The contents of this blog are completely mine and do not reflect any position of the Peace Corps or the U.S. government.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Mid-Service Update: Adventures in Gardening, Product Development, Community Nurseries and Soap Making

In reality I am well beyond mid-service. I return in July or August of 2013 so have 8 months remaining here. 2/3 of my service down. However, I wanted to share an update because I haven’t been blogging at all for a long time. In my defense, I have been writing - just not in the blogging format. I especially wanted to send an update out to those folks that helped me to get here and continue to support me. Namely, my Mom and Kesh, my grandparents Wally and Ilene and all of those people that contributed through Sisters With Wings to support my service, my lovely email, phone and facebook friends that have been keeping in touch and keeping me up to date on happenings in America and those who sent care packages. You know who you are and I am still thanking you!

It is days like today when I begin to feel like I may have integrated without actually realizing it. I often think of myself in the “posh corps” because that is how my colleagues view my situation (and while I sit in my expensive city and eat rice and beans, they use their saved up cash from their rural sites to take posh vacations). But I see some adaptations. First, I put on my fancy flip flops to go into town, fixed my messy hair and tried to look presentable….sheeky  is everything here. Second, I was trying to find something to scrub the grime off of a bent up old metal concrete mixing bucket that I found in the garbage pile (exhibit A) and want to use for a flower pot. I immediately looked to the fruit basket and was ecstatic to see a coconut. I peeled off the fibers and scrubbed away like a true native (exhibit B). Third, I got home to find that the water tap was behaving sporadically and so I immediately filled up every container in the house and did a double run on the filter. There has been no water in the taps now for hours but I practically have a swimming pool’s worth in my house. Fourth, my make-shift cupboards were empty because I’ve been away for 6 weeks and so I went to the market. The only things that I bought were papaya, banana, coconut, bulk rice, onions, garlic, candles and matches. I already had four different kinds of beans soaked and cooked at home. Fifth and finally, while fetching said water I carried the containers on my head, because it is in fact easier. I assume this all speaks for itself. Say what?!

Oh but so lovely to be home again. My space is small, but I love what I’ve created here. What? You don’t have $1,400 for a plane ticket to come see? Would you like a tour? Well ok, come along then!
My home is a little concrete house with a small, shaded porch located in a bustling local market area called Mercado Gilo (mer-cah-doo jee-low) on the edge of the city. I’ve got the corner of my complex of houses surrounded on two sides by a high concrete wall with glass shards in the tops, so while I have some neighbors with no divisions of the space I also have a bit of my own space as well. It is a duplex, with matching houses back-to-back, and my neighbor is my site mate, Adela, who has been here for 3 months. Before that it was my site mate Autumn, who just returned to the States. There are about 12 houses total in the complex, and while some stand empty, the rest are filled with a mix of Mozambican and Indian families and one South African ex-pat. In front of my house sits a rusting swing set with the swings wrapped around the top and padlocked (or else my yard would be the community playground… which sounds sweet until you actually imagine 30 screaming children in your yard at all hours). On that note, the children recently found a used tire in the garbage pile and tied it to a tree with my laundry line. Presto! A tire swing. The juxtaposition of the two swings is a great metaphor for the persistence, creativity and un-quash-able spirit of the people here.

My house has a dirt yard and is semi-shaded by two large trees. One of them is a marula tree, which produces these little tiny orange and black fruits. The fruit tastes to me like really hummus-y soil, but Mozambicans mash it up and add sugar and are crazy for it. When the season is on, which is in a couple of months, all the kids hang out in my yard and climb the tree and bash the tree with sticks and hang out in the shade to eat the fruits. I’ve put in a small garden along a sunny wall, it has raised beds lined in recycled bottles and right now is full of cherry tomatoes, arugula and swiss chard. I have a large lemongrass plant, which I use for cooking and tea as well as a small mango tree and a lime/lemon tree (they are different here, kind of a cross). I have a half barrel in the center of my yard for bonfires, barbequing and burning trash (yes, I know. It kills me every time I have to burn my trash, but there is nothing else to do with it). I have a flower and shrub garden on my front wall, shading the porch and making it more private. I face the rear entrance of a large concrete house that is home to an Indian-Mozambican family with very entertaining children. There is almost always something going on with the women washing clothes and cooking and running after misbehaving kids while snapping towels at their behinds.  

When you walk into my house you are first in one large room, probably about 20’ X 10’. This is the kitchen, office and living room. My kitchen is a little gas camping stove sitting on top of three wooden crates that store my pots and pans. I have a counter and indoor sink which is a blessing and I had running water in the kitchen until it stopped working. My office is a wooden table up against the front window where I do my writing and work from home in the mornings and watch the birds and kids and action of the compound. The second half of the main house is my living room which is full of books and art supplies and my guitar and a big comfy chair where I hang out and read (and my site mate occasionally sleeps sitting up in). The whole space is full of colors. I’ve used capulanas (batik-style fabric pieces) to cover the furniture and make curtains and pillow covers and art on the wall and they are all wonderful bright and competing patterns. I have two bedrooms and an indoor bathroom. In the spare room, which is referred to Princess Absynnia’s room (my unplanned kitten who has a whole room for herself at night) the walls are filled with the painted pictures and sayings of almost every volunteer and couch surfer that has stayed with me (I’m a tourist hub because I’m a volunteer with a house only 25 minutes from one of Mozambique’s hottest vacation beach spots). My other walls are filled with memories and inspirations. Posters and fliers for shows and parties and film festivals and music festivals that I repaint/reimagine, drawings of friends, pictures of my family and my large (and growing) collection of favorite quotes.  

This weekend I am settling back in from 6 weeks of house sitting in a big fancy house and I feel a little A.D.D. I can’t pick a project and I wish I had three of me right now. I have four documents open on my computer, two emails that I am composing to friends to send when I get to internet, this blog, and my book. I have a half-finished song and my guitar next to me, laundry soaking in a bucket, a coconut to grate, electricity to buy, a visit to the central market to make for cashews, a cache of gifted music to listen to (from a visitor), a kitty to make up lost time with, rice and lentils to cook, a half-finished painting, crazy ants and ant piles to sweep out and like three gardening projects. My arugula is overgrown like crazy, my basil is droopy and sad, I need to transplant some lemongrass and my cherry tomatoes are about to turn to mush. Whew. I’m trying out a new writing strategy, which involves leaving all the documents open and going about my day and then sitting down to write the moment I think of something. It seems to work but it leaves me feeling a bit fragmented and bouncy. 

