Saturday, January 21, 2017

An Appalachian Beach Party

The great trek to Vanuatu has begun - and for my send-off I got what I'm pretty sure is the best themed party I've ever had.  Only two guests - Franklin, WV is a pretty sparsely populated town.  But we all wore our best tropical garb, and there was a sand box complete with shells, ukulele and guitar music, crafts (everyone decorated fish), a platter of papaya, mango, star fruit, pineapple, kiwis, and coconut, and a hilarious, competitive couple rounds of Catchphrase.  Thanks to Mom, Dad, Christy and Kevin for the great going away party!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

January 14- "Bali Hai, It calls you..."

When I was a Sophmore at Principia High School, a giant world map that filled up an entire wall was donated to the school.  It was put up in my history classroom, and the desk where I usually sat was right next to it - next to the South Pacific, to be exact.  I was fascinated by the little countries I had never heard of, and whenever I finished a test early I'd spend the rest of the time writing down the names of islands, to research later.  Tuvalu was the country that most attracted my interest, and when we were asked in English class to give a persuasive speech about an issue of our choosing I spoke about our responsibility to do something about climate change to prevent the entire nation of Tuvalu from sinking into the sea.  As I recall, my speech was pretty different from the others in my class - which tended to be about things like the need for changes to the school dress code (an explosive topic at Principia in my day).

My interest in the Pacific Islands has been in the back of my mind ever since.  In college, as a Global Perspectives major, I was required to learn all the countries and capitals on the world map - including the South Pacific.  And from time to time I would go online and look for jobs on island countries.  But other parts of the world pulled at me too, and as this blog's avid readership will recall I got a fantastic job after college working for the Christian Science Church - complete with a work-trip to the Republic of Congo, DRC, and Cameroon!  I'd never been anywhere in Africa before, and the brief trip really piqued my interest.  A couple years later, I applied for the Peace Corps - my life-long dream.  For most of my life I thought the ability to join the Peace Corps was one of the main selling points for getting a college degree.  And so it was off to Benin, West Africa, to work as an Environmental Action volunteer - a wonderful* experience!   At that time you couldn't choose where you were sent or apply to specific jobs in the Peace Corps, but if I had been able to choose I would have asked for exactly what I got - a job focused on agriculture in French-Speaking Africa.

While in Benin, I got to know a former Peace Corps volunteer who was working for an NGO one town over from where I was posted.  She had served in Benin for two years, followed by another two years in the Pacific island country of Tonga . As I and the other peace corps volunteers in our area escaped the heat and dust of the "Chaleur" - the hot season - in her house (which had ceiling fans and a fridge with cold water) she would show us dazzling photos of tropical islands, ocean, beaches...once again, I started trying to think of ways to get to the South Pacific.

My Peace Corps service was followed by a few years in which I  went to Sitka, Alaska to join a Katy Perry ukulele tribute band, sea kayak with sea otters and whales, and play Sarah Palin as a bar tender in the town melodrama, then flew back to the lower '48 where I become a grad student with such exciting hobbies as "library hopping" (studying in different libraries!!!), entering my first ever swing dance competition (where I come in roughly third to last), and exploring the wonderful world of online (and offline)  dating.  In the middle of this I zipped off to Kenya for a summer, where I interviewed farmers, petted a live cheetah, got gifted a live chicken (which I proceeded to learn how to cook), and got a child named after me.  At the end of all this, I was lent a cap, gown, and hood and successfully  obtained a "Congratulations!" certificate from Cornell University for almost completing my Master's degree**.

At the end of all this, the logical question was "what next?"  In my life  this always seems to be the question- the longest I've spent living in one house since college has been my two years in Peace Corps Benin.  And while fully aware that working for free is a habit I will really have to kick some time soon, I couldn't help browsing the Peace Corps Response listings to see if there were any opportunities in the Pacific.  Peace Corps Response positions are short (3 months-1 year) Peace Corps assignments for former volunteers or experienced professionals.  Lo and behold, there was one - "Climate Change Adaptation Trainer" in Vanuatu!  I sent of an application one evening after work, not really expecting to be offered the position.  Certainly not expecting to hear back soon - applying to Peace Corps last time was a grueling, almost year-long process.  But within two and a half weeks I was interviewed, references were called, and I was offered the position!  For some reason I fail to understand, they were having a difficult time finding people who wanted to spend a year teaching young people about climate change on a tropical island.  I spent a few days agonizing over the choice, thinking about everything that was hard about Peace Corps last time..and then to no one's surprise I took the position anyway.  At which point all I could think about was how great Peace Corps was - what fun this will be!  Selective memory can be a very helpful thing.

