16, 2014


I drove to the airport, realized I forgot my writing book, found a guy, found a phone, found a cab, returned to the hotel, got back 5 minutes before departure.  Every time I lose something while traveling I remember my mom sending me off when I was 19 through the airport on my way to Kolkata.
“Keep your shit together.  If you lose anything, I’ll kill you.”
“Ma’am, you dropped your passport.”

Lalibela is a Christian city built to be the new Jerusalem.  A man made river of Jordan runs through the city.  When the city was built, Christian persecution was widespread.  So all of the churches were carved from the solid rock floor deep underground.  When scanning the horizon, you cannot see any churches, and it isn’t until you are almost on top of them that you can see the intricate framework below.  They’re magnificent. 

All of the churches are connected by dark underground tunnels for protection.  The churches are Ethiopian Christian Orthodox.  They had large wood doors that opened into dark, stone rooms like an ant hive.  Shadows of the priests reached to the tops of the dark stone.  It was very simple and deeply humble.  A woman with thick wrinkles crouched with her head down, counting rosaries, tears streaming down her face. 

I found the stone walls very oppressive.  I felt more holy eyes up on top of the green mountains rather than head down on a carpet.  Rabindranath Tagore, the famous Indian poet said, “
LEAVE this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!
  He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!
  Come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense! What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained? Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow.”
Give me a mountain and I will open my soul to the heavens and earth.  Give me a temple and I’ll take a picture and never look at it again.

We walked through the dark tunnels when a bat fell from the ceiling. 
“Jesus Christ!” I screamed and it echoed back 50 times.  The nuns looked up from their beads and scowled.  Nice Chel.

The priests and nuns slept in a little holes cut into the stone that were just big enough to lay down in.  Unfathomable to me.

I ate lamb and injera with chili for dinner and some coffee to drift me to sleep.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014


My organs still a little frozen, I ate a breakfast of toast and local honey, amazing Ethiopian coffee and drove to the city of Gondar. 

I relaxed in the sun and fed my fingertips with injera (a spongy pancake), spiced lentils, lamb and beets.  For dessert, I watched a coffee ceremony.  A woman knelt on dry grass and roast coffee on a skillet.  The plumes of white smoke were holier than incense.  She smashed the beans with a mortar and pestle and fed them into a clay pot with a spout so long and narrow, the grounds never poured out into the cups.  The cup was small.  The coffee was silky and sensual.  Folgers seems like the distant memory of a bad lover who stole my wallet in the morning.

After lunch, I visited the castles of Gondar.  Gondar used to be the capitol city of Ethiopia and generations of Kings built their stone castles there.  My favorite story was of the young woman who saved the traveling King’s life with medicine for malaria.  He brought her back from the village to his castle, died, and she became the ruler.  And among many other accomplishments of consequence I’m sure, she built a sweet underground stone sauna.  The steam rose up through circular holes in it which women on the top could bend over and use for facials!

The Italians screwed up some of the original stone by stuccoing it when they tried to take over for like 2 seconds.  But Ethiopia remains the only country in Africa that wasn’t colonized. 

After resting in my hotel WITH A BATH, and a little bit of the new Bridget Jones book, I went out with my guide to the Dashen beer garden, home of the famous Ethiopian Dashen beer.  I ate chicken and drank two beers of Dashen on tap.  Dashen is an amber beer with hops that hit all the right places.  Exactly the kind I’ve been missing in Uganda. 

It’s an interesting time to be living in Africa.  There’s a lot to talk and drink about: Ebola, Obama, Al Shabab, Anti-gay bill, Rhianna…  I promise you, if the shit hits the fan in Uganda or if Rhianna gets back with Chris Brown, I’ll leave.  

But until then, here’s to Obamba giving Al Shabab Ebola.   And god bless Rhianna.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Climbing the Simien Mountains

I slept with Iron and Wine playing deep in my ears to keep out the incessant giggling of my cotmates.  The walls were slick with rainwater and the fog whipped around my hair and I thought "oi."

I stopped by the hut for some hot coffee and bread before setting off.

We climbed through tall grass and bright flowers.  My old man scout led the way using his stick to clear the wet bushes in front of us.  My (quite handsome) guide led from the back.  When I saw my first view I choked a little.  We were on a soaring cliff looking down on the clouds and green, jagged mountains.  It was awe inspiring.  Awesome, if you will.

We got to a rock bridge we needed to cross to get to the waterfall.  The bridge fell away on either side.  As I was climbing over it, my foot slipped and I fell down.  In a millisecond, my rock climbing skillz kicked in and I did a finger crimp of my life.  Literally.  My guide grabbed me and pulled me up Indiana Jones style.  I knocked my knees around but am living.  The waterfall was a bit of a blur because I was still shaking.  I recrossed the bridge scooching on my butt.

The Bridge

I am only one of 2 solo female travelers my guide has had in his 2 years of experience.  I take pride in that.

