My coach holds a team meeting at the beginning of each season. In this meeting, he hands out a document aptly titled: “Swimming 101”. A smile usually shoots across veterans’ faces as the document is handed out. The first years remain intrigued, but ultimately confused. I remember thinking in my first year with the Dal Tigers, “I’ve been swimming for a decade, why the hell would I need a ‘Swimming 101’ document?” Little did I know that “Swimming 101” would serve as one of the most influential guides throughout my athletic and academic career at Dal. In fact, as time passed, I realized that my success at Dal depended on striving towards the ideals set out in “Swimming 101” – once again, both in and out of the pool.
“Swimming 101” contains a list of rules, expectations, and general guiding principles that outline everything a varsity swimmer should strive to be. Some expectations are technical in nature: “Tiger Walls: 8m streamline underwater off each wall”. Others are nitpicky: “Don’t drag your equipment bag on the pool deck”. And some are downright impossible: “Butterfly: breathe every second stroke”.
For me, the most important rule in “Swimming 101” is: “Always finish a set with the best technique”. Like other rules, the latter has served me quite well as an athlete. When you are in the last 15 metres of a 200m Breaststroke race, the last thing that you want is for your technique to fall apart anymore that it already has. However, this rule has also been quite influential out of the water. Come exam time when everybody is tired of school and feels burnt out (myself included), I always remind myself to finish the semester with the “best technique” I possibly can. In the context of academics, good technique might constitute making a detailed study plan instead of cramming the night before or spending Saturday night editing an essay instead of making one last push to the Ale House for wings and beer.
As I write this entry, the end of my adventure in Uganda – my metaphorical swimming set – quickly approaches. In three weeks’ time I will be back on Canadian soil, restarting the long process of adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings – cognitive negotiation and renegotiation. And like any tough practice, I need to finish my time here with the best technique I can. The only problem is that good technique is hard to maintain when you are tired. Really hard.
I was in a pretty good ‘groove’ before going to Rwanda: wake up at 7:31am, go to work, eat a traditional Ugandan meal for lunch (rice, peas/beans, Irish potatoes, cabbage, and chapatti), go to swim practice, come home, study, and go to bed. Before Rwanda I saw this routine as a ‘groove’ – something that kept me content and gave me a sense of purpose. Heck, for the first month or so my routine was the only thing that kept me from completely cracking. Conversely, after taking some time away from day-to-day life in Kampala (namely, my 6 day excursion to Rwanda) I began to realize that my daily routine was more of a rut. Sure, my work here has been endlessly interesting. But the days in the office are long and even swimming has started to become a bit of a chore.
I think that my adventures in Rwanda helped me realize just how mundane things in Kampala had become over the past month or two. In fact, on the plane ride back to Kampala, I found myself not looking forward to my return to work the next day. I had just spent the past 6 days on a mini-summer vacation and was certainly not ready to re-enter the crazy world of the NGO. That is not to say that I did not miss my co-workers, fellow swimmers, and friends in Kampala terribly. Rather, the idea of sitting in an office from 8:30-5:00 had lost a great deal of appeal since my arrival in early May.
The moral of the story is that a routine can easily turn into a rut no matter where one lives… I don’t think I fully realized that before coming here. A lot of people think that “Africa” is an exciting place – a place where even the least-adventurous person could never get bored. After spending a couple of months here I have realized that reality does not align very closely with people’s expectations of “Africa”. Sure, Uganda is an exciting place. It is, bar none, the most beautiful country in the world. Most people are welcoming, friendly, and vibrant and you would probably need two or three lifetimes to fully explore all that Uganda has to offer.
That said, people here are not immune from the mundane routines that peeve North Americans. That is: Ugandans get stressed with day-to-day life too. They get bored, frustrated, depressed, and annoyed just the same as any Canadian would after spending all day at the office. I know that such an idea might seem obvious to most of you, but you would be surprised just how novel it is for some. From my limited observations, I have noticed that Canadians and Ugandans actually share a number or stressors. For instance, from what I have seen, many (not all) middle-class Ugandans spend far more time in the office than they should. Like a typical overworked middle-class Canadian, overworked Ugandans take work home with them, do not take lunch breaks, and spend countless weekends in the office.
