Wanderlust

Wanderlust

I do not think that means what you think it means… Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride.

 

The English word “wanderlust” already existed in German dating as far back as High Middle German. The first documented use of the term in  English occurred in 1902 as a reflection of what was then seen as a characteristically German predilection for wandering that may be traced back to the  German system of apprenticeship, as well as the adolescent custom of the ‘Wanderbird’ seeking unity with Nature.

 

The term originates from the German words wandern (to hike) and Lust (desire). The term wandern, frequently misused as a false cognate does in fact not mean “to wander”, but “to hike.” Placing the two words together, translated: “enjoyment of hiking”, although it is commonly described as an enjoyment of strolling, roaming about or wandering.

 

I am a wanderer… both in the historic sense of the word and the modern.

 

I grew up an introvert, sensitive, an only child, and a bookworm with a keen desire to explore beyond my boundaries.  Pictures exist of me, I could not have been more than three years-old, packing a bag and leaving home. Of course, at three, I never really went anywhere. I saved the real adventure until I was five. [but that’s a story for another day].  I was athletic and sporty;  I lived for summer basketball and soccer camp.  Then later, volleyball and softball camp. I loved being away from home, hanging out on college campuses, and imagining when I would finally be able to leave my small town for good. I was 8 and already imaging life at 18.

I come from a long line of homebodies, inwardly jealous of friends and classmates who went to ‘the beach’ every summer. Or Disney World. Or anywhere really.  My dad’s idea of a vacation was a weekend trip to Atlanta to watch the Braves or a fall Saturday to Clemson or Columbia to watch college football. Week-long or even multiple week vacations were unheard of in my family.  My fondest junior high memory was of being left behind at Martin Luther King center in downtown Atlanta.  Upon returning from the restroom, my entire class was no where to be found. Cell phone were in their infancy; no one had one. But I knew the city well enough, or at least how to get to the ballpark.  I was 13, and on my own in the big city (at least for a while). It. Was. Fucking. Awesome. Right then and there I knew I’d been bitten by the travel bug.

There’s a word in Korean that means the inability to get over one’s addiction to travel, a perpetual case of wanderlust. Once the travel bug has bitten, it indicates, there is no cure.

 

The fixation with traveling that began with memorizing world capitals and drawing country flags on notebooks took on a life of its own. At 14, I managed to sneak away from home for two days, take the train to Baltimore, watch a baseball game, and get back home without my absence  being noticed.  And once I’d gotten my driver’s license, the back roads and hiking trails of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia became intimately familiar.  I was determined to go everywhere… working on a bucket list that didn’t yet have a name.

Chichen Itza

I’ve never been one to advocate for quitting one’s job in order to see the world. Yes, I have worked in jobs I hated and companies I hated even more. I’ve worked in jobs or positions that I absolutely knew was just a paycheck.  But I know that this is temporary. I am waiting for one of two thing to happen and then I am out of there.  I’ve always known that working these jobs would allow me to pursue my dreams.  I worked PRN-status for 11 years so that I’d be able to create my own schedule and take time off when I wanted to.  Everything I’ve done has contributed to my seemingly disparate goals of 1: seeing as much of the world as possible and 2: becoming a nurse practitioner.  One is not mutually exclusive of the other.

 

I got my first real job, other than the odd thing here and there, when I was 18.  It was working in a home improvement store where I learned to mix paint, use a commercial saw, and do basic electrical things.  I also had to count nuts and bolts by hand during inventory. I was by far the youngest person working there although there were a few guys that worked there on their college break. For most of my co-workers, this was there career.  They were satisfied with their two weeks’ vacation and only being closed three days a year.  I made nearly $5000 that first year I had to file taxes and thought I’d amassed a fortune.  I made another $4000 working in a factory spring semester of my freshman year.  Oh God, how I hated that job. I sat there, loading parts on a machine, conjugating French, German, or  Spanish verbs in my head, thinking ‘this is why I’m in college…’

The ultimate goal was to earn enough money to spend my junior year of college studying abroad in some as-of-yet-undetermined major.[Spoiler alert: that never happened]

At 19, I had the chance to go to England for two weeks; I jumped at the opportunity.  When things didn’t go as planned, instead of coming  home and working at the factory yet again, I stayed three months. I still have the journal I wrote it when I left Atlanta. It’s funny now… and telling.

