Friday, December 24, 2010

The End

It's after midnight here in Kennett Square, so it's officially Christmas Eve. I've been home for a week now and haven't found any time to write this blog! Turns out America is pretty overwhelming. Lots of people ask me if I've "adjusted." Like it's just a yes or no question. At moments it's so normal -- I'm happy to be here, and I'm blown away by how friendly people can be while working in the service industry (a foreign idea). But my mind is definitely still confused. Example #1: I was in the basement when my mom turned off the lights, but I didn't blink an eye because I assumed the power had gone out... until I remembered that that doesn't just randomly happen in America. #2: I was in my room when out of the corner of my eye I saw something move across the wall (my own shadow). I first assumed it was a lizard, obviously... but I guess they don't populate domestic interiors in suburban Pennsylvania. In December.

The fact that I traveled a bit on my way home, though, definitely helped to ease the transition. It certainly would have felt stranger being transplanted here directly from a rural African village. My time in Senegal was pretty luxurious as Peace Corps goes, I have to say. My friend Andy lives in a high-rise apartment overlooking the ocean in metropolitan Dakar (the nation's capital, population 2.5 million). Then I passed a few days at Emilie's site, Louga (regional capital, population 85,000). I've spent time in Senegal before so most of the sights weren't new to me, but it was nice to have a chance to relax and catch up with old friends. Emilie is quite proficient in Wolof, so it was fun to see her interact with neighbors and her host family. Speaking of which, check out the sweet impact Em has made in the form of American hand clapping games. Featured here is her young sister, Aïda Lô:

Other highlights of the time in Senegal included ever-entertaining market shopping, delicious food (both Senegalese and other international fare), cooking adventures, Christmas decorations, and a visit to a Belgian-owned liqueur factory that uses only local fruits. See pics for more brief stories.

But THE ABSOLUTE BEST part of my West Africa travels was... the opportunity to go back to my village in Mauritania!!! I wasn't sure if it would work out, and frankly it was a bit of a hassle to get there, unsurprisingly. The visa cost about $83, and transportation was as fickle and agonizing as ever. But it was all absolutely worth it.

One of my big concerns was that I wouldn't be able to speak Pulaar anymore, something kind of essential in my tiny village where that is the *only* thing spoken. When I took a bush taxi from Dakar to Rosso, the border town with Mauritania, there were a few Pulaars in the car with me. As I listened to them speak to each other and on the phone, I just kept smiling to myself as I recognized one thing after another. It was just like opening a floodgate in my brain, some torrential force that had been barricaded up for so long but suddenly came flowing out in abundance. Honestly, by the end of that six-hour ride, I felt just about fluent again! Which was certainly helpful for the border crossing. "Oh, she speaks Pulaar!" they all said. "Are you Peace Corps? You must be Peace Corps." Sadly, no one seemed to realize that PC has left the RIM (Mauritania).

I had so much anticipation as I finally pulled up to my village, sitting on a pile of pebbles in the back of a "prison van" delivery truck. In 18 months since my leaving, I had spoken to literally not a single person from Dar el Barka. What if the village looks different? What if my family's not there for some reason? What if I'm not welcome?

...not welcome?! HA!! I guess I was forgetting this was Mauritania, home of seriously the most hospitable people in the world. I got off the van and started shuffling across the village towards my family's house. It was 2:30 PM, a great time to arrive. A couple people recognized me on the way and called out to me by name. I smiled to myself, trying to contain my excitement. I rounded the last bend, spotting some of the girls' heads over the compound wall. I think Goggo spotted me first. "HAAAAAAIIII-YO, RAKY TUBAKEL!!!" She physically dropped what was in her hands and came racing to me, followed quickly by at least five others. They swallowed me in hugs and breathless greetings. The children hopped up and down. I had envisioned this moment for months upon months, and in the end it was better than I'd dreamed.

I spent less than two days in Dar el Barka, but truthfully that was all I needed. It gave me such a wonderful sense of closure that I just had been lacking. And other than the little kids getting taller, everything was exactly the same; that was somehow so comforting to me. When I rode away this time, with hennaed feet and beaded wrists, it was not with sadness but with peace.

The flight to Washington, D.C., was uneventful and fine. I got through customs very quickly, even though the agent seemed surprised when he read the list of countries I'd visited during my stay abroad: Rwanda, Uganda, Togo, Benin, Senegal, Mauritania. He asked what I was doing there, and I hesitated before deciding to answer, "Visiting friends." He gave me a skeptical look. "You have friends in all these places?" Yes sir, in fact I do!