So one week from today, I will be on a flight to Vanuatu - once again a Peace Corps volunteer.  I'll be posted on the island of Ambae, working on a project that involves teaching young people about climate change and helping them start climate change adaptation-related service projects and small businesses in their communities.  You really couldn't get a more quintessential "South Pacific" location.  In World War II, James Michner was stationed on the island of Espiritu Santo, which is next to Ambae.  From his base he could see Ambae, a hazy island in the distance, which looked magical - and served as his inspiration for the mysterious island Bali Hai in his book - on which  the musical South Pacific was based.  So I'm basically moving to Bali Hai! (Although the image of Bali Hai in the movie is based on an island in Malaysia, and the scenes in Bali Hai were filmed in Hawaii...but oh well***.)

All this to say that it's clearly time to dust off this blog again.  Like the dashing young Lieutenant Cable before me, I am being called to Bali Hai.

*By this I mean that during the two years I came face to face with my best self and my worse self, was inspired, humbled, literally bored to tears (which I didn't know could really happen), exhilarated disappointed, satisfied, grateful, sad, overjoyed...but for the purposes of this blog post, which is a peppy, excited announcement of another Peace Corps service, let's stick with "it was wonderful!". 

**Receipt of actual diploma hinging on the satisfactory completion of my Master's Project Paper, a kind of big deal, which is currently not exactly what one would call close to being finished...but what better place to write a paper than on a tropical island?  

Monday, November 10, 2014

November 9 - "As You Can See, We Are Now Going Through a Sea of Humpback Whales"

That's what the scientist leading my whalewatch boat trip today said at one point, which gives you an idea of how many whales there were around us. It's Whalefest in Sitka, which is basically a three-day symposium of talks on whale (and other marine mammal) related research, with cool side events like whalewatch boat trips led by scientists and a (loosely) whale-themed community talent show. Sitka is great. I've attended some of the lectures, and went on today's whalewatch, which ended up being spectacular. Sunny, crystal-clear skies, beautiful snowcapped mountains, cool whale facts from the three scientists on board (did you know that bowhead whales probably live to 200 years old, and can break through 3 feet of ice using their heads?), and lots of humpback whale sightings. We even saw a whale breach! No photos of that, I'm afraid – In a way I'm glad, because it was so beautiful to see and if I'd been behind my camera shooting away I'd have really missed the moment. But I did take plenty of other whale photos.  They can't possibly capture the feeling of being surrounded by these beautiful creatures, listening to their breathing, and seeing how gracefully they dive into the water, tails raised, to fish for herring or salmon.  But perhaps they can give you a little taste.  

Thursday, October 30, 2014

October 30 - From Africa, To Alaska, and Points In Between

Many times during my last months as a Peace Corps volunteer, my mother encouraged me to post one last “Goodbye to Benin” blog post.  Most other volunteers did on their blogs.  I didn't, and to be honest that's partly because leaving was difficult, in many different ways, and sitting down to write a blog post about how I'm feeling always makes me feel it more acutely.  But I've had some time, so here you go.

I had a good departure from Peonga, all in all.  I was emotional at times (pretty often actually) during my last two weeks at post, and learned to give myself long walks or bike rides outside of village almost every day, time to think.  Work continued right up to the end, something I was pretty proud of.  In fact, two days before I left I was out in a rice field, transplanting seedlings with the farmer I've been helping.   I also had the opportunity to meet my replacement, which made leaving easier.  She came for her two-week post visit, and we overlapped for one week.  Showing her around, introducing her to people, and seeing how excited her work partners were to meet her made me feel good.  I was happy to see that she really liked Peonga, just like me, and I feel like the village is in good hands.  In the evening of my last day, she and I hiked the hill next to the village.  As the sun set, we sat looking at our village.  “Are you nervous?”  she asked me, and I told her the truth – that it was hard to leave, but I was sure things would be fine. 

She was also there for my going away party, just a low-key gathering with my womens group, a few days before I left.  Thanks to her I have some pictures of the event.  I'd provided the group with a bit of money to buy rice and eggs to cook, we sat around under a tree, eating, and a few members including me gave thank-you speeches.  Then they presented me with a gift, a woven pagne (wrap skirt) and headscarf.  I wore the outfit the day I took the taxi out of village, to Parakou.  Then I spent a week in Cotonou, doing exit paperwork and interviews at the Peace Corps office, before heading home.

