April 29 2018

Peace Corps Update

When I share with someone that I’m joining the Peace Corps, I get one of two reactions:

  1.   “OMG, how long is that?  TWO YEARS! How can you afford to do that? What about work? What about your house?  What about [fill in the blank]________________?” This exclamation is often accompanied by a facial expression of woe and angst followed by “I could never do that”
  2. “Oh wow, that is so cool. That’s so brave.   I’m really excited/I really admire that you’re doing that.”  This is usually said by someone who is not a member of my generation, or someone who is a really close friend and knows me well.

Having written this out, I feel like these responses to my decision are a pretty accurate timeline of my own feelings about Peace Corps.

I received my invitation to serve in July 2017.  At first I was really excited, and then lurking worry and fears of the unknown starting to sneak their way into my subconscious. Eventually, I sucked it up and got my fingerprints done, checking off the first task in a surprisingly long litany of Peace Corps related tasks. This is probably one of the finer decisions I have made in life.

Nearly every adult older than me I spoke with about my Peace Corps decision encouraged me without reservation to pursue that unknown horizon (Reaction #2).  They spoke of looking back on their own lives to places where they met a fork in the road, and now with near unanimity wish that had taken that less trodden path. My biggest hang up was money, though it shames me to say it out loud. I have always prided myself in not being a consumer, not letting things or stuff tie me down or control my life. I never appreciated that instead of stuff, I was consumed by the need to horde money for my future’s sake.  Every single adult assured me that there is always time to make money, and really, money doesn’t make your world go ’round.  Certainly it is important, and I know there are certain things I want to buy that will require some savings and a steady job, but those things are worth delaying for something like Peace Corps.

Making the decision to let go of monetary wealth for the next two years was really difficult for me, but I’ve come to the point where I can put it out of my mind for the sake of better things that I’m sure will make me poorer monetarily speaking, but much richer in life. Wealth, after all, is just what you make of it.

Hooray for personal growth!

But not everyone is supportive of this decision and here are some of my thoughts on the most common questions or concerns I get concerning Peace Corps.

Q: That’s like TWO YEARS of your LIFE!  (concerns about commitment)

A:  Yes, yes it is.  However, it’s not like I wouldn’t be living those two years of my life anyway, right?  You have to live them somewhere, and I can either live them in a way where that it is easy to predict my day-to-day, or in a way that it is not.  If I weren’t going into the Peace Corps, I’d being going to graduate school, so it’s not exactly as if I’d be carefree and unencumbered anyway.

Q: Oooh… doesn’t that mean you have to live with no running water/electricity/indoor plumbing/car/etc?

A: Quite possibly yes, it does. But you know what? The lack of conveniences really doesn’t bother me in any significant way. Yes, I love hot showers and all of the joys of plumbing, but they aren’t huge priorities for me.  I’ve lived without them before, and I would do it again.

Q: What if you get sick/robbed/homesick/lonely?

A: I fully expect all of thing to happen, probably all at once and probably more than once. And it will be miserable and without a doubt, there will be moments where I want nothing more than to catch the next donkey cart back to South Carolina. But bad things happen to people everywhere, all the time. They happen to me living here, and I deal with them.  They will probably happen to me there, and I will deal with them there, too.

Q: Oh, so you’re out to go save the world/postpone adulthood/some other irresponsible choice? That probably won’t look too hot on a resume.

A: Oooh, judgy-judgy, aren’t you?!  I am joining Peace Corps for my reasons, and my reasons alone. They consist of pursuing what I find to be personally fulfilling, important, and meaningful, as well as how I see my own place within the world and life.   It’s such a challenge to get out there! To see the world for what it is instead of what it is portrayed to be! I love that, and want to be part of it. Peace Corps is not perfect in any way (is anything?), but they offer an opportunity to serve myself, my country, and maybe in some small way, someone else who shares in my fellow humanity. I think that in itself is cause enough for anyone.
And no, I would dare to disagree that joining Peace Corps is “postponing” anything, except perhaps a fat bank account.  It has taken me a lot of thought and courage to apply and pursue Peace Corps, and if anything, I see it as a remarkable testament to my character, perseverance, and ability to withstand nearly anything.  Also, perhaps it demonstrates a marked tolerance for misery, which is just fine with me. Putting a successful Peace Corps tour on my resume will be a very proud moment in my life, and honestly, would I even want to work for someone who didn’t agree?

And finally…

Q: Oh wow, Peace Corps? I could never do that.