“I’m on a plane to London via Amsterdam. I AM ON A PLANE.”

“I JUST ORDERED A BLOODY MARY FOR DINNER.  AND THEY BROUGHT IT. I HAVE ARRIVED*”

“TRAVELING IS AMAZING”

 

A series of travel mishaps later, I end up at the flat of a friend of a friend of a friend. The flat was empty. The landlord came and asked how I knew of this place. I told my story. No, I’d never met the previous tenant. Yes, I was only visiting. No, I didn’t want to rent it, but then, I was offered the deal of a lifetime–200 pounds/month for June, July and August for a 1 bedroom/1 bath in Stafford, England. My dorm room cost more than that. I said yes and after some international finagling of funds, I had $5000 transferred to me** and that is what I lived on that summer.

It’s not a gothic cathedral without stunning stained glass

That summer, I traveled. To Wales. To Scotland. To Ireland. And around England. I ate and drank in pubs. I learn to play darts. And cricket. And drink whisky. I met up with different people every week.  It was the life I’d always wanted. The day before I was to come back, I was in the pub with the friends I’d made this summer when I saw a guy I’d never seen before. He was scruffy and despite drinking a pint of Guinness, was clearly out of place of the regulars.  I went over, dart in hand, and said “hey, wanna play?”

His name was Nick or Mick. Or maybe it was Mark.  I don’t remember. He was from Australia. Or New Zealand. Those details are fuzzy now.  But he was well-traveled. Meeting up with a cousin before heading back home. Or something like that.  He was tanned in a way you can’t get in England and spoke of places like Chaing Mai, Nha Trang, and Angor Wat. I was mesmerized. And impressed. “Wow, you travel a lot.” He took a long swallow of his Guinness before answering me, foam still on his lips.

“Trying to. The world is an awfully big place and there’s always more to see.”

“That’s true.  Well, do you play or not.” I was trying not be be impressed by the late 20 something sexy stranger.

“Why not?”

“Good. You can be on my team.”

He told me about his running with the bulls in Spain and working on a farm in France. How he worked his way through Thailand and Vietnam. He told me about the spice markets in Istanbul and Marrakesh.  And about eating guinea pigs in Ecuador and piranhas in Brazil. I had never met anybody like him.  I had never met anyone who was doing what I wanted to do. I was spellbound.  Amid pints and double old fashions, he  grabbed me around my waist and pulled me away from everyone, kissed me hard on the mouth. At that moment, my world stopped. Mesmerized by those green eyes and mop of black hair. I had one throw left, and it was almost too perfect that I hit the bullseye to win.

 

I spent the rest of the night nuzzled in the pub, making out with the cute boy from far away, listening to his enticing travel tales telling myself that one day I’d be the one telling those tales. The details of that night have faded, but the feelings of knowing a life of adventures were waiting for me if only I had the courage to see it through has never left me.

 
*My very first alcoholic drink was at 30,000 feet flying over the Atlantic Ocean.  I have never felt more adult… more cool in my life than when I ordered and subsequently drank that first alcoholic drink

**International banking was a lot more complicated in the late 1999 than it is now.  I had $5000 wired to me and stashed the cash in a secret place in the flat. The secret place is the same secret place I stash cash in my current apartment.

Things I miss about the USA

Happy Labor Day. These random holidays like Labor Day and 4th of July and Memorial Day has never really meant too much to me. Working in health care, days like these are really just regular days. There’s no such thing as ‘holidays’, or at least not in the traditional sense where I’d get the same days off as everyone else and get do things like hang out at the lake with friends or enjoy cook-outs for the holiday. So in that sense joining the Peace Corps has been interesting. At one point or another I’ve celebrated every American holiday outside America, and some countries’ holidays inside that country. But nothing can replace celebrating the holiday in its original form… And while I’ve only been gone from the USA for a few months, there are still things I miss.  This post is from my previous travel blog from when I spent 16 months traveling around South America (with some updates from what I’m missing now… Some things change; some never will… like my love for good pizza).