I had some adventures on the trip home, stopping in both Amsterdam and Iceland, and I'll post photos of those experiences if I have time.  Then came about a month and a half of time split between the Adirondacks and West Virginia, where my parents are living right now.  A major highlight – doing the Adirondack Canoe Classic, a 90 mile canoe race through the Adirondacks, with two peace corps friends and my dad!  It was a challenging and amazing experience.  We had great matching hoodies from Benin, and even got a mention in the paper.  And it was good to see fellow volunteers who had also just left Benin, and compare notes on what the experience has been like.  

It's hard to describe, what it is like to be done with Peace Corps.  You know what?  Peace Corps was pretty hard.  One of the first things that struck me about life in America is how easy everything is.  Cooking, doing laundry, not being too hot, are part of it, but I'm more thinking about interacting with people.  Being understood, having conversations, making friends, being myself is really easy here.  Missing Benin isn't like missing the Grand Canyon, or my family's home at Thanksgiving– places that are all easy, simple to miss.  When I miss Benin, I'm missing a place that I loved, and still do love – but also a place that was sometimes difficult to be, sometimes draining.  As the saying goes, “Peace Corps is the highest highs and lowest lows of your life.”  Well, having those highs and lows, living life that fully, can leave you a bit tired.  It can also be disorienting to leave a part of your life where, as a Peace Corps volunteer, every moment of your life was part of your role, for better or worse.  Now that I've come home, I'm not a Peace Corps Volunteer, an exhilirated, tired, motivated, bored, frazzled, grateful Peace Corps Volunteer, any more.  I am....well, I'm not quite sure. For me, Peace Corps was a life-long dream, the one thing I always knew I wanted to do.  When you've achieved your life-long dream, what happens next?

Being at home, thinking through all that stuff, was sometimes challenging.  I had some really good times – I got to visit most of my relatives, did the canoe race as I already mentioned, visited Cornell University in Ithaca to look into graduate school, and traveled in New York State for a bit with my Dad and his former Peace Corps counterpart from Nepal– they're still friends, almost 50 years later!  But now and then, little things would happen – I'd talk too much about Benin, or I'd see a photo of someone from my service, and I'd have to leave the room to collect myself.  And while I knew I had time to figure out what was next in life,  I didn't really like feeling in limbo, just thinking about everything. 

So I did the only logical thing: move to Alaska! About a month ago, I was offered an internship in Sitka, Alaska through the Student Conservation Association.  That's where I am right now, working at the Sitka National Historical Park.  Life in Sitka is really good.  I really enjoy my work at the park, and am surrounded by beautiful nature.  It rains all the time, which is probably the only thing that will cure me of my thirst for rain born in the hot, long dry seasons I knew in Peonga.  And just being productive, going about life, having errands to run and housekeeping to do and new people to meet, feels really good.  I live in a place where there's only 17 miles of road, I can watch whales with my binoculars on my lunch break, when the locals talk about going “down south” they mean Seattle.  And while I am in America, my housemate just came upstairs to my apartment asking to borrow my headlamp because she's cooking dinner, her kitchen light is out, and she can't see her food.  Cooking by headlamp – things haven't changed that much after all.     

 Sometimes, in the evenings here, I curl up in bed with a 3-minute video I took before leaving village. The video is just what I see walking through market.  I weave between stalls, greet my friends, look at vegetables...watching it, I can slip right back into Peonga, feel the heat and the dust and hear the language, relive three very typical minutes of my daily life.  That life was a pretty special one.  Really, Peace Corps was everything I wanted. I'm already feeling more at peace about having left, coming to terms with what that experience was all about and figuring out how I want to build on it and apply what I learned to what happens next.   After all, I've already achieved my life's dream – now I can do anything!  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

29 Jun - My amazing wedding adventure!

I recently had one of the biggest "this is why I joined Peace Corps" adventures of my service.  A few weeks ago, my "mama" (the mother in my concession where I stay) started telling me about a wedding that was coming up.  In my area, weddings are a lot different from what we're used to in the states.  The ceremony is brief, between the men of the families getting married, and the bride and groom aren't really involved.  The biggest part of the wedding is when the groom's family goes to the bride's house, during the night, and collects her to bring to her new house, along with her dowry.  The dowry, a huge collection of household items such as pots and mats and bowls and fabric, is then divided up between the members of the groom's family the next day.  In the case of this wedding, the groom was from my family.  So the morning of the wedding, the courtyard in front of my house was already busy with women making big pots of food for the guests (mainly extended family members) who would be around during the day.  

