Posted by: Matthew | November 16, 2007

My Interview with Katrina Lao Shaffner (You have to read this one!)

This is my interview with Katrina Lao Shaffner. Her answers are so cool. Read them and see. Thanks for letting me interview you, Katrina! Now I want to come and visit! You can check out her blog for more.


I know you live in East Africa. Can you tell me more about where you live? What is it like there?
My husband (Paul) and I live about 18 kilometers away from Iringa, Tanzania. Paul works for an American university’s study abroad program, and we live in a beautiful campus beside a river. Our campus is composed of four brick houses, an office building, a big classroom, a kitchen, a dining room, and about 20 grass huts we call bandas. When the students are here, they sleep in camping tents inside the bandas for three months straight and use outhouses (we call them “long drops”). Thankfully, we have a flushing toilet in our house. The long drops get stinky!

It is a very peaceful place to live. Even though we aren’t too far away from town, where we live feels like the middle of nowhere. When we keep our windows open at night, we fall asleep to the sound of the river just outside our house. We wake up every morning to the sound of birds singing. I grew up in a city and used to fall asleep and wake up to the sound of sirens and, at one point, a car wash, so this is pretty cool for me.



How hot does it get where you live in the summer?
Since we live south of the equator, our seasons are the opposite of seasons in North America. We also live at the same altitude as Denver (over 5000 feet above sea level), so we have incredibly pleasant weather. “Summer” (June, July, August) is the coldest season for us, which means it is nice and cool during the day and downright cold at night (in the 40s). I would say that the typical temperature during any given day would be somewhere between 70 – 85 degrees, year round. Can’t beat that, huh? People are always surprised to hear this because when most people think of Africa, they think “HOT!”

I know that you have a really cool house. Can you tell me more about it?
We live in a brick house with a grass-thatched roof. The house actually belongs to one of our professors from college, who is the director of the program here. He only lives here for a few months every year, and he offered to let us live in his beautiful house as a “wedding present.” The house was built around two giant boulders, so we have one boulder in the middle of the main room in the house (which contains the kitchen and living room), and another protruding from a wall. People always want to climb the big rocks when they visit. We are currently building a deck out back to take advantage of the beautiful weather and our lovely view of a waterfall.

If you were to climb to the top of the waterfall outside your house, and somehow slip down into the water, where would it take you?
That is a great question! First of all, I think I would prefer to ride down the waterfall during the wet season (even though the currents would be really, really strong) because during the dry season, the river dries up a bit and it is impossible to float down the river without hitting your bottom on the many big rocks underwater. Riding down the river would take you past our campus, past another campsite downstream, and eventually under a bridge just outside the escarpment climbing into Iringa. You would pass naked children splashing in the water, women doing their laundry, lots and lots of cows drinking water, and (most exciting of all), a hippo and even some crocodiles further downstream! Eventually, you’ll end up at a village called Usolanga (about 50 kilometers away), where you’ll find yourself floating into an even BIGGER river that will take you through a game park (Lions! Zebras! Giraffes!). Ultimately, if you survive, you’ll end up in the Indian Ocean, very wet and exhausted.

How fun is it to take a zip line to work?
It is GREAT fun, although I have to admit that showing the zip line to visitors helps maintain the excitement since I’m on it daily. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I have to stand back and try to see parts of my life objectively to realize once again how fun it really is, since it is easy to get used to things and take them for granted.

The zip line is unequivocally fun, though. The people who own the campus (the same people who hired me to tutor their daughter) live across the river and up a hill from where we live, so every day I have to cross the zip line and hike up the hill in order to get to work. There are actually two zip lines and two sets of platforms to access the zip lines, designed so that you can ride the swing “downhill” both ways. It can get quite fast, especially when you are carrying a heavy load (like all our laundry in a bed sheet, Santa-style). Once, when I was swinging, I noticed bubbles in the water under me. It was the hippo! Paul and I sat on one of the platforms and watched the water for a while, but had to give up because hippos can hold their breath under water for a LONG time and I was late for class. Another time, I dropped a book in the river while crossing. Paul jokes that if we have a baby while we are here, I’m not allowed to carry the baby across the river in case I drop him/her!