Oh but so lovely to be home again. My space is small, but I love what I’ve created here. For the first time in my life I am living alone and can do whatever I want. Before Peace Corps, I always had family, a partner, boyfriend or roommate(s) living with me.  It took me about 6 months to get used to it, but now I’ve settled into my routine and have done loads of work on making my garden and my living space just how I want them. My house is my cozy, colorful creative space and when I walk into my front room I always take a deep breath. I’ve got loads to play with for me and for visitors. Being on my own has been a great right-of-passage and I believe that it should be a requirement for growing up. Think it could potentially be dangerous to live too alone for too long though - we are a communal species after all and we need to bounce ourselves off of people to stay grounded. But I’m lucky in that I spend half my day at home with my site mate right next door and then half my day at the Pepto Bismol Palace hanging with the inspiring creative energy that is Bio Oleos de Maxixe. Then, my solitude is regularly broken by random people needing to crash or weekends in Tofo or live music or visiting volunteers (I helped to host 30 people two weeks ago!). As much as I long for the familiarity, family and comfort of the States, it’s a good life for now. It really is.

Mid-service is an interesting time. My group of volunteers will be the next group to COS (Close-Of-Service) which means we are the longest standing group here. Hitting the middle-point of my service was a bit of a shock. I had thought that I would have everything figured out by the time I was a year in. It is notoriously a time when volunteers start to look back at how far they’ve come and then look forward and have to make some decisions on how to finish strong and about what will come next. That said, I’ve only recently decided that I am going to return to Boise and give it a go. I’m super excited to be close to my family and already have some close friends there. I’m going to work on getting my credentials in order for consulting and see what kind of good work I can get involved in. (If you know of anything coming up, let me know!)

Did I mention that it is BOILING hot?!? Last night I slept sprawled out on my covers, sweating despite the fan on full force blowing on me. This morning when I faced my options for clothing, the only thing I could bear to put on was a swimsuit and some shorts. This way I can just hop in the shower (when the water finally comes back on) and then walk around in wet clothes.  I’m not kidding. Everyone has a special set of clothes/rags that they carry around to wipe the pouring sweat. I don’t think my hair has been dry in two days because of the insane sweating. This afternoon I came to consciousness and found myself standing directly underneath my living room fan just staring off into space and enjoying the breeze on my skin. 

I’m in the beginning of a transition with my work here. Up until recently, the majority of my time and focus was going to product development with a couple of other projects on the side. But I’m moving from that to focusing on finishing my other community projects and getting more involved with a great organization here, Positivo, that uses music to educate youth about HIV/AIDS. I feel good about what I’ve contributed to BOM in terms of products and ideas. Look for my BOM bath salts, body butter bars, soaps and intensive tea tree hair treatments on the shelves in the future! But alas, my role as a PCV is definitely not to do something that creates an un-fillable gap when they leave (which is what I’ve accidentally done).

My main project is getting a moderate amount of attention recently, which makes me feel good - like I am accomplishing something tangible here. The project is to build 4 nurseries in communities around Inhambane Province before I leave. We are working with local associations that serve people living with HIV/AIDS. We pay for and help them build the nursery, and provide the seeds and training on nursery management and ongoing technical support. They grow Moringa and other plants and distribute and sell them in the community as an income-generation project. We then train the tree recipients on the nutritional benefits of Moringa (which is a miracle plant!) as well as proper collection and preparation of the seed. When the trees mature, we buy the seeds from them to press for oil for our body products. This provides income to the families that steward the trees. In the meantime, they enjoy the amazing nutritional benefits of Moringa and are participating in reforestation and sustainable resource management. We are on construction of our second nursery now and the first is ready for planting. Sometimes I look around at all the people involved and just think “We did this?” The Embassy came out a few weeks ago to visit the project and take pictures to be featured in the PEPFAR 2013 calendar, which has gotten me and the people in the associations really excited! They will be famous in Africa and the staff offices of PEPFAR in Washington D.C.!

My other project is a group of community women that we have trained to make soap and manage a small business. They received business and marketing training, soap-making training and continue to receive a weekly support seminar. They were given micro-loans for equipment and ongoing supplies at cost. They are about 6 weeks into production and are doing great. For most of them their businesses are starting to take off and they are already paying back their loans. It is so exciting to watch them grow and succeed and get excited for themselves. It has been an eye-opening, thought-provoking and challenging experience and so many peoples’ energy went into making this happen for these women. I will get to be here advising, helping and enjoying the company of these women until I leave and I can’t wait to see where they go.

Before I leave, I also want to install and do community trainings on a composting toilet at our permanent production site in Machevenga along with a hand-washing station made from local materials. The property sits right on the bay so we want to teach sustainable, healthy ways to take care of the local water system (people currently use the beach as a bathroom) and improve community health practices. The major upshot and other reason for the project is that composting of human waste is one of the best ways to improve the local soil, which is 100% sand with zero nutrients. So the type of toilet I’m planning is called a Fossa Alterna and (look away now if you have a sensitive stomach…) has separate feces and urine collection. The resulting compost will be used in the demonstration garden (which is a WHOLE ‘nother story) and the coconut and moringa nurseries. The urine will be diluted with water and used as fertilizer, which has been shown to work wonders for certain plants, like corn.

Ah, the demonstration garden. So some of you know this was my first project in Mozambique and it has been a labor of love and a source of much frustration and mirth. It took months for Joao, Meghan and I to dig, prepare and plant the permanent berm around the garden and all ten of the beds. It is a HUGE space. But the goal was to use only local, freely available materials to improve the soil (which again, is 100% sand) and test different techniques in the different beds to see what worked best. We used cow manure, compost, grass, charcoal powder and ash, but the star player was coconut fiber and husks. 

It has been a trial of errors to say the least. Every time I introduced a new method, someone would correct it or offer a different method or say that it was downright wrong. I would give instructions to my colleague for a new bed or planting concept and return the next day to find something completely different and inappropriate. The seed bed concept failed completely because at night, the little land crabs come and ate all the tiny little plants (to their credit, they waited until the plants were large enough that they would be REALLY tasty!). Then, a neighbor’s cow got loose and wrecked the beds. When we finally got it repaired, and planted in beans to fix the nitrogen in the soil I was so relieved to see that they grew really well and all the beds were lush and green. But then, just as we planted the first real crop, meant to successfully demonstrate that natural soil improvement, companion planting and bio-intensive agriculture work, the local water table dropped and the water in our water holes became full of salt because of the proximity to the bay. Needless to say, the plants suffered quite a bit and most of them died before we got the water tested and identified the problem. Finally, in an effort to turn the garden over to local management, we used a friend in the community who proceeded to ignore all instruction and completely undo all of our work. Taking out all of the improved soil and coconut fiber and throwing it into the bay and then doing the whole garden his way. Well, except for the permanent berm which is growing loads of aloe vera and lemongrass. I almost cried. However, I did manage to do a demonstration using the same concepts in my yard and it is growing beautifully and is often raided by the neighbors. Can I call that a success and move on?

So that’s the update. The short version would be that I’m healthy, happy, safe, inspired, well-fed, in good company, in good spirits and getting the opportunity to do some really interesting work. I miss all of your faces and while I’m happy here, I’m very much looking forward to coming home, seeing everyone, meeting my new niece and enjoying lots of big, much anticipated hugs!