I've been to several weddings in my village, and usually they've been between two families who live relatively closeby.  One time I attended one (as a member of the groom's party) that was in a village 3k away, we walked there under the stars and then returned each carrying part of the dowry on our head.  I carried a huge stack of calabashes, very light-weight but I was still proud.  And because I carried part of the dowry I was given a bowl when it was divided up the next day.  That really made me feel part of things.

This wedding was different, however.  Far from being nearby, I was told that the bride lived past Nikki - a large town about an hour away by the main dirt road.  I had no idea where her village was, but agreed to go with the members of our family who went to collect her.  We left by motorcycles, and I quickly realized that what I expected would be a pretty standard trip to Nikki, a town I've been to many times before, was going to be much more adventurous.  After just half an hour we'd left anything that could be remotely considered a road and were driving along thin paths not even wide enough for two people to walk side by side.  Deeper, and deeper, and deeper into the bush, passing only small collections of thatched mud huts. We stopped frequently to fix one of the motorcycles, which were always breaking down, or to greet people the family knew.  People often expressed surprise when we told them where we were going, and kept mentioning something about the water.  And I soon found out why, when we pulled up to the side of a muddy river.  We had to ford it, me and Nafisa (my 10-year old friend) walking across with our bags on our shoulders so nothing got wet.  The water came up to my hips!  Then the men carried the motorcycles across one by one. 

 All in all, the trip took over three hours.  And we were taking the shortcut!  It was amazing driving so far into the middle of nowhere, and realizing how far off the beaten track I was.  My village is already an hour from the nearest paved road, already somewhere that few Americans would ever find themselves.  Now I was three hours further off the beaten track, making Peonga look like a bustling, centrally-located metropolis in comparison.

When we finally arrived at the bride's house, we greeted everyone there and settled in on a mat to eat some rice and wait for nightfall.  Everyone there knew my name, since they have connections to Peonga, and they really appreciated me being there.  It was nice, sitting on a mat under a tree with Nafisa, watching all the activity and listening to dozens of bright yellow birds who were busy building nests nearby. 
The bride's household

As it got dark, a car arrived with more members of the groom's party.  They'd taken the "long route" to the bride's house, on roads that were at least sort of passable by car.  We loaded the dowry up into the car, and then they collected the bride, singing outside her door until she came out crying.  Crying is considered necessary in a wedding here, although it does make it hard to know how the bride really feels about things.  We then all squeezed into the car - my mama had told me and Nafisa to take the car back since the motorcycles wouldn't be safe enough after dark - and then left for the long, long trip back home.  The car broke down on the way, of course, and our adventure ended after 1:00 am when we got home.  A long day, but one that really made me feel part of my family here in village. 

The bride's dowry, after being unloaded from the car in my concession

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

April 19 - The King of Nikki's Funeral!

I live in a very special post, and I've gotten to see many really remarkable cultural events.  Most were small-scale, local events, like the fetiche intitiations that happen regularly in Peonga.  Recently, however, the king of Nikki died and I got to attend his funeral.  (Nikki is a town about an hour and a half from my village by motorcycle). 

This was a huge deal.  The king of Nikki is the most important king of the Bariba people, a group that spreads throughout northern Benin and Nigeria.  Every year, all the lesser Bariba kings visit Nikki to pay tribute to the king and ride their richly-decorated horses in a festival known as Gaani.  This funeral was similarly large, with kings and their entourages coming from as far as Nigeria and Ghana.  Not all who came were Bariba; there were also kings from other ethnic groups in the south of Benin.  Benin's president, Boni Yayi, even flew in by helicopter to make a speech!  About five of us volunteers attended the event.  It was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

One of the kings from Nigeria (in the blue robe).  His body guards are in the blue and red outfits.  You can see the couch that will be set up for him to sit on in the left of the photo.  Also notice all the trumpeters announcing his presence behind him.
President Boni Yayi (in the black suit with his hand raised).  He passed right in front of where we were sitting.

Lots of opulent robes and outfits

The local bariba princes and kings performed examples of their horsemanship.  The bariba are renowned horsemen. 

A group of bariba horsemen

It wouldn't be a Beninese funeral without t-shirts and other favors!  I got one of those t-shirts.

