June 24 2018

World Cup and Making Friends

I described the process of being matched up with host families as being puppies at the pound.

Imagine this:  You are placed in a room with about 50 people who you do not know, where everyone is speaking a language you do not know.  All you can do is listen for your name.  And when it is called, you meet up with the representative of the family who will raise you for the next 10 weeks.

I met my Mama, and her first words to me were ‘Parle vous francais’.  Sadly I answered ‘un peu’ and thus began the quiet weekend.

You see, this pairing up happened, for us, on Friday, after just two days in Rwanda, and a fledgling vocabulary consisting of ‘Hello, my name is… I am from America’  ‘Good Morning [evening]’ ‘Good Night’ ‘What is your name?’  I’ll admit to being terrified and saying, to myself, ‘what fresh hell have I engaged in now?’

As much as I want to be settled, I selected a few outfits, 5 days’ worth of underwear, two pairs of shoes, all my electronics, and my pillow. I left a lot of my things at the training center and was grateful that I did.  My Rwandan family’s house is small, and my room is much smaller than I am accustomed to, and even with my two small bags [think carry-on sized] of clothes and electronics, I have more material things than they do.  The Peace Corps’ gave us a 20L jerry-can, a 5L can of water, and rather large water filter.  Additionally, we received a bucket, a small cup, and a bottle of bleach. My goods were loaded in a Peace Corps’ truck, I climbed in after Mama, and then we left.  Approximately three minutes later, we arrived at my new house for the next 10 weeks.

Obviously not my house, but an actual view of the palm trees I can see from inside my house

The quiet weekend began as soon as I set foot in the house.  Having  exhausted my fledgling Kinyarwanadan vocabulary and not knowing any English, Mama and I didn’t talk.  I went about setting up my room, ripping the plastic off my brand new Peace Corps’ provided [twin] mattress, setting up my Peace Corps’ provided water filter, and trying to make my Spartan accommodations as homey as possible [it didn’t work].

After about an hour, I hear a knock on the door, and in accented English, I hear “Michelle, do you eat lice?”  Appreciating the English, but not the sentence, I remained silent. Another knock, “Michelle?”  I reluctantly opened the door.  Greeting me enthusiastically with ‘I am Deborah, your host sister.  Mama wants to know if you eat lice?’

It took a few seconds for me to reach back into the dark areas of my brain and remember that sometimes, English as a Second Language learners sometimes mix up Ls and Rs.  After remembering that, I replied, “Yes, I eat rice.”

With Deborah’s help, I learned that in Rwanda, I have a 25 year-old brother who live in Kigali [we’ve never met] and that she is Level 2 at the local school [I’m not sure what that means although there are six levels].  There is not Papa, and I know enough to ask, that when someone says someone is not here, don’t ask questions. [Although seeing as how Deborah is 14, it’s impossible that he died in the genocide that occurred in 1994].


The past two weeks of living with my host family has been challenging. Kinyarwanda is a difficult language with a lot of letter combination that my mouth isn’t used to making. While I can memorize words and may even know what someone is asking me, I lack the vocabulary to make a reply. I also lack the grammar skills to formulate my own questions so I rely on using the infinitive form of every verb along with helpers such as I like, I want, I need.  It makes me sound [and feel] like a somewhat illiterate 2 year old child.

The family eats foods much different than what I am used to eating, and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as many vegetables in a two week period in my life.  [Although my new strategy of heavily complimenting any food that is remotely ‘American’ seems to be working; I’ve had spaghetti with tomato sauce twice] As a result and with the additional task of walking everywhere, I’ve lost about 10 pounds.  This is not a bad thing, and I have more pounds [kilograms?] to go, but it has resulted in none of my pants fitting me anymore.

I expressed my love for tomatoes and sauce on top of spaghetti noodles, and my prayers were answered

Chores are done differently.  I wash my clothes by hand with a bar of soap, and hang them on a clothesline to dry.  Cooking is done on a charcoal stove. Grocery shopping is done daily or at minimum every other day, and with a lack of refrigeration, left-overs are just re-boiled the next day.