A: Yes. you. could. I hate to hear people downplay their own ability to adapt, change, and remain resilient against the unknown. Women, especially, seem to always discount their own strengths and ability to do something hard.  If you are reading this blog and contemplating your own application to Peace Corps, I would urge you to dismiss outright those fears of what is unknown or unfamiliar. Don’t be discouraged by your own trepidation, or shy away from discomfort.  If Peace Corps (or anything in life) is something you feel calling to you, whispering in your ears with an unheard voice of temptation, then take those reins! Seek that far horizon and do not stop until you find whatever it is that drives you.  For me, Peace Corps is the hand that will open many doors I could never have opened or perhaps even dreamed of myself. Yes, I feel fear, and yes, I feel anxiety. But everything that may ever be gained by stepping into the chasm that is the unseen future is worth the immense challenge it is to rise above those concerns.  It is a process. It will take time and thought and my utmost concentration. But, I have no doubt, that I am ready to serve.

April 22 2018

You’ve got a question; I’ve got answers

I’m medically and legally cleared still but people still want to know what happened with Madagascar. [Questions for Madagascar; why I’m still in the US].  Let’s get to the questions, shall we?
Question 1:  What exactly is the Peace Corps?

The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by John F. Kennedy with three key goals in mind:

  • Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  • Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  • Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
“The Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged the students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.”
The Peace Corps is a government organization in which accepted applicants are invited to serve in a foreign country. Areas of service are requested by the participating countries and include education, youth and community development, health, business information and communication technology, agriculture, and environment. Accepted applicants volunteer to spend 27 months abroad and fully immerse themselves in the language and culture. Volunteers have served in 139 different countries, and work to create positive sustainable change in a global community. Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011.
Question 2:  Rwanda? Is that safe?
  • Peace Corps | Rwanda began in 1975 went through 1994, was suspended in 1994 and was restarted in 2008. Currently there are about 175 volunteers in Rwanda and nearly 800 have served in the country since its beginnings.
  • Africa represents about 40% of Peace Corps volunteers.
  • Rwanda is about the size of Massachusetts. It is located at higher altitude and has a more temperate climate than one would expect of a country located nearly on the equator.
  • The official languages are English and Kinyarwandan. French was dropped as an official language in 2009 as Rwanda seeks to become more ‘international’.
  • The population is about 12 million people. Although Rwanda is resource-poor and land locked, it seeks to become Africa’s first middle income (second world) country. 60% of the country lives on less than $1.25/per day.
  • Climates vary. It generally has four seasons , just not the four we are accustomed to having: rainy season 1 and 2; dry season 1 and 2. It is cooler in the higher altitudes and warmer to the west.

Question 3:  What will you be doing?
I will be a Maternal-Child Health volunteer focusing on mamas and the first 1000 days of children’s lives. I could be partnered with an international organization like the Red Cross or a local NGO. While yellow fever is not endemic to Rwanda, malaria is.  I’ll be promoting safe pregnancies, better nutrition, prevention of malaria and other illnesses, as well as the importance of water, hygiene, and sanitation. [Or at least that is the plan]

Question 4:  What do you do for training?
I will have about 10 weeks of pre-service training June–August. The training has five major components: technical, cross-cultural, language, health, and safety. I will also have a one week site visit to give me an general overview of what my site will be like.

Question 5:  Do you know where you’ll be living in the country?
No, but I will find out several weeks into training based off questionnaires, preferences, and where my skills will be best utilized. I don’t get to choose exactly where I will live which is OK since my Rwandan geography is nascent, but if I had my preference, I’d choose to live near one of the national parks.

Question 6:  What will your living situation be like?
I will most likely be living in a rural village, but Rwanda is one of the smallest and most populated African countries so chances are, I won’t be alone.  My housing will be similar to my community. I might have a room on the health center grounds or a small house with one or two rooms. My house might be a mud hut with a thatched roof or a modern cement house.  From my research, it seems as if the more rural the location, the better the actual house.  Indoor plumbing is most likely a no as is running water. However, electricity is quite a possibility.  Not 24-7 electricity like we are used to, but especially in rural Rwanda, PV electricity is common in health centers.   Rwanda is one of the most connected countries in Africa, and it is almost certain that I’ll have cell service from my location.

Question 7:  Will you have a cell phone?
See question #6. Most volunteers have their own cell phone. I will bring my current mobile, buy a SIM card, and a internet stick. That way, I’ll be able to use my phone to text and call and use the internet.

Question 8: What will you eat?
Rwandan food is pretty bland; it is neither spicy nor hot. People eat simple meals made with locally grown ingredients. The basic diet consists mainly of sweet potatoes, beans, corn, peas, millet, plantains, cassava, and fruit. The potato is now very popular, thought to have been introduced by German colonists.  I also hope to have my own vegetable garden, but seafood is most likely not going to be an everyday meal.