Monday, October 31, 2011

The adventure to, and first days of Reconnect In-Service-Training

So Saturday morning, groggy and dirty because my water had gone out, Zach and I headed to the boat to start our hitch hiking adventure to Maputo for our "Reconnect" conference.  Our first chance to see our fellow Moz 16'rs and get some training and inspiration for the next phase of our service.  I cannot believe that it's been 5 months in country already!

We left pretty late, we were on the boat at 11am and I'm not sure exactly what we were thinking.  But when we got into Maxixe we hoofed it out of town with our giant backpacks, dripping sweat, and caught our first ride in the back of a pick up truck to the junction about 30km away.  We hoofed it past the junction and sat on the side of the road for awhile, eating coconut and trying to catch a ride.  The first car that actually stopped was going the wrong direction, so their good samaritan act saved them a long drive down the wrong road, but left us still out in the sun.  Finally, a south african woman who runs the Zavora lodge, offered us a ride to the Zavora junction and shoved our bags in the back of her tiny car with a bunch of gas tanks and we squeezed into the back seat with her colleague.  Another 50km later, we once again found ourselves on the side of the road and Zach yo-yo'd while I tried to catch us another ride.  About 45 minutes later, another decrepid pick-up truck stopped, driven by an older Mozambican from Sofala with a young woman in the back seat.  We hopped in and he took us another 50km or so, dropping us somewhere past Inharrime.  Almost immediately a big truck stopped with a few Mozambicans in the back and we quickly learned that they were headed all the way to Maputo so we happily climbed in, although I know that Zach was really hoping for a nice comfy SUV.  Luckily the pick up had a mattress in the back and pretty quickly two of the men got out so we got comfy and settled in for a long ride.  A couple hours later, somewhere outside of Xai Xai (shy shy) we unexpectedly pulled off the road and were told that we were dropping off the kid that was in the back with us and then proceeded to drive back up on a bumpy dirt road, knocking  branches off of trees and flicking off the giant ants that fell onto us from above.  We arrived in a small compound where we unloaded a bunch of stuff, young boy included, chatted with the locals and then loaded up a giant bag of mandioca. 30 minutes later we were on our way again.  Once we got into Xai Xai, we once again pulled off the road back into the campo where we stopped and unloaded the Mandioca and our gracious drivers ate some dinner.  On the way out, we scraped a truck and the owner had to be fetched to move the vehicle (no one mentioned the minor fender bender in that process).  Then, finally, we were on our way once again.  Coming out of Xai Xai it was starting to get dark and we were still hours from Maputo, but there was a sliver of a moon and a cool breeze over the Limpopo river valley and a gorgeous red African sunset.  We continued for hours, and at some point I finally just laid down on my back and watched the stars come out, which was gorgeous.  Another hour or so later, it got very cold and both Zach and I curled up into little balls shivering and hoping that we would get there soon.  I tried very hard just to enjoy the sensation of being cold, as I've barely had a moment where I wasn't sweating for the past few weeks, but I must admit, it was a little miserable.  Hours later, we came upon the stadium outside of Maputo, where it just so happened that at that moment all the traffic from a game was getting out, so we found ourselves in the back of a pick up truck, miles outside of Maputo in bumper to bumper traffic surrounded by drunk Mozambicans yelling "MULUNGU!!!! MULUNGU!!!" and laughing and pointing and taunting us.  Another hour or so later, at which point it was around 10pm, we finally came into the city and were looking forward to being dropped at junta (the transportation hub) to find a taxi to city center, where we still had to find a hotel.  At this point, we were both greasy and sweaty and dirty and exhausted and cranky.  When the truck finally stopped, we were nowhere near junta, and instead were on an isolated stretch of road with our hosts instructing us to catch a chapa.  This we just could not do. It was late, people were drunk, we had laptops and cameras and giant backpacks and so we practically begged our hosts to let us pay them to take us into town.  They reluctantly agreed, and took us to VIP Suites, and extremely high end hotel in a dark, deserted neighborhood where we couldn't afford to stay.  We finally convinced them to take us to a main road, and they agreed to drop us at another hotel.  A few minutes later, we pulled up to the Hotel Santa Cruz, where we profusely thanked our new friends, unloaded our bags and went inside to find out that we could get a room for 1,000 mets a night (about $30).  We went to look at a room and spent 10 or so minutes trapped in an elevator that only stopped between the floors, which only escalated (or elevated??  huh?  huh?) our crankiness.  The room was fine, a tiny room with two twin beds 6 flights up with a shared bathroom where a man was taking a bath in the shared bathroom with the door open.  We decided to stay rather than go somewhere else, and went down to the desk to pay.  The clerks were insanely condescending, customer service here is not a common value, but we finally got our key after successfully restraining the desire to punch someone.  Zach found pizza and cake and I peed for the first time in almost 12 hours and then we showered and settled in for sleep after a very very very long day.

In the course of the night, we had a drunken Mozambican yelling outside our door and then Zach got a phone call from the states.  But at least we woke up knowing that we didn't have to travel and had the whole day in Maputo to rest and relax.  After a hike across town with our packs, we checked into our hotel, a much improved, fancy, touristy affair, in the early afternoon and our colleagues started to trickle in.

I can't explain the joy of seeing all these familiar yet long lost faces again!  It's amazing that three months (almost) have passed so quickly and it was surreal to sit out and chat and laugh and catch up and get hugs from very missed friends.  It feels like just yesterday that we were in Kaya Kwanga during staging, wide eyed and nervous and excited, mostly strangers.  It also feels like yesterday that we were in the middle of training, sitting at Morgan's Bar, drinking 2M (doiysh eme) and complaining about the rigorous pace of training and language challenges and host families.  And finally, it feels like yesterday that we were at Hotel Girassol at the end of supervisors conference,  all saying goodbye with tears in our eyes and disbelief and excitement to discover our new communities, jobs and lives all over this big country.

I'm still astounded by the fact that out of the 29 people, I just adore and enjoy almost every single one of them and none of us seem to be able to wipe the smiles off of our faces to be reunited. I'm rooming with Tiffanie for the week, one of my favorite Moz 16'rs, and even though we were exhausted and it was late, we stayed up for a long time laughing and chatting and gossiping and catching up.  When we finally turned out the light, almost instantly a giant thunder and lightning storm started and as soon as that died down, an allergy attack hit and once I finally fell asleep I was plagued by nightmares all night long.  But the lack of sleep didn't affect my enthusiasm or excitement to be here.

Today, we had a delicious breakfast, the joy of what would be a mediocre buffet in the states after months without meat or cheese is indescribable.  Afterwards, we spent the whole day (broken by a lunch where there were cheese cubes.  Giant cheese cubes.  I can't explain the joy!) doing 10 minute presentations about our first months at site, so I got to learn all about what everyone has been up to. Now, I'm waiting for dinner, and for everyone to return from a party and very much looking forward to my week here in Maputo.