Integration has been slow for me partly because of my introverted nature, partly because of my acute awareness of my fledgling Kinyarwanda, and partly because of the compactness of my host family.  I was thinking I have absolutely nothing in common with these people, and nothing to talk about, but last Wednesday when I inquired about maybe, possibly [ pretty plesase] watching the opening match of the world cup, I was greeted with an enthusiastic  ‘YEGO’.  You see, Mama is an avid soccer [football] fan, and she was worried that I, being American, wouldn’t be interested.  Sitting there in the small living room on Thursday night, huddled around the 13” old-school style TV, watching Russia vs Saudi Arabia with my Rwandan mama, I finally felt at home.

Mama engrossed in the latest soccer match. She even makes an exception to the ‘eat at the table’ rule during World Cup play.
June 17 2018

Being Lost

I’ve been trying to finish this post for a few months now. I don’t think I’ve ever struggled so much trying to put in my words how I feel about fear. But I’m going to try, let’s do this…

Does anyone else have an annoying voice in the back of their head that only appears when it wants to cause you doubt, discomfort, or most importantly, fear? Nope, just me then?Fabulous. Hearing voices [just one voice ya’ll, I promise] at an age where things shouldn’t bother me,  and publicly admitting it?

Even better.

You want to climb Mt. Kilaminjaro?

Voice in my head – you definitely can’t. You’re not strong enough and you’ll probably fall off it.

Want to go to the Middle East or visit Stan?

Voice in my head – who do you think you are? You’ll probably be murdered.

Think you’ll be a good Peace Corps Volunteer?

Voice in my head- You’ll be the first to leave

Dream of becoming a nurse practitioner?

Voice in my headyou’re a horrible nurse.  Why do you think someone would choose you to be their healthcare person? Why bother trying? GAH.

Thanks so much, voice in my head. I really appreciate the support.


I don’t really know how this happened, but somehow over the past few years, fear and doubt have crept into my life in a way that I have never experienced before. And you know what? It absolutely sucks.

I used to jump into everything life offered me with complete abandon. Now? not so much.

I’ve hiked trails that are 6 inches wide, climbed really sketchy mountain, and traveled even when I had literally no money to my name, knowing deep down that things always sorted themselves out in the end.And for the most part, they did.  And while I had plenty of terrible travel screw-ups over the years, things always worked out. I have always believed that fate smiles on those who take chances.

But what happens when you start to worry more and take less chances?

Oh crap.

But somewhere down the line, I started to become more afraid of things that never scared me before. Whether it was something physical that I now considered dangerous or going after a dream that seemed too impossible, fear has set up its own little pup tent in the back of my head and made itself at home.

 

Age, I imagine, is a key factor. Isn’t that what people are always saying? You grow more cautious as you grow older? Well, I reckon the journey to becoming fearful doesn’t matter as much as what the hell am I supposed to do now?

Seriously, WHAT?

Do I just warmly embrace my newly found caution and fear, or try and get over it? Or attempt to strike a healthy balance between the two. I like to think I’ve always been a curious person. I always want to see what’s around the corner, want to know why things are the way they are, and am eager to try new things. For the most part.

However, fear has decided to join the party and often now gets in the way of my bigger curiosities. I want to see what’s at the top of that mountain but I’m afraid I can’t get there so I don’t try. Or sometimes I’ll compromise and climb a smaller mountain.

Confession – I’ve become a bit of a wuss. I’m afraid every time I try something new. I find that I really have to force myself now to try new things.

Oh how many times have I beat myself up for not fitting in. For being off beat and goofy. I’ve known that I was a little bit different from an early age. I’ve always skirted the norms of polite society and cultural standards.  It’s even harder adapting to a culture that is not your own.

As I sitting here, reflecting on fear and how it plays a part in life, thoughts such as I’m not smart enough, brave enough, talented enough, experienced enough, skinny enough, young enough, ect. Enough is enough.