One of the horsemen waiting on his horse

Friday, March 7, 2014

February 24 - What Peace Corps is Like Now

Was the last post I wrote really about Ramadan?  It’s certainly been a while.  I remember during our Peace Corps staging how we were told that you find lots of first year blogs online, about all the struggles of getting ones service started, but the writing falls off sharply once volunteers get into their second year.  I guess I’ve fallen into that trend.  So many things have happened that have made me think “what a good blog post topic!”  But that’s as far as the ideas have gotten.  So to get things going again, I’ll write about a very simple topic – what is Peace Corps like now, 4 months since I last wrote, and 6 months until the official end of my service?


1.       Peace Corps is Comfortable
It doesn't feel like a major accomplishment to get through a day now.  Sure, I have hard days - but it's sort of the same as having a hard day back in Boston, or in college - just a tough day in a place where I'm used to being, where I'm pretty comfortable.  I know how things work here, even if they are still sometimes frustrating.  I know what to expect.

2.       Peace Corps is Busy
I have a planner full of appointments, and slow days are a treat.  I may not be running around 8 hours a day, but I have a lot going on.  I'm working on a latrine project, and have a girl's club, and work in the garden, and do Peer Support network activities, and am helping design a visual aid about rice growing to be used all over West Africa, and organizing a Take our Daughters to Work event in Parakou, and... a whole lot.  I never, never expected Peace Corps to be so full of activity. 

3.       Peace Corps can go from frustrating to unbearably beautiful all in 24 hours

Last night, I was sitting on my bed in my sweaty hot house, reading – my front door was closed which means I’m done being public for the day, either asleep or getting close to it.  But some people were staying at my concession who aren’t usually there, and a few of them were gathered outside my open window – someone whispered “anasara” (white person/foreigner) in the window and I’m pretty sure they were peeking in at me through the curtains.  Frustrated at not having any privacy, I got upset and slammed my shutters shut, making them laugh and say “Gorado’s angry” in Fulani.  I lay there stewing and feeling bad about having gotten upset for a while before I fell asleep. 

This morning, after attending the morning service at the Assembly of God church, I had to go on a long, long motorcycle ride to Basso, a village about 50k away, to help with a survey in their garden.  We ended up leaving around 11:40, and even though being on a moving motorcycle helped the sun was blazing and it was HOT.  And the road was dusty, dusty.  My shirt was made of a fine mesh material, and my arms under the sleeves were covered with tiny specks of dust that had worked its way through the fabric.  15k into our trip, my motorcycle stopped and the driver went into a store to get something.  I was feeling frustrated, standing there in the sun, but soon he came back with two ice-cold bags of water, one for me.  (Water is often sold in machine-sealed bags here).  It was so cold, it was hard to drink fast, and I could feel the coldness inside me long after I’d finished drinking.  It felt so good. 

When we finally got to Basso, hot, hot, hot and dusty, I realized that it was their market day.  Parched again, I had my motorcycle stop at the market before going to the garden so we could look for something cold to drink.  We found some lukewarm bottles of soda – one orange Fanta and one Sprite – and I bought them for the two of us.  A fair exchange for my cold bag of water earlier.  I gulped down my Fanta at the garden – soda was never so good as it is here.  We had to stop by market on our way back to return the glass bottles.  Once there, my motorcycle said he had to go pray (it was around 2:00), and so I sat down in the shade next to the soda seller to wait for him to return.  The Basso market was beautiful and spacious, and full of Fulani, men in blue tunics and checkered scarves with swords on their shoulders, women in colorful outfits trimmed with lace, brightly striped shawls, coins woven into their hair.  Everyone was moving slowly like the mid-day heat demands, and it all seemed so graceful.  It’s hard to describe how happy I felt to be there, sitting next to the soda seller, watching her barter with the beautifully-dressed Fulani woman who was trying to get a good price for the skin lotion the woman also sold.  It was all so beautiful, such a wonderful place to be.  When my motorcycle driver finally returned, I almost wanted to thank him for making me wait.  (Of course I didn’t, since he has a way of being hours late and doesn’t need to be encouraged.)  But I was so grateful to have been there, and so happy that this is all part of my life. 

I guess in sharing this 24-hour period I mean to say that Peace Corps hasn’t changed that much.  It’s still up and down, but the wonderful, sweet, inspiring moments are the ones that stick with you.  24 hours ago, I was craving privacy, my own insulated world, the right to be alone with no one staring at me.  But on our way back from Basso, we passed a fancy white jeep with development workers from one agency or another, one of them American or European, passing through Basso on the way to somewhere – and I was glad I didn’t have the privacy of my own fancy jeep.  I’m sure there’s no one to stare in their windows, wherever they stay – but they also don’t have the pleasure of being stranded in a beautiful market stall like I was, with no choice but to slow down and appreciate where I was.