That's the news, boa noite todos e ate ja!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

FAQs: My day-to-day life in Moz

When you are just living your life, the novelties wear off a little bit.  But so many of you have told me that you are curious about life here and so I will do my best to describe it.
I have 28 colleagues in my group of volunteers, and the more of them I talk to, the more I realize that I have a pretty unique situation for the Peace Corps, the Health Program especially.  Most of my colleagues, though not all, live in grass houses, mostly dependencias (mother-in-law apartments) in small communities.  One colleague lives in a homestay situation in an agricultural community where he walks 3 miles to get to the main road.  My fellow Moz 16’r that lives in Inhambane lives in a dependencia in the courtyard of his organization outside of town.  So what I will describe about my life here is not typical of the Peace Corps experience in a lot of ways, although with Peace Corps, there doesn’t really seem to be a typical.
Mozambique to Inhambane Province to Cidade de Inhambane:
Mozambique sits on the south eastern coast of Africa, bordered by South Africa to the southwest, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi to the west, Tanzania to the north and the Indian Ocean to the east.  It has the longest continuous stretch of Indian Ocean coastline of any African country and that coast spans approximately three times the length of California. Mozambique has 11 provinces, four in the south, two central, and five in the north.  The north is divided from the central and southern provinces by the Zambeze river and the further north you go, the more rural and undeveloped the country is.  The country was a Portuguese colony that gained independence in the 70’s and then was wracked by a deadly civil war until 1992.  It is a country still in search of an identity, but has one of the fastest growing economies in sub-saharan Africa with a growing reputation as a tourist destination.
Inhambane Province where I live, spans 68.6 square kilometers.  It is bordered by Sofala and Manica provinces to the north, Gaza province to the south west and the Indian Ocean to the east.  The first thing that you notice when you enter the province on the EN1 is coconut trees.  Although there are not coconut plantations per say, coconut oil production was an economic mainstay in Inhambane for a very long time and the old trees still remain.  Inhambane City sits on the Southern Coast of the province on a peninsula 35 km off the ENI.  It is surrounded by Flamingo Bay and is 25 km (~15 miles) from the popular Indian Ocean beach destinations of Tofo and Barra.
As is true for what I’ve seen of Mozambique, the town has a split personality.  The downtown proper is full of businesses and restored colonial buildings now being used as businesses and corporate offices.  Many of the “lojas” or free standing stores are run by first, second and third generation Indians.  There is also a Muslim presence, and two very beautiful mosques sit right on the Bay.  It’s interesting how the old and new collide here and coexist much in the way that the Mozambican culture sits side by side with modern economic growth and change.  A woman wrapped in a capulana while pilaring (pounding) amendoim (peanuts) in a giant wooden mortar and pestle, an ancient tradition, while watching Portuguese soap operas on her television is completely normal. 
The churches are another perfect example.  There is a beautiful catholic church by the water that is hundreds of years old, with peeling yellow paint and a clock tower that always says noon that is reminiscent of a castle’s guard tower.  Right next to it is a giant new Catholic church, more freshly painted the same color, sort of blocky in that distinctive solid and angular 70’s style.  The new church is in use, while the other, slowly disintegrating with vines growing on the inside, houses a single small association called Vuneka that does HIV/AIDS work in the community.  The streets are lined with connected rows of buildings, some in disrepair, but most are colorfully painted and house a series of small stores and shops.  Most of the stores, sometimes two or three in a row, sell exactly the same things, sugar, salt, ceres juice, rum, toilet paper, rice, soap, ricoffee (instant coffee), powdered milk, peanut butter, flour, ground corn meal, omo (laundry detergent) and Amanda, this margarine that comes in a plastic pouch that has a smell and aftertaste reminiscent of bubblegum.
You walk in an open door, unless it is Sunday, in which case the doors are closed, but if you knock, the shop owner will crack it open and then beckon you to enter quickly while furtively looking around to determine if anyone sees that they are doing business on church day.  When you enter, there is generally a small space to stand in front of a large counter and you can usually see through to the living area in the back.  Very little is actually out to be browsed, but instead is stored on tall wooden shelves behind the counter and you ask the shop owner for what you need.  You may or may not be served in the order you arrived or stepped up to the counter, but you can assume you won’t be.  It isn’t uncommon for someone to enter in the middle of your transaction and hold their money out, ask for what they want, and get served.  It’s not anything personal, just that in Mozambique the concept of a line or an order of service simply doesn’t exist in the same way it does in the states.  I haven’t fully figured it out, but if I ever do, I’ll let you know.  The other thing is that no one ever seems to have correct change and is annoyed if you produce a large bill (200 meticais is a stretch, which is approximately $6.50), though in the lojas it is less of a problem. If you need change from a woman in the general market, more often than not she will need to visit some number of other ladies to get it.
For produce, which is mostly what I eat here, I shop sometimes at the Central Market, and more often at the Mercado Gilo, which is covered market right by my house. I don’t have a refrigerator, so I go to the Mercado every day. Here’s what I can count on finding: lettuce, onions, tomatoes, garlic, mandioca, sacks of beans, rice and amendoim, couve (a giant leafy green popular in dishes here), bobora (pumpkin) leaves, matapa (the leafy green of the cassava plant), coconuts, bananas, lemon, sweet potatoes, corn, oranges (boo!  Oranges here aren’t very good and they’re expensive and tangerine season just ended), eggs, plus, we are just at the beginning of mango season and I am waiting somewhat patiently for my first two mangos of Inhambane to ripen.  Common, but more expensive and not reliable finds are: carrots, beets, green onion, parsley, cilantro, eggplant, apples, cucumbers, pears, green peppers.  Compared to other volunteers, I live in the cornucopia of luxury food items.  Many people have tomatoes, onions, garlic, and bananas, lettuce, couve and that’s about it. 
The Central Market is a dream.  It is right in the middle of town, and is all covered.  When you enter, you pass through a series of about 10 tiny enclosed stands selling anything from batteries and cell phone chargers to cigarettes.  After that, on your right-hand side you see 15’ high stacks of handmade baskets all shapes and sizes in the distinctive beige with purple and indigo stripes that is the mark of this Inhambane specialty.  Again, you have three or four women running a business that sells exactly the same thing right next to each other, often chatting and sharing change.  On the left are two larger enclosed stands selling food and liquor.  After the baskets, if you turn right, you step down into the main produce section which houses what seems like unlimited tables of women in their multi-colored, multi-patterned capulanas selling anything from dried shrimp to fresh herbs to coconut oil to giant bottles of homemade piri-piri (hot sauce) to all the fruits and vegetables I listed above.  Aside from the most basic staples, in all the stores and stands here you can never count on getting the thing you found today tomorrow.  Because of this, I’m slowly learning that unlike in the states, where I decided what I would have for dinner, here I more than often than not make a dish because the eggplants today were beautiful or I found beets.
On the other side of the market, there are dozens of calamadaties stands, which sell used clothing, and next to them, there are stands selling capulana bags and wooden jewelry and beautiful ebony wood carvings, and then tables of fish and crab all swarming with flies.  It is a beautiful, hectic place.  But I prefer my market by my house, because there I am rarely confused for a tourists and the ladies recognize me and I can get all my basic everyday items.
My jobs are also very different from each other.  With Bios Oleos de Maxixe, I do product development, soap making, bath salt making and packaging (all in preparation for training local women to do the work), I am also managing and helping with the construction of a demonstration permagarden on the company property in Machevenga right outside of town.  I also do research and Ana and I spend a lot of time brainstorming all the good projects that BOM could do in the community.   With MONASO, I am being farmed out to various local community organizations to support their work and build capacity.  Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with ACUDES, which does trainings around good governance, supports peer educators that work with sex workers, drug users and families of miners and also trains locals in creating and marketing crafts and making clothing.  Through them I’ve been working with groups of young women in the schools here around HIV/AIDS prevention and sex and sexuality.  It’s very interesting work and there is more than enough to keep me more than busy.
Okay, I have to run now.  Will try to blog again soon.  I'm headed to Maputo for a conference here in a few days (3-Month Reconnect conference, how did that happen so fast?) but will return in a week or so.

