Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bike and Road Rash Review

Hey All,

In case you don't know, I keep a second blog, mostly for me to keep track of running and biking anecdotes for myself. I posted a review of my first real ride on my new Specialized Comp 29, and described how the bike and I really made the inaugural ride special and memorable. Check it out if you like.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Strange Days, continued.

[Editor's Note: This is another attempt to bring the events of the last three or so weeks together. Sorry it's so disjointed, but then, so am I.]

Well, I unintentionally left us all hanging from the cliff of a dozen or so workers who were inappropriately gruntled. When I heard from Andrea that Irene and Senora were on the way, I looked once again at our guard, happily grinning at everyone like a dog wagging its tail and begging the intruder to throw a stick; then I went inside the house and locked the door.

Now I wasn't really convinced it was necessary, but thought it best to not take chances, since some threats against the house had been announced. I wasn't the only one to be a little nervous, as Claudine, our housekeeper/cook, and Consolee, Zoe's nanny, were also not leaving the house even though they were really finished for the day. So I played with Zoe while keeping one eye out the window. Amazing how she can pick up on this stress in the situation. Sensitive kid.

So in about 20 minutes, Irene and Samuel were in the driveway with a PSI car and a driver, favorably increasing the numbers of people here for me. Not long after, Senora showed up. I watched a little with Zoe at my side now and then, and could discern a lot of tense Kinyarwandan dialogue, with various workers politely taking turns to shout at Irene or Senora. Irene was a true champion, calmly listening and not raising her voice, but also not saying much. Senora was another story: frequently shouting, poking her finger at the chests of the shoutees. This went on for a little over two hours, none in French or English. So unfortunately when Andrea arrived with a driver, she was not able to help figure things out either.

When all the parties started winding down and the men all moved out the front gate, Irene and Senora stayed for a few minutes talking. I shouted down from the front door that they should come in and sit, as it was already dark outside (here on the equator it's usually dark by about 6:30). Irene looked up, clearly having forgotten that there was anybody inside the house at all, and said she would be up in a few minutes.

So Zoe and I ate leftovers on the couch near the door and waited. When Irene came in, she sat down, looking exhausted but smiling. She said the workers were all very upset because they had not been paid in over a month, but that we had renewed promises from Senora to do right by them and to get the work finished. Apparently they left with the understanding that taking the house apart will not increase their likelihood of a fat paycheck, and that Andrea's work would try to do everything possible to make sure they were paid, but that the responsibility was really with Senora. When Irene left, she smiled again and reassured us that she thought there was not reason to worry and it would all work out, with the work completed next Thursday.

We heard the next day that Senora had stayed in the street before our gate, arguing with the workers, for about two hours before she called the police and tried to have them (especially the cobblestone mason working on the driveway) arrested. Apparently labor disputes do fall under the purview of the police more than the courts here, and many problems are solved with a little jail time.

We felt a little relief the next Monday when people showed up to work like business as usual and actually had a pretty productive day. As it turns out, this was a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough. We should have expected nothing so complex could be solved so simply.

[Next chapter: Labor Dispute II: Over the Fence!]

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Eleven Angry Men, or Labor Pains

[Editor's Note: This is the second of a string of posts on how things have been for us over the past few weeks. This is actually a draft written August 25th.]

Well, we've developed a bit of a tradition on Friday nights. We start the evening by pouring a cocktail and exhaling slowly before remarking that this has got to be one of the most stressful weeks we've had here, and in a long time in general. Then we thank our lucky stars that it should be relatively smooth sailing from here out. Then we tend to fall asleep exhausted just after finishing the dishes. This past Friday was actually quite a bit worse.