What I am is a creative, passionate, loyal, loving, empathetic person. A person intrigued by life, fascinated by philosophies, and curious enough about the world to go explore it. I am so much more than the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, and the size of my ass.

Fear is complicated. Obviously. And even more so when it brings along its friend self-doubt.

Fear will always be there. A healthy amount of fear keeps up from petting the black mamba. It’s not a question of becoming fearless but learning to accept that fear is there, it’s part of your life and it’s not going anywhere, but it should NEVER be in charge or have a say in making creative decisions.

It’s time to be brave, y’all.

At the same, I’d like to think that travel has helped me deal with fear. For example, there are some things that never occur to me could be scary that I do all the time because I’ve gotten so used to them traveling.

The obvious example to this is the fact that I travel the world alone. As a woman.

In fact, I think that’s something that truly surprises people and when I share that little tidbit to folks I meet on the road, I am often met with skepticism and the usual “wow aren’t you afraid?”

But I digress.


Every trip I took taught me something. Every screw up I have had has taught me a lesson. I suppose in a weird way it taught me confidence, not something I have in abundance, that’s for sure. But I am confident with my ability to travel.

I learned to deal with travel fears early on, and now I need to learn to deal with my other fears, mainly the fear that I am not physically capable of doing something I want, like a hard hike or rafting the Nile. But also how to deal with my fear that I won’t be able to go after my big creative dreams.

I think people who travel are inherently brave at heart. You pretty much have to be to step out into the unknown, right?

And if I were truly a wuss, would I have joined the Peace Corps?  Would I have gotten on the plane to Kigali? Would I have left behind everything I know for an extended period of time.  Probably not.

So perhaps, I’m just being hard on myself.

June 10 2018

What is a PCT?

Before signing up for Peace Corps, my only knowledge for PCT acronyms were PCT=Pacific Crest Trail.  Alas, the Pacific Crest Trail has absolutely nothing to do with becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, but becoming a Peace Corps Trainee has everything to do with becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. So after jumping through all the hoops between the point of application and getting on that place, one does not if fact become a PCV at that point. Nope, at that point, one becomes a PCT… a mere trainee, and lest you forget that, Peace Corps staff will take every opportunity to remind you that you are in fact, just a trainee.

So Staging—what I like to refer to as the first circle of hell.

It goes something like this… You arrive at the hotel where staging is occurring and sign in. This a big deal as it marks the ‘official entry’ into Peace Corps’ world. Staging itself is the most benign part of training. You meet your fellow ‘trainees’. You learn about Peace Corps history. You do ice breakers.  You think about what makes a successful service. You get about $100 from PC to feed yourself during staging.  After the day is over, if your group is like mine, you go to a big dinner.  For us it was California Pizza Kitchen, where I in fact, did not order pizza.  I had salmon.  Yes, I know the absurdity of ordering fish at a pizza joint, but it was quite good.  Then after dinner you break into smaller groups, and head over to the neighborhood Target to buy new clothes, and any forgotten items [I went to Target 3 times in less than 24 hours and still forget to get a portable power supply, but I did manage to get 3 Caramel frappuccinos. Priorities, I say].

Then its a good night’s sleep in the last nice hotel for the immediate future, a 3 hour bus ride to JFK airport in New York City, checking in, waiting around, boarding the plane for Brussels, flying 8 hours to Brussels, having another layover, boarding the plane to Kigali, another 8 hour flight, going through customs, being picked up by a dude [dude = country director as we found out later] wearing US Embassy credentials, and finally eating dinner and crashing at our nunnery.

Not exactly enjoyable, but certainly not terrible… just like the first circle of hell.

June 10 2018

Language Learning and Settling In

Days 2 and 3 involved getting ourselves safely to Kigali–an adventure by itself. Our bus was about an hour late getting to Philadelphia. Then the driver wasn’t really sure where he was going so he was on his phone both as a GPS and texting.  There were a couple of close calls where he tried to occupy a currently occupied lane, but we made to JFK airport without incident.