We trekked  steadily up the mountain.  The altitude bit at my lungs and held there until I was gasping for air like a goldfish held by its tail.  My legs were leaden and dragged behind me.  When we summited the mountain at 3900 feet the impressive view was completely blocked by fog.  So we just sat down and ate the bread with vegetables we had packed for lunch.

And then it started to rain.

An icy rain so intense it bounced off my back into hail.  The rain didn't let up for 3 hours.  It was miserable but I couldn't complain because I was the stupid head who booked this trip as her vacation.  I pretended I was a refugee running away from some awful persecution.  And that helped.  I couldn't tell my Ethiopian brother what I was pretending because that would be kind of messed up.

At hour 2, my brain waterlogged and I was just a body walking down the mountain.  I woke up to see a large herd of gigantic baboons crossing in the fog ahead.

Back aching from shivering, we finally got to the campsite just to find all of the beds in the hut were taken.  It's ok, I was assured, there is a tent we have for you.  But you'll have to share with a German lady.

"Ok.  Let's talk.  This isn't going to work for me.  Call the boss, have a car pick me up and take me to the nearest city so I can sleep in a warm bed."
Here's one thing that's happened since I got older.  I am no longer afraid of speaking up, no longer feel guilty for making things happen for myself.  Thank god.

"Ok, get changed and then we will head to the main road to meet the car."
I was brought into a stone storeroom and all the men stood by casually looking on.  I built a fort out of bags of rice and hissed at them to leave.  Once dry, they fed me some coffee and popcorn and we set out again, in the rain, down the mountain.

My guide, Ganatsu, and now my best friend, held my hand the whole way down so that I would not slip down the slick, muddy rocks.  I'm a princess.

Down at the river, a mule and mule handler met us to take us up the almost vertical mountain pass.  But first we had to pass through the fast moving, icy river.  The mule handler, porter, scout and guide all stripped down to their knickers to determine the best possible way across with the mule.  All of these men right now are working to make sure I have a good time on my vacation.  I am a ridiculous person living an incredible life.

Mule and mule handler

When they found the best route, they lifted me onto the mule as the scared-as-shit animal crossed the river.  We were laughing hard as the mule kept freaking out and dipping half my body in the water.

The mule took me up the vertical mountain and I gripped on for my life with my legs.  But eventually became a mule riding pro, twisting back to talk to Ganatsu.


We reached the main road 2 hours later--and the car wasn't there.  Positively shaking and drenched, we climbed the nearest hill to get cell reception to call the car.  Nothing.  A white car came in the distance.  Could it be?  Our car? We high-fived.  We hugged.  But no.  Not our car.

We need to find shelter, with every breath I take I feel a sharp pain in my chest.  We see a house in the distance and walk to it.  It is a singular dark room made of stone, chokingly dense with smoke.  Rice bags line the walls and a beautiful woman and her boy took turns adding twigs to the fire on the floor and swatting at the chickens to get away from the rice.

We sat around the fire and smoke rose up from our body as our clothes (and lungs) turned from ice, to water, to vapor.  I was so thankful for the fire but couldn't help think of my friends working all over the world on proper cook stoves.

After half an hour the car still hadn't come and the woman was starting to run out of twigs.  Time for Plan B.  If the car never came, I would cut open a bag of rice and crawl inside to wait out morning.

Then the boy's voice rose up like the sun on Christmas morning.  The car was here!  I thanked the woman and ran slowmo to the car.
"Chelsea!  Poor girl!  Such an adventure!"
Yes, yes, I know I simpered, enjoying the attention.  I took off my outer layer of soaking clothes and they drove me 2 hours back out of the mountains into the closest city of Debarak.  I said goodbye to Ganatsu and my scout and was taken to a hotel with a warm bed.  I ate two bowls of carrot soup, bread, goat and whiskey.  I took a hot shower which overflowed from all the mud and bugs caked on me, ew, and fell asleep at 9pm.

Monday, October 6, 2014

We set off

There's nothing worse than airports in poor countries. They're a shitshow of bribery and pushy men. Usually I'm good to go and even thrive a little off it. Elbows out. But if you're feeling a little weak, a good trick is to pop in your IPod--your surroundings will turn into an artsy music video. Ultimately very comforting and "so meta."
"I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together...I am the walrus"
This song was totally written in a sweaty Ethiopian airport.

I board the plane. Wrinkles next to me had obviously never been on a plane before and kept hitting me to show me the safety card. I helped him open his sandwich.

I follow a guy with my name on his paper into his car. He lets me out at a hotel where another man puts me into another car and wishes me goodbye. I'm in a covert operation where every man knows just enough to pass me off to the next.
"Where am I going?"
"And then?"
"I don't know."