The Peace Corps Personality Bootcamp

Preface: Friends, family, fellow-volunteers, facebook stalkers, fretting PC applicants and future volunteers.  This blog is all about my intense emotional process here and so I want to preface by saying I am fantastic, Inhambane is fantastic, the weather is fantastic and I am very happy to be here and that I made this choice.  Mozambicans are generally a wonderfully welcoming people and the work the PC does here is inspiring.  That said, adjustment to a whole new life in Africa is tough and below is reflective of the more difficult and personal aspects of this process.  If you’ll indulge me this overshare, I’ll be more focused on the place and work in the next one.
So the 2nd of this month was my four month anniversary in Mozambique, which means I'm now almost half a year into my service.  I have to admit, during staging and training it is easy to listen in an abstract way to everything that they tell you about what your emotional process will be like during your service.  And it’s easy to think, “yeah, but they don’t know me!  I’m just super happy to be here and I will handle it all with grace and always be positive because I am so grateful and in awe!”  Truth is our fellow volunteers gave us a “map” of the emotional stages that we would go through at every part of the process, and so far, I would just say that they do know me, and probably every single one of us.  Our past experiences, our sites, houses, jobs, communities, friends, organizations, environments are all very, very different, but our reactions to them are pretty much the same.
For me, the honeymoon period is over, and now I get to wrestle with the hard reality of being here for another 23 months, and I will say it isn’t pretty or easy, and it challenges everything that I thought about myself and who I would be here when I was immersed in the fantasy of being here from the safety of the states. I miss things I didn’t even realize I would miss so badly. Food (I’ll spare you the specific list, it’s longer than this blog entry), anonymity, my family, my friends, the rain in Olympia, a lazy day snuggled up with someone watching movies, speaking my own language, driving, camping, cold weather, sweet potato fries, a night out drinking and dancing with friends, showing my knees without shame, a gym, can’t believe it’s not butter spray, real coffee, toasters, tap water that is safe to drink, phone calls, washers and dryers, hot showers (yes, fellow volunteers, I do have a shower with a converter so I’m lucky, but it’s rarely more than barely warm), everything accomplished by the feminist movement, fitted sheet sets in attractive patterns, well cared for animals, being in the same time zone as my loved ones, noise ordinances, watching grey’s anatomy and eating ice cream with my parents, a bank account with money in it, hair salons, used clothing stores organized by size, whole wheat bread, mustard, meat (oops, getting onto food here), my keyboard and guitar, roller skating, Netflix and Hulu, fast internet, hugs, customer service, clean and free public bathrooms stocked with toilet paper, mothers who tell their children not to stare, pea coats with scarves, a giant selection of tea at the grocery store, the smell of fall, bike rides, an oven, microwaves, used book stores, soy milk, and a refrigerator.
I am facing the death throes of my past life as everything I went through to get here has taken a running leap at my brain and heart with fangs bared.  It’s as if to fully be born into this new life I have to see my old one flash before my eyes. All my past relationships and friendships have resurfaced in some way, and I have had to face any pain or guilt or disappointment and try to find a sense of peace.  The fact that I am turning thirty in a couple of months and am doing something that people in their early or mid-twenties generally do leaves me feeling old and behind after a life of feeling young and ahead.  It has also become intensely real that I am not likely to have a romantic relationship, casual or otherwise, for over two years and that puts me single and facing the dating world again at 32.  My identity as a professional is challenged because I cannot speak well, and as a result, my colleagues and community members talk to me and treat me like a child.  All of my ego and pride about being accomplished and well-paid and doing important work means nothing here, no one knows me and I have to start from scratch to earn even a sliver of respect.  I have always been the top of my class, always the number one or number two student, but in training, I was in the lowest language group and now I have watched my younger colleagues as they rocket ahead of me with their Portuguese skills, challenging my identity as an awesome scholar. I have always felt optimistic and inspired about community projects and here I see all my colleagues jumping in with boundless ideas and enthusiasm, and I’m finding that I’m more hesitant and tentative (though, admittedly, it’s better to sit back for a while and get your bearings, even according to the PC). I have only received serious professional or academic criticism once or twice in my life, and the most severe and personal tongue lashing I’ve ever gotten, I got in training from someone who didn’t know me at all.  In addition to eating my way out of the U.S. (my own personal three month good-bye party courtesy of my friends Butter Chicken, Korean Barbeque, Cheese, Pizza, Ice Cream, Sushi and Pulled Pork Sandwich), food has also been my go-to coping mechanism for all the stress of the past four months and so I’ve gained something like 15-20 pounds in the last 7 months, and I’ve lost all the strength and endurance I gained in derby and in physical training, so my identity as a fit and toned athlete (and a sexy one to boot!) has gone out the window with the rest.  My identity as fashionable and hip also no longer exists because in addition to an extremely limited wardrobe, ¾ of which is either falling apart or no longer fits me (either too saggy from hand-washing and line drying or too tight from the all-carb Mozambican diet) and a lack of hair dryers, products or curling irons, Mozambicans dress extremely well and when you don’t they notice, either by telling you, or by blatantly and relentlessly glaring at whichever thing they seem to find personally insulting and offensive, generally my shoes or my hair. Because I am usually the only white person, it is incredibly unnerving how people just openly stare with this shocked look on their face as if you are an animal in the zoo, scabby and with all your hair falling out taking a bath in your own feces. Added to that, for the first time in my life I have neither a plan nor a clue as to what I want to do after this giant step.  I’ve always had a five year plan and a very clear idea about how what I am doing fits into what I am doing next and what I am passionate about and what I believe and now I have lost all that focus. I have a good idea of who I’ve been, what I’ve been passionate about, what I believed, but it’s like I am floating in a stormy sea and all of those things are life preservers floating around me and I have to choose which one to swim to before I drown but I’m paralyzed by the thought of choosing the wrong one.  Peace Corps was my last ditch effort to figure it out and so I showed up just hoping that this experience will bring me some clarity and focus and direction.  What I’ve learned so far is that once the novelty of being a heroic and jaunty adventuring social activist living in a foreign country wears off, you are left with the same you that you started with. So now, here I am just sitting in the unknown, or as Pema Chodron says (and my mom recently reminded me) “Standing on groundless ground.” 
All of this is just the most extreme manifestation of every single one of those little fears and doubts we all carry around, they have just gotten magnified in the microscope of this incredibly unfamiliar environment.  Don’t get me wrong though, I am glad to be facing them, it’s just quite a bit more intense than I expected.  It is wave after giant wave and once I think I’ve ridden one out, here comes another one rolling in.  But I’ve been calling them death throes, because they come with a feeling of urgency, like all those self-illusions and delusions and aspects of my personality have realized that this is their last chance to hook me and pull me under and I can see that it’s hilarious and sort of sad how desperate they are.  It is a time that is ripe with potential change, and I can actually see it happening and I can see all the falsity and ego-clinging for what it is and I can see for a moment at the crest of each wave that there is sunlight and peace on the other side of the squall.
They tell you that you will feel isolated, and I do when I walk around my community because I am so obviously out of place.  There is nothing like being catcalled and taunted by groups of 13 year old boys to make you feel like its junior high all over again. But unlike some of my colleagues, I have immensely enjoyed my time alone in my house.  I’m not frightened of the boogey man or rats or spiders or giant grasshoppers or ninjas (word here for thieves), or of the dark. I like washing my clothes and cleaning my house and cooking my food. I sleep like a baby, aside from the rooster who always wakes up at midnight to announce that dawn is five hours away. I haven’t been truly alone in my own space or with myself for any period of time in almost thirty years, and getting to know myself with no one else watching to impress or accommodate has been like getting to know someone that you’ve seen every day for decades and never said even “hello” to and then one day you take the time.  Turns out, they have all sorts of interesting stories, and they are quirky and a little weird, and they like art and music and writing and cooking and you have all sorts of things in common and they might just turn out to be your new best friend and you can’t believe you went this long without getting to know them. 
I am loaded with Pema teachings and PC books and resources to help me cope with all of this new stuff and so I’ve been working my way through them. Thanks to Pema and a meditation practice, I have seen how little (if ever) I am actually just present and how much of my time (if not all) I spend in my mind flying around in the past and the future and in fantasy and fear and guilt and judgment and self-abasement and anger and regret. I’ve learned that we are all the same in this regard; it is simply the nature of our minds.  I think that if we could externalize that voice and just listen to it babble on, it would be hilarious to hear the narration out loud as we jump around the neural pathways we’ve built and then reinforced in our minds that connect one thing to another to another to another to another.  But we can’t, and the voice carries so much authority that somehow a passing and vague desire for ice cream sweeps you away into this 10 minute rollercoaster ride that takes you on a tour of the theme park that is your life and lands you smack in the middle of your biggest pain. Then you come to shaking your head and sweating and with your heart racing as if you’ve been woken from a bad dream.  I’ve found that I love with a passion the stillness and calm that comes in the few seconds that you actually sit in the now and be.  It feels like coming home exhausted from a long, stressful whirlwind of trip and curling up into your clean warm comfy bed and laying your head on a cool pillow and thinking you have never ever in your life been this comfortable or content or relaxed or been so happy to be home. I want to make those fleeting moments longer.  So I’m practicing with meditation to not always run away with the narrator in my head (who I’m pretty sure has ADD and is simultaneously sado-masochistic) who would prefer me always waiting in line for the next crazy roller coaster ride.  
Thanks to the PC books,  I have an idea now of who my heroes and role models are and why (my mom, my step-father, Ani Difranco, Melissa, Ann Lamott, Pema Chodron); I know what kind of life I want to have and where I am undecided (Kids or no kids?  Married or unmarried? City or country or other country? Job or another Master’s degree? Pacific Northwest or warm sunny climate?); I have done quite a bit of short term and long term goal setting and identifying the things that could keep me from reaching those goals; I have recognized some patterns in thought and behavior that I’ve carried with me mindlessly repeating for a long time;  I have realized that while I’m still not fully grounded in who I actually am, I understand that is not the pretty image of who I wish I would see when I look in the mirror or who I want to tell myself or others that I am, but that it doesn’t have to be disappointing because I am pretty lovable, interesting and cool nonetheless.  So long story short. Need personality boot camp?  Join the Peace Corps.
The great news is that I have a plan and I’ve been doing it! I get up at 6 every day. I am six weeks into my running program, I’ve been meditating every day, eating healthy, doing yoga, writing almost every day, keeping a clean house without an empregada, taking long walks on the bay, getting Portuguese tutoring, making art (by the way, I can sketch pretty well, who knew?), cooking complex and delicious meals (vegetarian….did I mention I miss meat?) for dinner-parties where I am the only guest in attendance and presenting it on a single plate as beautifully as any OCD alpha-cook can, and I’ve been saying “yes!”  I’ve laid out my goals for this first year on a giant poster.  And I have made a list of all the places I could decide to go and all the things I could decide to do after the Peace Corps, all the paths that my life could take, and it has made me realize that there are lots of exciting options and it is really up to me. Somehow, finding peace with life after this experience is allowing me to feel engaged and inspired here with this work even though what I will be doing is as of yet vague and unformed.  So it is really my life, and it’s happening right now and all I need to do is to be patient, stay engaged, keep working and follow my soul.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Settling in in Inhambane: 3 Months in Country, 3 Weeks as a PCV