For my welcome to America, my mom's car broke down on the drive home, just as a snowstorm kicked up. While we sat at the garage, everyone seemed so apologetic -- about the snow, about the car, about the wait. I just laughed. I was thrilled! There was a 7/11 right next door where I could get SO MANY KINDS of food!! So my first "meal" in America was dried-out chicken tenders with bleu cheese dressing, a taquito, a muffin, and overly sweet cappuccino. And in that moment I was so excited about seeing snow that I didn't even much mind that my only protection against it was my thin rain jacket (all I had!).

And that's all, folks. Thanks for following me on this meandering, two-and-a-half-year-long Peace Corps journey. Murabeho from Rwanda and... well, there's no word for goodbye in Pulaar. You just say thank you: On jaaraama.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Been in Bénin

On November 13, I passed through (and attempted to sleep in) five countries and thus survived the most extensive solo travel experience of my life! At about 10:45 PM the night before, I took a moto to the tiny international airport in Kigali, Rwanda. The "system was down," so they couldn't confirm my booking -- but no problem, they just issued me a handwritten ticket. Seat number: "FREE." Awesome. We took off half an hour ahead of schedule, at 1:30 AM. Good thing, because after less than an hour in the air we had a surprise unscheduled stop to board passengers in Entebbe, Uganda. But we made it to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in plenty of time for my next flight. The Addis airport is a great place for people-watching, as it's a hub for much of Africa and also the Middle East. And I would like to go on record as saying that Ethiopian women are stunning!

I found my connecting terminal, where we boarded an hour late for the flight to Lomé, Togo (with onward service to Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire -- you're forgiven if you've never heard of these places!). Fun fact: I was literally the only white person on the entire Boeing 757. These aren't hot spots on the tourist circuit, I guess. We landed around 1 PM local time, and as I stepped off the plane in exhausted excitement, a brick wall of heat rocked me. I had been mentally preparing myself for the fact that West Africa is considerably hotter than eternal-spring Rwanda, but it still just takes the breath out of you.

All things considered, my arrival in Togo went pretty smoothly. At the airport I needed to purchase an entrance visa... which had to be paid for in West African CFA francs... which cannot be obtained outside of West Africa... and yet there is no place to exchange money before the immigration checkpoint. (In moments like this, you just think, surely I am not the first person who has ever had this issue in the history of this airport.) The immigration official was a little testy with me, but fortunately he allowed a guard to escort me out into the lobby where I could change my money. I got my visa without too much hassle, as well as my one checked bag that had arrived safe and sound.

I found a local cab to take me to the bush taxi park, which was little more than a deserted dirt lot with a few broken-down vehicles on offer. I found one headed to Cotonou, Bénin, and we were on our way immediately, picking up other passengers along the way. The border crossing was painless, and even after hitting some traffic and rain (plus losing an hour due to a time difference), by about 8:30 PM I made it to the Cotonou Peace Corps office where I was warmly received by my friend Dave.

Dave and I went to Boston University together and met in our a cappella group, In Achord. He has been a PCV in Bénin since July 2009. For his first year he was posted to a tiny village where he had no electricity or running water and was the only foreigner around. But now he's moved up in the world, assuming the big bad position of "PCVL" (Peace Corps Volunteer-Leader). My PC programs did not have this role in Mauritania or Rwanda, but here in Bénin it's a pretty sweet deal for Dave. He lives at and maintains a regional "workstation" for other PCVs, and he serves as a community liaison in Parakou, the departmental capital of about 200,000 people. I can attest that Dave works really hard and is kept quite busy! And since he did put in the time roughing it last year, I don't begrudge him that he now lives in a gorgeous palace (okay, Peace Corps-grade palace) and has the highest-speed wireless internet I've ever encountered in Africa.

So what have I been up to here? Became well-acquainted with the delicious, abundant, and cheap street food. Celebrated the Muslim holiday Tabaski (Eid al-Adha) with some Beninese friends. Sat in on a Bariba language lesson and a meeting at the UN Population Fund. Got a private guided tour of an up-and-coming local music history museum. Visited another PCV in a more remote post (and felt some oddly fond nostalgia for the familiar blistering heat of an African day without electricity). Went for bike rides around town, and in related news remembered how sadly out of shape I am. Spent a lovely Thanksgiving with the greater PC family, about 15 of us together.