I had a rather long day of running errands all over town (thank God I can complain of this, rather than relying on finding someone to drive me). At about 4:30, I approached our gate and honked the horn for our day guard, Francois, to open it. While waiting I noticed several men sitting on the side of our road, but didn't think much of it in our busy neighborhood. I pulled up the driveway, parked, locked up the car, opened the door and stepped out. Immediately I felt crowded as several angry (but controlled) men were so close that I had to say, "excuse," to shut the car door. One of them approached, smiling, and demanded that I listen to their complaints. He said they were all their to be paid. He told me that Senora had told them the day before that they could come for their back pay at 4:00 this afternoon at the house. After they arrived and didn't find her here, they called her, and she told them that Andrea's work had not paid her, and so they would not receive any pay until then; and that furthermore, they hadn't finished the work and so would be lucky to get any pay. Only two of the eleven spoke any English, and so several side conversations were constantly underway, with a brief translation for my benefit. Apparently, they felt that since Senora hadn't paid them, that I should. I called Andrea at work to tell her that we had an angry group of workers in our driveway, and she told Irene (the head of logistics), who told us in return to just tell them to find Senora and get off our property.

I went inside to put away my bag, and said hello to Zoe, before locking the door and returning outside. On the way out I noticed Francois standing by the gate with a stupid smile on his face, waiting to let the next angry mob in whenever they came along. I later determined that he could no longer be called a guard but a doorman.

When I told the guys that Andrea's work pays Senora and not us, this did not solve anything. They insisted that they had been working with the promise of pay for several weeks, and that they all had debts of their own to pay. Several of them angrily asserted that if they were turned away without satisfaction, that they would have no choice but to take the work they had completed with them when they left. For example the pave (French for cobblestone) man would just take the driveway with him. The one who had installed the master bath shower would leave with the shower. And so on. I didn't like where this was heading.

I called Andrea back and told her of this, and that I really did have an angry crowd. I said that if Irene thought that someone should put them in their place that she should come do it her damn self, as they're already making open threats against our house. And surprisingly, Irene told Andrea she was sending Samuel, the head of the guards to clear them out.

The men started insisting that I demand an immediate audience with Senora and Irene. I told them that I had no control over either woman, and that I really wished almost every day that I could get Senora to show up when she promised she would. I said I could no more conjure her up than I could demand an immediate audience with Bill Clinton. Well, eventually the rhetoric continued heating up and I called Andrea (and Irene) back, and was surprised. Andrea had convinced Senora to come, and that she and Irene would be here soon as well.

Sorry, but this is all the further I got. I've decided to include this as is to illustrate how things looked to us at the time. More to follow on the subject.

Here We Go Again.

[Editor's Note: This post is incomplete and will be continued. It's been so long since the last posting, that I decided it's better to get it out there in pieces than wait for the complete package. Besides, the situation with our house changes so much every day that I never know how to summarize recent events.]

Dear Everyone,

Sorry it's been so long. I know the whole point of this is to stay in touch, but I have my reasons for the delay. No, really.

Starting with the last week. We had an awesome trip to Gisenyi, in the northwest corner of the country. It's right on the shores of Lake Kivu, which is not only enormous ("the sixth largest lake in Africa," according to the hotel website), but quite beautiful, as it's in an area that is largely composed of volcanoes, again at 4800 feet elevation. Looking around reminds me alternately of photos of Alpine lakes in Austria and of photos of Hawaii. I hope someday to tell you if it looks like either of the places but in the meantime those of you who have spent time at either can look at photos of Lake Kivu and tell me if the inverse is true.

Incidentally, the first photo was from our hotel room. The second was lunch at a hotel just across the border in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. A crazy place that was literally under siege in a civil war less than a year ago. The last was at dinner at a place called Paradis Malahide, a beautiful rustic inn.

The lake is cool but swimmable and clear and lovely. The sand on the shore is volcanic and contains little porous black pebbles and shimmery soft chips of mica or some soft glassy mineral that shimmers in the sun. Zoe loved stirring up the sand in the shallow water to make sparkles. She did not love swimming in the lake or the pool, unfortunately. She's determined recently that she doesn't like swimming or getting her head wet. We think it's because the water is so cold at all the pools we've seen here. None are heated and the weather here is very mild. We got her a neoprene short wetsuit as her swimsuit, but it's not really enough I guess.

More later. Following this post will be the beginnings of a post started several weeks ago to try to update on the politics of our house.