What is it like to be a home school tutor?
Tutoring is a great challenge, since I have to teach EVERY subject. This is especially challenging because my student is in eleventh grade and is learning things that I don’t remember learning or am not particularly good at (such as chemistry!) and I spend lots of time trying to read ahead so I can learn things before I have to teach them. It is making me wish I had paid more attention when I was in high school, that’s for sure! I also don’t have the best resources for some of the subjects I am teaching, so I have to write exams and make up projects as I go along. Tutoring is very rewarding because I get to spend lots of time with one student and get to teach in creative ways that specifically work for her. It is also really fun because we get to do things like have school by the river (we did this every Wednesday last year) and go on interesting fieldtrips. For our last fieldtrip, we visited a hydroelectric dam and got to go waaaay underground to see how the force of water is used to generate electricity.

I am learning a lot! We are studying US History right now and using a very fun textbook with lots of interesting stories and facts. (Did you know that Teddy Roosevelt’s son used to drop snowballs on the White House staff?) People say that the best way to learn something is to teach, and I think that has been definitely true for me.

Have you seen a lot of wild animals in Africa?
Yes! As a matter of fact, we JUST went on safari last week because one of our friends from America was visiting. We got to see TWELVE lions enjoying a buffalo kill. Paul was driving and he drove VERY close to the lions, which made me a tiny bit nervous with my window down. We also got to see our first leopard a couple of weeks ago when we went to a park in Malawi. We’ve seen buffalo, giraffe, zebras, eland, warthogs (my favorite), elephants… the list goes on and on! It is amazing to get to see animals in the wild because you get to watch the animals interact with one another.

Last year, we saw 15 snakes (cobras, a puff adder, vine snakes, and lots of pythons) in nine months.

My student’s dad is a wildlife conservationist and this past year he and his family rehabilitated an injured falcon and found a new home for a wild pangolin. He also captured four pythons to relocate in the wild. He keeps the pythons in pillowcases to transport them, but often forgets to tell us when there is a python around and I have accidentally stepped on a pillow-cased python many times! (Now the sight of an empty pillowcase makes me a little jumpy.) Besides the hippo, we also have bushbuck, duikers, vervet monkeys, civet cats, genet cats, and mongooses where we live.

I saw on your blog that you have a chameleon. Can you tell me about him?
My student and her sister caught a chameleon last year and named him Leon. He was really fun to watch because we could see him change colors right in front of our eyes. We also loved to catch flies to feed to him-his tongue was LONG and QUICK! Sometimes I would let him perch on my hand while I walked around the house to look for flies. He’d see the fly (his eyes were on either side of his head and could focus two directions at a time) and catch it with his tongue in the blink of an eye. He lived between the glass and screen on one of the windows, hiding amongst the branches and leaves the girls stuck in there for him. We eventually let him go to rejoin his family in the wild, but he was a great pet while we had him!

Where are you from originally?
I was born in the Philippines, but moved to Taiwan (see if you can find it on a map!) when I had just turned three. My dad is Chinese and my mom is Filipino. I moved to New York for college when I was 18. When people ask where I am from (and don’t include the word “originally”), my answer depends on what I think the person wants to know. For example, when I visited other states during college, I knew that most people just wanted to know what state I lived in. When people here ask me, they want to know whether I am a visiting tourist or a resident in the country. When people ask me in Asia, they want to know if I’m a local.

People in Asia often mistake me for a local regardless of what country I am in because I have a mix of Filipino and Chinese features. (And once, someone in America mistook me for a Native American.) I consider all the countries I’ve mentioned “home.”

Do you miss your friends and family from home?
I miss my friends and family very much, although I definitely believe that all the moving and traveling I’ve done has simply enlarged my “family.” I have also realized how small this world really is! In the year and a half we’ve been in Tanzania, lots of our friends have come to visit and both our immediate families will be coming this year, too! The only sad thing about having so many friends around the world is that no matter where you live, there are always friends and family to miss.
What are you afraid of?

I am embarrassed to admit this but I have very, very irrational fears. I am terrified of rodents of all kinds (it doesn’t help that mice have decided to invade our house!), even though I am not afraid of snakes or spiders, both of which can be much more dangerous.