I've been out of training for a few weeks and right now, I wake up pretty much every day just astounded by my good fortune in the lottery that is the Peace Corps site placement process.  Cidade de Inhambane (see-dah-day day in-yum-bahn-ay) is a beautiful place. This blog is all about all of the wonderful things I have discovered so far about my new home and jobs for the next two years.

It is a bona fide city (at least in the Mozambican context) which means that it has paved roads, side walks cross walks, multiple stores, what we here call "Chinese Walmart", a beautiful central market with crafts and lots of yummy fruits and veggies and spices, restaurants that serve pizza and gourmet salads, espresso (albeit the previous three things are things I cannot afford on a regular basis) and a chapa (shah-paw) station with benches and signs and all other sorts of citified types of things.

My city features many beautiful, well maintained concrete buildings that are painted pretty colors and is surrounded on three sides (it's a peninsula) by a turquoise bay of the Indian Ocean called "Flamingo Bay."  Next to the water there is a path with benches and palm trees that I can walk on my way to work and I can sit and stare at the water while I study portuguese or write or read (or simply just sit and stare with a crazy smile on my face).  There are gorgeous mosques and large churches and schools and government buildings and all are very well maintained.

It's very safe and well lit here and there are lots of foreigners living here that are working at various agencies and aid organizations as well as boat loads (literally, most people access the city by boat from Maxixe) of tourists coming through on their way to Tofo and Barra.  What this means is that unlike Namaacha (or many of the sites of my fellow volunteers), the cries of "Mulungu!!" are few and far between and the staring and teasing and taunting is much more manageable.  People are just not that surprised to see a white person walking around and generally once I say bon dia (bong gia) they smile and move on.  My larger annoyance so far is that I am assumed to be a tourist headed to Tofo every time I walk by the chapa station.