Imagine this time 23 others and you’ll have some idea of how we looked as a group head through JFK airport.

While yes, we are all legally adults, and have a fair amount of life experience, I thought there’d be a little more assistance in the getting from Philadelphia to Kigali, but nope, once we waved good-bye to the desk officers, we were on our on.  We departed the US with 24 Peace Corps Trainees and arrived in Kigali with 24 Peace Corps Trainees so I call that a success despite sitting in the last row of seats on the trans-Atlantic flight [they don’t recline… at all].  Nearly 24 in-transit hours later, we were reunited with out bags, successfully passed customs, and were whisked away to the convent.

You may think I’m kidding when I say convent, but no, out first two nights in Kigali were spent in a Catholic convent/ Jesuit priest retreat [thanks US budget cuts].  The nuns were nice, the food was basic, but entirely edible, and there were flushing toilets.  I call that a win.

We spent most of the time in Kigali being herded around like cats, interviewing with several people about several things, setting up Rwandan bank accounts, getting an intro into the Kinyarwanda language [it’s hard], and getting up-to-date on shots.  Then just as we’re getting comfortable at the convent, we are whisked away again–this time to our training site which will be our home for the next three months.

These three months consist of a lot of language training and some basic ‘how-to survive in Rwanda on your own classes in health and sanitation.

Friday ended with us being placed in our host families which I lovingly call –being dropped off at the pound.

June 8 2018

Alive and Well

Yes, I am in fact, alive and well.  I’ve been in Rwanda for about a couple of days now, and I have lots to say. Unfortunately, a lack of Internet and computer/electricity access has made it difficult to communicate with those of you back home.  When I get the chance, I’ll actually post some updates about what I’ve all been doing so far, but for now, rest assured that I’m alive and healthy, and have yet to injure myself.

Feel free to call/text me!  Or write me or mail a package full of goodies, if you really want to spoil me!

 

I’d suggest going through Google or What’s App. I need wi-fi access for Facebook messenger and that’s a hot commodity.  All incoming calls/texts are free for me!!!  But for me to call you, well, it costs a lot…

June 2 2018

Last Night at the Hideaway

It’s Saturday night.  I’ve just work my last shift, and for now, I am alone. Blissfully alone.  I love my friends, I do, but as an introvert, being around people is exhausting, and tonight, tonight, I am blissfully alone.  Tomorrow night, I will say good-bye to even more friends.  And to my kitty cats. But tonight, tonight I am alone.  Just me, Lucy, and Molly in the hideaway. On my last night at the hideaway, I watched the series finale of  The Americans, my favorite TV show over the last six years.  How fitting that the series ended just prior to my departure.  Lucy, Molly and I curled up on the couch watching my favorite Russian spies.  So many things are going to change in the next week, the next month, the next year.  In the words of my favorite characters, “I’ll adjust.’
“I worry if I’ll ever learn Kinyarwandan.  If I’ll ever learn to cook without the use of a microwave. If I’ll learn to ‘live’ without the luxuries I’ve become accustomed to having. If I’ll make friends.  If the people in the village I get assigned to will  accept me.  If I will do any good.  People say to write down your expectations of what your Peace Corps’ Service will be like, then crumple up that sheet of paper and throw it away.
 

I’m going to miss this girl more than I should

I have never regretted my decision to serve in the Peace Corps. I first heard of it in high school. I met a middle aged man who’s name I’ve forgotten. He was unemployed, staying in a homeless shelter, and lived with disabilities. He confessed that if he could play his cards all over again, he’d absolutely do this one thing: Peace Corps. The idea stuck with me, as well as the concept that I had more privileges than others, and the idea that I had a moral obligation to use my privilege to lessen the suffering of others.  And at this stage of life, I have the skills to do so.

Two years is a long time, but yet, it’s not. Life will go on in America; just as it will in Rwanda whether I am there or not. I applied to the Peace Corps in September 2016. I was invited to serve in July 2017, and I  depart for Rwanda in  2018.  Nearly two years have already passed.  The relationships we make in life is all that we have.