My strangest fear that only my good friends know about is my fear of giants and giant things. On the side of the road to the airport in Manila, there used to be giant models of spice bottles and soy sauce bottles (like 3D billboards). We would always head to the airport at dawn, when the light was eerie, and I would get this paranoia that a giant was going to come find his soy sauce bottle. Then I had dreams about giants trying to get me. So, to this day, whenever I see a billboard of a big face or a model of a giant anything, I get the creeps and try to hide.

What is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you?
When I was in college, I ran the PowerPoint projector for chapels and assemblies. During the Lenten season, a group of students arranged some very somber, very serious religious services and asked me to do PowerPoint. The PowerPoint program on my computer allowed me to switch between multiple “screens” and thus do things on my computer without having it projected. Or so I thought. During the beginning of one of these services, I got an e-mail from my boyfriend (now my husband) and sneakily started to read it while the service was starting. While reading, I accidentally hit a button that caused the e-mail to disappear. Confused, I stared at my computer and hit random buttons for a good thirty seconds before looking up and realizing that the very private e-mail was being projected OVER TWENTY FEET TALL, on the screen for every one to see. I didn’t look anyone in the eye for the rest of the evening.

What is the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you?
When I was in fifth grade, I was riding my bike home from my friend’s house and suddenly realized that someone was following me. I started getting scared when he followed me off the main road, towards my house. The teenage boy rode up next to me, pulled out a BB gun, and started shooting at me. Even though it was just a BB gun, it really HURT because he was shooting at such close range. He rode away, and instead of continuing home (which is what I should’ve done), I turned around to head towards a more brightly lit road. Soon I looked back and saw that the guy had started following me again and was getting closer and closer. This is when I stopped crying enough to start screaming bloody murder and the screaming finally scared him away. I frantically rode towards a payphone, where a nice lady gave me change to call my dad. Later, I found out that the same thing had happened to another little girl in my neighborhood. I stopped riding my bike in the dark for a few years after that experience.

What is the worst thing you ever did as a kid?
I used to save up my farts so I could fart on my brother. But don’t worry-he always got me back!

What is the funniest word you have ever heard?
Ouagadougou (capital of Burkina Faso)

What is the most disturbing thing you have ever seen?
My little brother’s uni-brow.

No, just kidding. When I was a sophomore in high school, we had a giant earthquake in Taiwan. I had to hide under my desk and things were falling off shelves and the windows were shaking. Our neighborhood was relatively unaffected, but my dad took me to the earthquake epicenter a couple of weeks later. Apartment buildings twenty floors and higher looked like crushed tin cans. Other rows of buildings had fallen over each other like dominos. We could smell formaldehyde as we walked down the street. The most disturbing part, though, was what we saw when we peered into the remains of the first and second floors of brand new apartment buildings that were destroyed: the main concrete support columns were filled with garbage-soda bottles, old plastic containers, etc. It turns out that the contractors and architects of these brand new buildings had dishonestly scrimped on building supplies and used rubbish to fill in the supports! The movement of the earthquake stripped the outside of the supports and revealed the garbage for all to see. Later, I found out that these crooked architects and contractors had to flee the country for their lives because so many people who lost family members due to the collapse of the buildings were after them. I couldn’t believe that the builders’ greediness caused so many lives to be lost. It was a sobering example of the truism “beware your sins will find you out.”

If you are a vegetarian, please don’t answer this…otherwise…what is your favorite type of meat?
I love barbecue ribs! But I also love fresh crabmeat. And lobster meat. And… (Once, I decided to become a vegetarian, but the next day was Thanksgiving. I haven’t tried again since, although we mostly eat vegetarian here because we don’t have a refrigerator or freezer!)



  1. That is one of the coolest houses I’ve seen!

  2. Oh, wow! There’s so much in this interview! Mostly, I’m amazed that someone who rides a zip line to work can feel intimidated by a giant bottle of soy sauce.

    But man.. boulders inside a house! Chameleons! Getting shot at by a bully! Saving farts! Amazing stuff.

    I feel utterly boring compared to Katrina, but it was totally worth it. Thanks to both of you!

  3. Very interesting interview!!! =)

  4. Wow. I feel reaaaalllly boring! What a fabulous interview with an absolutely fascinating person! Great job!

  5. From now on, when people ask what kind of doctor I want to be, I’m going to say, “The kind that rides a zip line to work.

  6. Like Stefanie in the comments above my life feels quite boring in comparison to hers. Excellent interview!

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