Question 9: Do you have vacation?
Volunteers get two vacation days per month that can accrue totaling over 50 days for two years. I cannot take vacation within my first 6 months [training or community integration] or my last three months [site project wrap-ups].

Question 10:  Will you live with a host family?
I will most definitely live with a host family during  training, and most likely live on my own the rest of the time.

Question 11:  Can you receive mail?
Yes, yes, yes! I want to keep in touch with family and friends while I’m gone, and a big thank you in advance to anyone who wants to send mail my way!  See my contact page on where to send stuff, what to send, and how to send it. Also my birthday is February 24, and cards and presents are always appreciated.

Question 12:  Do you get paid?

Yes, but not much.  The 2016 GDP for Rwanda was $738 which is the highest it has ever been. That averages out to be a little more than $2/day and is quite the improvement from 1994  when it was $204–about 60 cents. I will be making about $200/month and considering that most Rwandan natives make less than $2/day, I get paid well, but by American standards, I make more in one 12 hour shift as a RN than I do in one month working in Rwanda.  However, my housing and insurance are covered by the Peace Corps so essentially I just have to pay for food, transportation, and internet. Also there’s no Amazon or Target in Rwanda so that addiction has been curtailed.

I also get an allowance at staging and a settling in allowance once in Rwanda. That allowance is based on whether the site has had a volunteer before, whether or not I need to buy furniture, and how far away I am from the capital.

At the completion of service, I will get a settlement allowance of roughly $9000 + a flight home [or its equivalent in cash]. There are also government benefits such as one year NCE status and opportunities for graduate school scholarships.

April 8 2018

Breaking the rules in Aberdeen, Scotland

Ignorance is no excuse

One of the very few things I remember from my Business Law class is ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse,’ nor is it a valid defense.  However, in Aberdeen not only did I unknowingly break several laws, had I been caught, ignorance would have been my only defense.

Aberdeen is not quite the Scottish Highlands, but it is getting closer. Aberdeen is Scotland’s third largest city behind Edinburgh and Glasgow, and its location on the North Sea gives it an amazing coastline and busy shipping docks.

Nearly everything in the town is constructed with granite mined from the Rubinslaw Quarry. The quarry was active for nearly 300 years, but was closed in 1971. Now it’s a big giant hole in the ground filled with 40+ years of rainwater.

Sheriff’s court

History Nerd Alert #1:

Robert I, popularly known as Robert the Bruce, was King of Scots from 1306 until his death in 1329. Robert was one of the most famous warriors of his generation, eventually leading Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence against England.

Marischal College–now a civic building in Aberdeen

History Nerd Alert #2:

A mercat cross is the Scots name for the market cross found frequently in Scottish towns, cities and villages where historically the right to hold a regular market or fair was granted by the monarch, a bishop or a baron. It therefore served a secular purpose as a symbol of authority, and was an indication of a burgh’s relative prosperity. Historically, the term dates from the period before 1707 when Scotland was an autonomous kingdom, but it has been applied loosely to later structures built in the traditional architectural style of crosses or structures fulfilling the function of marking a settlement’s focal point. (Thank you Wikipedia)  Aberdeen’s cross was constructed from granite and was designed by local architect John Montgomery in 1686.

History Nerd Alert #3

The Gordon Highlanders was the name of a British Army Infantry Regiment. It was active from 1881 to 1994, and I always thought that Gordon Highlander was a single person in Scotland’s history.

They used to hold public executions in the spot across from Old Blackfriar’s pub. Nothing like a good public execution to stir up an appetite for fine Scotch and good grub.

St. Nicholas Church

Courtyard at St Nicholas

I’m not very good at following rules. It’s a badge of honour that I have not yet ever spent time in jail.  I certainly have done some things in my time that could have landed me there. In my wanderings out and about in Aberdeen, I have inadvertently broken the following Scottish laws today:  [I can only hope that I don’t end up at the roofless Scottish prison in Edinburgh]

  1. Took pictures in a shopping center
  2. Took a picture of a police car and perhaps a police man[person]
  3. Touched an old rusted propeller in a museum that had it labeled as something “too fragile to touch”
  4. Read an article in a magazine in a store without purchasing it
  5. Took pictures in a church
  6. Took pictures of Scottish people without their permission [ In my defense though, no one will be able to recognized the aforementioned Scottish people.]

Aberdeen–you are a beautiful, unexpected breath of fresh air.