The work culture in Uganda initially surprised me. After all, many Westerners view Africans as lazy or incapable of completing an honest day’s work without a white voluntourist at their side. Irresponsible allocations of foreign aid and inaccurate representations of the African continent in the media only compound the image of the “lazy African”. Interestingly enough, the Africans I have come in contact with over the past couple of months have been anything but lazy. In fact, my co-workers and friends are some of the hardest working people I know. In a similar vein, it should come as no surprise that some co-workers and friends also find themselves in a rut from time to time. Fortunately, the steadfast dedication that my colleagues have for their work usually outweighs most of the stressors that accompany a life in front of a computer screen.
Overworked Canadians and Ugandans alike are far more resilient than I will ever be. Heck, they should all be given the Victoria Cross. Okay, fine, maybe just the Order of Canada. Even still, if I have learned one tangible thing in Uganda, it is that I do not want to spend the rest of my life sitting in front of a computer screen. Funny how I had to leave North America for that epiphany to materialize, eh? Granted, structural forces might inhibit me from actualizing my epiphany – that said, I will try my best to seek out work that does not confine me to a cubicle.
In every long and difficult swim practice I usually hit a wall… both literally and physically. Literally: a bulkhead… several times. In physical terms, that wall represents a point in the practice where my body runs out of gas. A couple of hours have passed and my glycogen stores are low. I am hungry, tired, and want to return to the warmth and safety of my bed. The nice thing about hitting a wall is that it gives me options. Option 1: Give up. Ignore the prescribed heart rate or energy system, switch over to an easier stroke, miss the pace time, move to a slower lane, and let my technique go to shit. Option 2: “Swimming 101”. Push through, keep my heart rate higher than what it should be, stick with the stroke I chose at the beginning of the set, go on a faster pace time, swim with a purpose, and stay on my technique.
To be frank, I have hit a wall in Uganda. I am tired and quickly running out of gas. Thankfully, I have options. I always go with Option 2 at swim practice and there is no reason why I should not go with it here in Uganda. Option 1 would be pretty easy: check out, write off the next three weeks, complain about the long work days and repetitive food, and let my rut get the best of me. Option 2 is slightly more difficult. Heck, anything that requires one to employ perfect technique at the end of a long set often is trying – but exponentially more rewarding. Option 2 requires me to realize that I have been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, continue to make friends and forge relationships, learn new things, smile, and be the best intern that I can be at FRA.
Today is a good example of how I have employed good technique to get out of my rut. I tried something completely out of my comfort zone and went to a spinning class with Rachel and Shelby this morning. As I stood on a stationary bike, pedaling backwards with free weights in my hands, lights flashing, house music playing, and a guy named Moses yelling at me to pedal faster, I knew that my technique was looking solid… both on the bike and in metaphorical terms.
After spinning I decided to make plans with a co-worker who I usually do not spend much time with out of the office. I will refer to him as James for the purposes of this entry. James is a very talented musician and has been asking me to visit his music studio for some time. My weekends have been pretty busy lately, but today was wide open so I thought, “why not?” My afternoon at the recording studio was refreshing and fascinating. I have always loved music and play a bit of piano from time to time in Canada. I even have a keyboard in my room in Halifax that usually serves as a gathering spot for me and my roommates on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Needless to say, music is something that has been missing in my life since early May. Thus, an afternoon in a recording studio was quite therapeutic.
James and I were joined at the studio by a song writer, a music producer, a few technicians, and a colleague from another NGO. The afternoon was characterized by conversation and, of course, making music. In fact, the producer was even nice enough to let me play the piano track on a song he was working on. I assume he erased the sound file immediately after I left, but it was a nice gesture either way. As it happens, the resident song writer and producer at the studio have written and recorded hundreds of songs – most of which they do not get credit for. Many of the songs they write are for big name musicians in East Africa and as a result their talent often goes unappreciated.
After leaving the studio, I once again felt happy that I opted for good technique over Option 1.
The end of a hard swim practice is always painful. I often am convinced that I am about to die in the last 25 metres of some sets. At the end of one particularly hard set I saw my dead great-grandmother. I shit you not. It was on December 23rd, 2012 and I was about to cross over to the other side. The end of a long adventure abroad can also be difficult. Not “I can see the light” difficult, but you get the idea. Fortunately, I think I have enough practice under my belt to hold my technique together for the next couple of weeks.
Well, you made it through another entry.