Don't want to ramble, so I'll let some pictures do the talking...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Murabeho, Rwanda

I'm thisclose to being an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, meaning I completed my service successfully). Tomorrow is the official day, but it's a PC holiday for Veterans Day so I need to have all my stuff closed out by the end of today. Currently I'm just sitting in the PC bureau in Kigali, waiting on staff to sign some documents for me and give me more documents to keep track of. Your taxpayer dollars at work, folks!

Among all my "last" experiences in Rwanda, I had a lovely evening with some PCV friends on Monday night. There is a great restaurant in Kigali that hosts trivia nights once a week, but because I lived too far away and worked during the week, I hadn't gotten to go to them. Let me insert here that if you aren't already aware, I'm kiiiind of obsessed with pub trivia nights in America. Let me also say that during my first month at site in Rwanda, I had a lot of down time, and I memorized all the world capitals. Yes. Kind of just for fun, but also with the hope that SOMEDAY, SOMEWHERE, this knowledge would enable me to wow my teammates and rival teams at a pub trivia night. Anyway, I'll cut to the chase: it happened. It was my crowning achievement. Capital of Montenegro? Podgorica, bam! I was absurdly happy.

A lot of people have been asking me how I "feel" with respect to COSing, or closing my service. Are you sooo excited? Are you really sad? Is it so weird? And usually I've been responding simply that I'm at peace with it (no pun intended). I certainly enjoyed my Peace Corps service, and I'm really glad I decided to do it. But for me, I'm definitely ready to be coming home to the grand ol' USA. I'm not counting the minutes and hours until I get on a plane, but I'm ready. I will leave Rwanda at 2:00 AM local time on Friday night/Saturday morning. (Then my crazy epic travel adventures begin!)

I moved out of my site on October 25 without too much fanfare, which was fine. I don't like super emotional goodbyes; I have my memories and I am content with them. Then I headed to Nyanza, 90 minutes south of Kigali, to help with pre-service training (PST) for our newest arrivals. About 70 trainees are learning all the ins and outs of Peace Corps and will swear in at the beginning of January. I assisted mainly with TEFL-related training, talking about my experience being a teacher in Rwanda. The trainees are great and very motivated, full of questions. One thing that I was asked several times was how often I'd gotten sick in Rwanda. "Never!" was my emphatic response.

So, of course, then I became extremely ill during my second week in Nyanza. It seemed like it could possibly be malaria at the onset, but the final diagnosis was tonsillitis. I never knew that could affect a person so seriously, but I was laid up in bed for 72 straight hours! Let's just say that of the symptoms listed on Wikipedia, I had ALL of them:

* red and/or swollen tonsils
* white or yellow patches on the tonsils
* tender, stiff, and/or swollen neck
* bad breath
* sore throat
* painful or difficult swallowing
* cough
* headache
* sore eyes
* body aches
* fever
* chills
* nasal congestions

But our Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) is the greatest, and he got me everything I needed to be back up to snuff in a few days. Sadly, the last random issue is that this week I have some unexplained rash on my chest and back, which the doctor says does not seem to be from my meds... so who knows! At least it's not bothering me; I just look like a leper. Ah, Peace Corps.

Speaking of how I look, I'd wanted to post some pictures of all my African outfits. I'd had a bunch made in Mauritania because that was all we really wore there, no Western clothes. As I'm leaving Rwanda, I'm giving almost all my clothing away, so these photos will serve as the last documentation. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Freestyle Farewell

You're in for a treat! Here it is, in all its glory, what you've all been waiting for...

(There was more to it, of course, but unfortunately I only captured a portion of it on film. You get the drift.)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bye-bye, Buyoga

I proctored 8 final exams, each 2-3 hours long. I graded my 285 English exams. I recorded all of their grades in my computer and also in my grade book. Then I calculated end-of-year grades for every one of my students. If I were a typical Rwandan teacher, after those calculations I'd get to copy every figure onto a grade reporting sheet. Let's do the math: (2 marks per term x 3 terms + 1 grand total) x 285 students = 1,995 numbers to write by hand. And let's be honest, if I were a typical Rwandan teacher at my school, I'd have more than 285 students and more than one subject's exam to grade -- but you get the idea. Anyway, I took a shortcut and printed out all my grades in nice pretty spreadsheets. Oh, how I love thee, Microsoft Excel.