5 car passes and 3 hours later our car pulled over next to an unlit circular hut. It was 8pm, pitch dark, raining and freezing. I was ushered into the hut and given a bowl. I guess it was dinner time. The hut had 14 men and women swathed in scarves. Two candles barely out the room and and a small fire cooked something in a big pot. A clear vegetable soup was ladled into my bowl and I ate it greedily, dipping bread around the edges. I listened to the Amharic voices which clucked with laughter and dipped in and out with the flickering candles.

The dinner hut

After dinner I hiked to the sleeping quarters. Raw beds under a low, warped ceiling. My team is a 100 year old scout and his rifle, my guide and the driver. They took beds on one side of the room and I on another. The scout stood outside, with a towel draped over his head, in the pouring freezing rain, all night.

I was in the middle of wet wiping my muddy feet when a pack of Korean tourists bust in and loudly take the remaining beds.

I may be getting too old for this shit.

Next vacation: piña coladas in Bermuda.
Sunday, October 5, 2014


In the middle of the night, burglars climbed up to my apartment and broke in through the back door. They came into my bedroom and probably chloroformed me. They used my iPhone as a flashlight and stole my laptop, my canon camera, my roommate Yatin's expensive fancy lenses Sony camera and his Playstation. Yatin was home in South Africa, so I was alone. I found my towel in a different place than I had left it. They took my purse and hid it under my inverter cabinet, took the $400 I had taken out for my trip to Ethiopia but left my Kindle, Nokia phone, and credit cards. They left all of my Apple products (phone and iPod) presumably because of trackers. Billie freaked out in the middle of the night but I figured she was chasing a mouse and ignored her. It was when I woke up in the morning to pack my camera for Ethiopia that I realized things were missing and noticed the police and neighbors outside. The burglars had robbed 4 apartments and none of us woke up. All apartments had our towels or scarves in weird places (presumably due to the chloroform--a common burglary practice here.) All our purses were under the inverters. All of our Apple products were left. All of us are unharmed. I feel extremely violated and creeped out that they were in my room, by my bed. That they chloroformed us. The guard who was either asleep or in on it was fired. I filed a police report..

But since none of my cards or passport was stolen, I decided to continue on my trip to Ethiopia. I went to work, told my company security about the event, got some work done and head to the airport. In my comfortable hotel room in Addis, my heart finally slowed down, I threw up, and fell asleep at 9pm.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


My Regional Data Coordinator in the West Nile (borders South Sudan) of Uganda got caught in an ambush in one of our districts while trying to collect data for our project.  She saw two people die.
Friday, September 26, 2014

My study

You've been privy to the thoughts inside my little oval head.  You've let me talk about sleeping next to hippos and drowsing in kayaks.  But what do I actually do?  Why did I leave a job, city, boyfriend, and move to Uganda? 

Because this is the coolest shit in the whole world.  Malaria, HIV, Ebola:  Infectious diseases make me hot and feverish.  I love having a forseeable impact.  The strongest core value that I bear is that health is not a privilege but a right.  But also, I find the science incredibly sexy.

I moved to Kampala to work on Malaria.  I am doing a randomized control trial with 150 facilities in 17 districts spread all over Uganda.  The trial is 3-tiered mentorship project with the ultimate goal to increase testing for malaria and decrease non-adherence to test results.

In other words, when a patient comes in with a fever, test that patient for malaria before just prescribing anti-malarials.  If the test comes back negative for malaria, believe the test and do not continue to prescribe the patient anti-malarials.  Overtreatment of anti-malarials has 3 main negative effects: 1) The actual cause of sickness is not addressed and you are sending a patient home who is still stick, 2) You are wasting money and precious antimalarial drugs, 3) abuse of anti-malarials can lead to drug resistance, and guess what people, we don’t have another drug on the backburner.  Scary stuff.

 I helped train the 9 master trainers recommended from the ministry to train the 70 clinical mentors from the 17 districts to mentor the 300 mentees (clinicians) in their district facilities.  My first part of the job was heavily field based.  Traveling to clinics, teaching people how to collect the data and training the mentors.  The project officially rolled-out last month.  Now my main job is to watch the data roll in and analyze it so we can troubleshoot.  I've become a wiz at excel.  Pivot tables are my slaves.

The study will continue for a year at which point we’ll write up the paper and recommend a national scale up of the mentorship project to the Ugandan Ministry of Health. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

How to make Cat Litter

A few entries ago I explained my trial taking my cat on the 48 hour trip from Washington, DC to Uganda.  It was rough.  And I still think she a little bit hates me.  She left a decapitated mouse on my rug yesterday.  It was very The Godfather.

We have our problems but we're working through them.  But I can't find her cat litter.  Cats are all outdoor cats.  So I had to learn how to make my own.  Let me share my knowledge.

Step 1)  

Shred a bunch of newspaper

2) Fill the bucket with warm water and dish soap.  Squish it all around.

3) Dump out the warm water, fill it back up with more warm water and baking soda. Squish it all around.  

4) See video for Step 4.