Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Coffee Shop Experience

Last weekend a bunch of us got together to hang out and celebrate birthdays in Mbarara, one of Uganda's 2nd tier cities. I'd say on any given day you could ask 6 Ugandans which city is the 2nd largest city in the country and they'll name 6 different cities. Mbarara would be one of those. It's a central meeting ground for those of us in the South West to get together, run through the ever popular Peace Corps rumor mill, play poker using bottle caps instead of money, drink, eat Muzungu food, chocolate, etc and just share our PC stories. After a day of socializing I decided to try the Mbarara Coffee Shop, located on the main strip. I'd never been but the tought of a coffee shop intrigued me enough to check it out. In a country who exports so much coffee, you might think there would be more of these and that they could sell it cheaper than you could get a $3 cup at Starbucks, but no. Same addictive stimulant, same high price, reflective of the income levels here that is. I arrived at around 8:30pm with 2 pieces of literature in hand. The May eddition of Runners World and a book called Men & AIDS. The inside of the coffee shop was painted the usual coffee shop colors, various shades of brown and tan to give that perfect, bland, earthy tone to everything. It didn't look so much like a coffeeshop as it did the old snack counter at the old Boys Club with simple shelves which held the various soft drinks and some coffee cups. On top of the shelves were 3 trophies which I could only figure were for the game of Cricket. Over the speakers played Whitney Houston's 'I Will Always Love You' as I placed my order for 'African Coffee' rather than 'Regular Coffee'. I was in a special mood and regular just wouldn’t suffice. African coffee, it seems, consists of milk and coffee already mixed and prepared with sugar on the side. As I was ordering the waitress was enjoying that i knew some of the local language and she attempted, though in vain, to teach me some additional phrases. "Sit and I will bring it," she said in Runyankore. "Anything to eat?" and then smiling and repeating it in English. Ugandan's do funny things as far as decorating a place it seems. They even do this in their houses. The put up any picture just for the sake of having a picture on the wall. Now granted, there were a couple of African masks hanging along with a couple of African paintings too, that I would expect. But then there's always an assortment of beer ads, Fresca and Coke ads, along with politicians, especially ‘Vote for Museveni’ posters adorning the walls as well. There’s a book I read my freshman year called Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. Moon, a college English teacher, travels around the circumference of the USA on small highways in a mini van, visiting people and cafes along the way. He always rates the cafes by the number of calendars on the wall with the elite being the 7 calendar café. The holy grail of cafes if you will. I think every restaurant in Uganda could qualify because they each seem to have at least 7 calendars and it doesn’t matter which year either. A man could also make a killing selling levels here as the decorations looked similar to what you might find in a Dr Seuss book as everything hung just crooked enough to give you that nails-on-the-chalkboard feeling if you’re OCD like me. And I mean everything is crooked. The African masks, paintings, calendars, the electrical box, lampshades, posters, wires are criss-crossing all over the place. And in these 6 crooked lampshades was a different light bulb in every one. There was an energy saver fluorescent bulb hanging above a group of 4 Ugandans in what would have appeared to be a heated discussion of important political ramifications, but what was in all likelihood a friendly chat about who will win the World Cup. Ugandan’s love to debate, and it’s clear because you see it often. And of these different bulbs there was also the flickering of the lights as the generator they were being powered by was having surges every 15 seconds or so. There was a home-made sign that read ‘Strictly No Smoking’ right next to a green sign that said ‘Exit’ in English and Arabic. It’s 8:50 now and a few straddlers are coming in for supper. They take supper here around 9pm. Just a cultural thing I guess. Next comes “Listen to Your Heart” by DHT followed by “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias. I sat, sipping my coffee, reading my book, in part listening to the trucks and busses outside, and in part wishing to be back in the states in NY or Chicago doing the exact same thing. And the thought crosses my mind, “Why am I a just visitor in this country and not a permanent resident? What matter of chance decided that and what an amazing fine line between the two?” Too deep for a Friday night, so I finished my cup, closed up my book and headed back to the hotel.


At 17 June, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like you're well. I know what you mean about the Ugandan decorating technique, although it's not just "Ugandan." It's like that in many of the African restaurants I have visited here. Your question about why you are a visitor vs permanent resident is a common one I have read about in a couple of books written by returned PC volunteers - not only asked by them, but asked to them. Why are you white and I'm black; why are you rich and I'm poor; why are you healthy and I'm sick - who decided that and why? When you actually sit down and think about these things it does get very deep.
I hope you are settling in and that your down moments are few and far between.


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