The monotony of grading was tempered with the cute little personal notes that many kids include on their exams. Examples (you can click to enlarge):

With that, my responsibilities at Buyoga Secondary School were complete. But as Rwandans love ceremonies, they insisted on having a send-off celebration for me. It was held where all large school gatherings are, in the cafeteria. They remove all the tables and arrange the benches in rows for the spectators. But inevitably there is not enough space, so kids jam together as tightly as possible and the latecomers stand crowded in the back.

The festivities began with a few students doing traditional dance while another small group sang and played a drum. At first I didn't pay much attention to the Kinyarwanda lyrics, but then my ears seemed to hear "Juliana." As I listened closer, I heard that the chorus did indeed sing my name, followed by umurezi wacu na mama we meaning "our teacher and her mother." So I could only assume this was a little piece penned in my honor (and my mom's, who the kids all talk about ever since she visited in July). Really sweet.

(Disclaimer: These ceremony pictures are not from my camera. It's somewhat unbelievable to me that the quality is so terrible, because the school actually has a really nice 10.1-megapixel camera. C'est la vie.)

But that wasn't the only original composition! Some time later, two of my boys took the floor, each clutching a microphone at a rapper's angle. They proceeded to perform an amazing a cappella freestyle song that they had written for me. It was both touching and hilarious. If by chance you are familiar with Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak, it reminded me of the last track "Pinocchio Story." Basically the boys screamed out my name many times over, dropped to their knees in anguish, and kept returning to the chorus: "I TAKE THIS MICROPHONE / TO TELL YOU BYE-BYE..." I have some priceless video of it, so maybe if I can get to fast internet sometime soon, I'll try to upload it because this description really doesn't do it justice.

At the end of the ceremony, the headmaster and the "head girl" and "head boy" student representatives presented me with a small gift: a hand-carved wooden map of Rwanda. It was unexpected and really thoughtful.

After that two-hour long ordeal, there was essentially an after-party in the school library. In attendance were about half of the teachers, a handful of select students, the headmaster, and a local government rep (I guess to make everything more official). Of course, in typical Rwandan fashion, EVERY SINGLE PERSON had to make a personal speech to me. It's kind of obnoxious, not to mention time-consuming. Over half of the people who gave speeches have hardly said two words to me this entire year, but sure enough they get up there and talk for 5 or 10 minutes straight. I'm continually amazed how every Rwandan is so good at speaking extemporaneously, especially since sometimes the emcee cold-calls with a specific topic ("Antoine, tell what you learned during the teachers' classes with Julie Ann"). The payoff for enduring the never-ending speeches was a small feast of goat brochettes, seasoned potatoes, and Fanta. Yum yum yum.

Many of you have asked me when I'm leaving Rwanda. I deliberately hadn't mentioned it yet because the plans were a little bit up in the air, due to some miscommunication that I don't need to rant about here. In the end, I am moving out of my Buyoga this Monday, October 25. For two weeks I will be in Nyanza, helping to train our newest class of Peace Corps recruits. Then I will leave Rwanda on the evening of Friday, November 12. (So, please don't send me any more mail! There's not enough time to ensure I'll receive it.) I'm planning an epic journey through West Africa, and at last I will be back in the States sometime in December. I'll be home for Christmas... =)

My favorite goodbye experience was heading to the Buyoga market on Thursday to bid farewell to my tomato lady, Mukashyaka. This woman brought me joy every single market day. Here's a typical exchange: she lights up when she sees me coming, and she greets me in Kinyarwanda. Then she says, "Ushaka inyanya -- You want tomatoes." It's a statement, not a question. I ask how much. "Today, they're 500 for the small bowl. But FOR YOU, 400!" Then she personally picks out the best-looking ones, fills the bowl to overflowing, and throws about 5 extra tomatoes in my bag for free. Then she says, "And I know you love green peppers, too!" and she dashes off to a nearby stall to pick the best peppers for me there. She brings those back and throws them in my bag, for an equally rock-bottom price (not sure how that works, since the peppers aren't hers to begin with). "So you'll come back!" she explains. I thank her profusely, and she just says, "You're my good customer."

So I took her a small gift of a scarf I was going to get rid of anyway. She was so taken aback! Then I really floored her by asking to take her picture. She did the typical Rwandan pose of looking down with a serious expression -- but she gives herself away. Her eyes are smiling.