I've also heard that it wins the "cleanest city in Mozambique" award every year, which is wonderful, because every where else I've visited in Mozambique so far is plagued by piles of trash and trash strewn everywhere and the smell of burning trash on the wind and in your clothes.  This city has a bona fide garbage collection system which makes me want to find and hug the city administrators.

Okay, and obviously, Tofo beach is 30 minutes away by chapa.  And it is gorgeous!!!  I have been three times already and met wonderful people and I've seen more whales in this past two weeks than I have in my entire lifetime.  The ocean is a lovely temperature and is that clear aqua blue of all of my tropical fantasies, the sand is white and soft and squeaky (yes, like squeaky cheese) and it is relaxed and slow paced and all of the things you would hope of a beach town.

I am in a temporary house now, well, technically a "dependencia of a dependencia" meaning that I have a room attached to a mother-in-law apartment of a larger house.  For the past week we haven't been sure where in the world I was going to live after the 17th of this month and the only leads were not ideal situations and while doable would have been very challenging for two years (for example, a single room in another dependencia of a dependencia with no kitchen).  But today, we signed the papers for a two bedroom house with a living room, a kitchen, running water, a hot shower, grates on the windows, a front porch, my own concrete laundry sink outside, and a little space for my own machamba (mah-shahm-bah) (garden).  I have lots of neighbors, some foreigners and some mozambicans in a secure fenced compound with a security guard.  My dono de casa (landlord) seems like a nice, organized man and there is a swing set in front for the kids that live in the compound to play on.  It is beyond ideal!  Plus, as I learned when I had friends over this weekend, sleeping four people in a single room is not a comfy situation.  Now I will have a place to put all of those Inhambane visitors!

One of my organizations, Bios Oleos de Maxixe (by-owesh oh-lay-osh day ma-sheesh), is a natural body products company with a focus on community income generation that has brought me in to help with community initiatives like permaculture.  Right now I am working on putting in a demonstration permaculture garden on the property, helping to make soap out of local products, looking at using recycled glass packaging, and just generally getting to know the organization.

The other organization, MONASO (Mozambican Network of HIV Aids Organizations), has wonderful people working for it, and so far, the work I have been doing is reading all of their documents and slowly but surely translating them from Portuguese to English.  The good news is that I can actually do that, the bad news is that it takes a lot of time.  But their basic role is to help with funds management and capacity building for local organizations and my co-workers seem wonderful so I'm looking forward to the projects I will get to do with them.

All in all I am ecstatic!  I love it here and am so excited by the work I will be doing!  I hope that this blog finds you all well.  I love when you leave comments because then I know that I am writing to someone real and it makes me feel closer to all my folks over there in the U.S.!  More soon.

- The Wanderlust Queen

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Okay...7 Weeks in Mozambique

Hi there!  So it's been a while, apparently it is much more difficult to blog in Mozambique than I imagined, at least during training.  I do have an internet phone, which is amazing for checking my email, but today I have accessed the first wifi on my computer, which is amazing!  To set the scene, I am sitting in a place called "Mundos" in Matola in Maputo Province, it is a little crossroads town outside of Maputo on the way to Namaacha.  To get here, Jenny, Tiffanie and I had to cram into a chapa, which is a tiny van, meant to seat 10 people, plus a driver, that actually seats 19 or 20.  Needless to say, it takes about five minutes for some significant body part (or multiple!) to fall asleep.  We arrived at Mundos at about 8:30am and are all happily munching on snacks and working on our laptops.  It is clean here and the waitstaff are friendly (more uncommon than you would expect) and there are clean bathrooms with running water and flushing toilets.  I would truly like to just live here and sleep under one of their tables for the next three weeks of training, but alas!  I cannot actually afford more than a single afternoon at Mundos :)  I will attempt to catch you all up with highlights on the past 7 weeks...

WEEK ONE (staging, arrival in Moz and travel to Namaacha):  See my previous blog.  We arrived in Mozambique and were greeted by PC staff and taken to Kaya Kwanga, where we checked into our hotel and began the process of getting oriented to Mozambique.  We had a few days of orientation, shots, language tests (yeah, I had no idea what the examiner was saying, AT ALL).  After a few days, we were packed into vans again and transported to Namaacha, and given a sheet of handy phrases in portuguese, featuring such tidbits as "Eu nao sou um bebe!" (I am not a baby).  And "Muito obrigada!" (Thank you very much)... In Namaacha, we were greeted by our new host families.  I was greeted by Ceclia, my 19 year old host sister, in English, which was exciting and disconcerting, and she proceeded to lead me to my new home.  I live the farthest out of all the volunteers in Barrio B, off a dirt path in a modest Mozambican home.  Ceclia has given up her room for the 10 weeks I am here and it is very spacious.  My mom, Laura, Cecilia, my cousin Lina and my neice Laurinha share a bed in the separate reed house that also serves as a kitchen.  My room is spacious and safe and lovely, and is connected to the family/dining/living room.  I've posted some pictures on facebook of my home and family here.  After settling in, we had the weekend to get acquianted with our families and then the official training process began.

TYPICAL SCHEDULE: I am to overwhelmed by the prospect of updating in detail on all my time here so far, so instead here's a typical day, I wake up at 6am and get ready for school.  I might eat some delicious namaachan bread and have some ricoffe with hot water prepared for me on the carvao (charcoal stove) by my family.  I leave for language class at 7:15am and until 9:30am work on speaking, conjugating and learning the ins and outs of portuguese (pouco a pouco....little by little).  at 9:30 I walk to the "hub" a house rented by the peace corps for technical training, which ranges from organizational development to hiv-aids education to mozambican history to coping with grief and loss, to international development theory to healthy coping mechanisms to understanding and identifying and treating medical issues.  it runs the gamut depending on the day.  At 12 I walk home, which takes about 20 minutes and have lunch, which usually consists of rice and couve (a delicious peanut/coconut/veggie dish) or salad and beef or some other mozambican delight.  At 1 Iwalk back to the hub for more technical training and then from 3:45 to 4:45 I have language tutoring.  After class, I either go hang out for a little bit with my colleagues or go home.  When I get home, I clean my room, including my xi-xi bucket (pee bucket) and then I either talk with my family or study portuguese.  We eat dinner around 7:30pm (see list of lunch options above, it is generally leftovers) and then directly after dinner I get ready for bed.  I usually study or read for a bit and then turn out the lights around 8:30 or 9pm.

On the weekends, oftentimes the peace corps has activities planned for us, but when they don't I wash clothes (lavar roupa) in buckets, clean my room, talk with my family, hike around namaacha with colleagues etc. 


Unfortunately, I didn't pass my first language test, so I am working really hard to make sure I pass the final.

I took a trip to Chokwe to visit a fellow volunteer and had a wonderful time seeing the work that she was doing and preparing delicious food.  We made homemade raviolis stuffed with carrot puree and served in a cream sauce with bread and lots of veggies.  What a treat!  I also found some very expensive granola in the south african store and so I have a great treat now that tastes like home.

But the good news is that we got our site placements!!!  I am so so so so happy!  I will be living in Inhambane City, which is right on a sheltered bay just minutes from the Indian Ocean and one of the most famous beaches in Mozambique.  I will be working with a national aids alliance doing organizational development and capacity building and also working with a socially-conscious body products business that works with women and familes affected by HIV/AIDS and other issues to develop locally sourced market ready body products.  I posted more info and links on my facebook page for those of you interested!   On a final note about that, I have been placed within a couple of hours of my closest friend here, so I honestly could not be happier! 

There are three weeks of training remaining, although the final week is mostly final details!  Once I get settled, I will renew my promise to post weekly or at least write a weekly blog in more detail.  I apologize for this broad overview, but hopefully I've captured the most important points!

PC Staging in Philly...countdown to Mozambique

June 4, 2011
PST: Orientation, Week 1
Monday, May 30
After 6 hours of travel, I arrived in Philadelphia where I met up with Vicente, a fellow Trainee on my flight, as well as with Dylan and Morgan.  We took two taxis to the hotel.  After checking into my room, I found Maddy, my Philly roommate, who had arrived at 1pm reading on the bed.  We introduced and then I changed my clothes (92 degrees and 100% humidity), and then wandered down to the convenience store to pull out some cash.  Coming back to the hotel, it was evident who the other volunteers were coming in, they were all slightly wide eyed and loaded down with tons of luggage.
At 6pm we headed to check-in and began the process of becoming official trainees.  We turned in the rest of our paperwork and received our walk-around allowance, all the while chatting with the other trainees in the line.  As soon as we finished the paperwork, we agreed to all meet up and head to dinner.  Once everyone finally arrived in the lobby, we took off down the streets of downtown Philadelphia, a long line of gawking, yakking and laughing new friends.  After much aimless wandering we found a little Irish Pub, and they set us up a long table in the back.  Part of my mission while in Philly was to consume a Philly cheesesteak.  I have to say in retrospect that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to have my Philly cheesesteak experience take place in an Irish Pub.  The meat was dry and there was very little flavor. All in all, my cheesesteak experience was a disappointment.  After dinner and a couple drinks, exhaustion set in over the crowd and we wandered back to the hotel.  Both Maddy and I were extremely exhausted, so sleep set in quickly.
Tuesday, May 31
We had to be in the lobby at 7:15 to head to the clinic, so we woke up at 6:15 (4:15am according to my body).  Breakfast was bad fruit and semi-passable coffee and then it was off to the medical appointment.  Another long line of gawking tourists wandering down the streets of Philly.  Our hotel straddled the edge of downtown and the poorer section, and our walk took us down a pretty interesting street.  We ended up at a government building where the lot of us headed through security.  It was very much like being on a field trip in elementary school.  After security, we lined up against the wall in alphabetical order (again, elementary school), and were split into two groups.  One group of us headed to the cafeteria to wait and one to the clinic.  I was in the first group, so I sat in the cafeteria getting to know some of my fellow volunteers.  There was much swapping of medical mishaps and it was a relief to realize how many people had so much more trouble than I did.  There are also quite a few people who had been nominated to programs in Latin America or had been nominated to education programs but ended up being invited to this program at the last minute.  After about 45 minutes we headed up to the clinic where we signed some more papers and waited for our shots.  To our collective relief, it was just a single shot today for yellow fever.  It went quickly.  The clinic ended by 9:30am and we were told to meet back up at the hotel for staging at 1pm.  Set free, I headed back to the hotel to change and then met up with Maddy and Jack to walk to the Liberty Bell.  I’m not much of one for history, and I hadn’t really made the connection as to how patriotic of a city Philly was (which makes sense when I actually think about it), but it was interested nonetheless to see such historic landmarks.  The line for the bell was long, but luckily there was a viewing area from outside, so we could see it and read about the history.  The main thing that struck me was that the bell was meant to represent liberty, and cracked almost immediately upon arriving to the United States.  I found it to be the most perfectly ironic metaphor.  We wandered around Independence Hall a bit and then headed back through the city to our hotel to meet some other volunteers for lunch.  For lunch we ate at Terminal Market, where I had some last minute Mexican food.   Maddy and I sat with Joe, another volunteer, who is taking a hiatus from his work in the health field and got to know him a little bit over our food.  We then headed back to the hotel for our afternoon meeting. 
Headed into the room, it was filled with tables covered in markers and name-tags and staging notebooks and we spent the rest of the afternoon in that room discussing the kinds of issues that may come up, how to deal with stress, our fears and anxieties about service, and reviewing what it means to be a peace corps volunteer.  Afterwards, the group of us headed to Red Robin for dinner, where the management gave us a box of Hershey’s chocolate to celebrate our upcoming service.  After dinner, Maddy and I to a little walk around Philly to digest and then headed back up to our room to begin the process of repacking for what felt like the millionth time.  We had a number of last minute things to do to get ready to take off and ended up going to sleep at around 1 am.

Wednesday, June 1
At 2:30 am the alarm went off and we got up, grabbed our heavy bags and headed to the lobby to load up on the bus.  By 3:30 pm we were in our seats and headed down the road.  A fellow volunteer, Eric, forgot his expensive new international phone in the lobby of the hotel and spent the beginning of the bus ride trying to figure out how to get it shipped to Africa.  I slept off and on for most of the 3 hour bus ride, but woke up as we entered New York City, the first time I had been there besides a brief stop at Newark Airport a few years ago.  I enjoyed getting to travel through the city so early in the morning, and was craning my neck trying to absorb as much of the cityscape as possible.  We arrived at JFK at 6:30 in the morning and spent a confusing 30 minutes trying to figure out what gate we would be flying out of.  Once we established that we would be checking in at South African Airlines, we unloaded all of our baggage and the whole group settled in to wait for the ticket counter to open.  Most of us spent this time weighing our bags at the unmanned ticket counter and shifting things around to fit into the weight limit as well as searching for coffee and snacks.  When the ticket counter opened, we all lined up to start the long process of checking in only to be told that our tickets weren’t valid and that we would all need to go to another place to get the issue resolve.  We soon discovered that someone at the airline had accidentally voided our reservation and the next 45 minutes was a chaotic mess of bags and confusion in the line as they reprinted tickets one-by-one.  After that mess, security was a breeze, as was waiting for the plane.  I have never been on a huge international flight, and walking down the gangway to the huge plane was a surreal experience.  We settled into our seats, and into the reality that we were actually going to be flying to Africa in a few minutes. 
I'm going to cut this short, because as I write this, my cousin Lena is staring at the screen seemingly fascinated by the fact that words are appearing on the page as I type, so I think I will wrap this up and add more later!