  • Pizza  Pizza is probably my favorite food on the planet.  Back home, I probably ate pizza 3-4 times a month.  Not always the same kind or from the same place, but pizza (and a salad when I’m feeling healthy) has been a staple in my diet since the early years and I don’t suspect it leaving any time soon. I did find pizza goodness in Buenos Aires and Mendoza; however most of South America and all of Rwanda has been a huge disappointment in terms of pizza.  Bad crust, bad sauce, strange ingredients.  I can’t wait to hit up Barley’s Taproom or Sidewall’s or the Mellow Mushroom for some good pizza with olives, feta cheese, spinach, and tomatoes.

One of my Peace Corps goals is to make a pizza… a delicious pizza like the one pictured below.

Untitled

  • Watching American sports. I am a huge sports junkie and I miss meeting up with friends to watch March Madness, college bowl games, or stressing over Tennessee football. Fall is always the hardest because college football in nearly a religion in the south, and I am a follower of the sacred University of Tennessee. Watching my favorite teams at odd hours via slow internet streams just didn’t cut it, and while going to sporting events where I am is a small comfort, I am never going to follow Mexican bullfighting, Venezuelan baseball, Peruvian football, Rwandan basketball, or Buenos Aires polo when I am at home.  [Although I happily watched Super Bowl XLV live.]

I am grateful that I was in a country that was a soccer loving one with time time zones close to the original for some of the world cup matches.  Before joining the Peace Corps, I had hoped to score tickets to World Cup|Russia, but watching the games in this tiny corner of the world where soccer rules, is great for international bonding.

  •  Food variety. If I ever eat white rice again, it will be too soon. Seriously, that seemed to be the hallmark of almost every single meal I’ve eaten over the few months. I wasn’t a big fan to begin with, but having it on the plate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner got old. Fast!

  One of the staples of Rwandan cuisine is–you guessed it–white rice.  It’s no wonder I never eat this in America.

  • Free, non-carbonated water in restaurants. Again, this should be self-explanatory. Plenty of places offered free snacks, but free water? Not a chance.
  • Public transportation. Even though back home I do not live in an area with good public transportation, I like going to places where it’s accessible and easy to use.  MARTA in Atlanta has gotten me where I needed to be on more than one occasion.  Subways in Rome, New York, London, Moscow and Buenos Aires are amazing.  If I didn’t live in a rural area, I’d be all about using light rail (like Seattle’s metro link that whisks me to and from the airport to the center of town without issue) or whatever was available.  Motor bike taxis, bicycle taxis, mini buses, cars nearly falling apart, and cabs—not so much to my liking.

Bogota’s TransMileno is surprisingly efficient, and while crowded at times, it is a much better option than loading up a minibus to maximum capacity +1 and having people yell ‘stop’ when they want to get off the bus.
  • Knowing where to find things. Again, yes, you can buy just about everything you need on the road even in tiny remote villages in the middle of nowhere.  But finding those things can be a challenge. In most of the places I visited (and Madagascar is no exception), daily essentials were spread out among many smaller stores and it took me days (or weeks) to figure out where to go for what I needed.
OH, how I love Target. I spent part of my last visit to Seattle walking around this three story gem located right in the middle of the city. They had everything…

  • Not paying to use the toilet.  Or even finding a toilet when needed. I think this one is self-explanatory.  Fun fact:  did you know that, according to The Guardian, the top 10 worst places in the world to find a toilet are in Africa. One is Madagascar [4th worst place in the world to find a toilet] and two of Rwanda’s neighbors also make the list [Tanzania and Congo]  and there is a World Toilet Day (it is November 19th if you’re curious), dedicated to keeping everyone’s shit corralled so that fecal contamination of the water supply as well as diseases transmitted via the fecal-oral route are diminished.

  Another Peace Corps’ goal:  to make myself a luxurious toilet where my knees don’t creak every time I must use it or in emergency             situations, shit does not splash on my shoes/feet.

  •  Respect for people’s time. Even though I am not a scheduler by nature, I do appreciate time.  At home, when someone says “let’s meet at 8:00,” they generally mean “let’s meet at 8:00.” If they are running late, they will call or text you to let you know. We have a basic appreciation for people’s time and not wasting it. Such was not the case while I was traveling. Nothing seemed to start on time and someone saying they would meet you at 8:00 meant hopefully they would be there by 9:00 – likely with no contact whatsoever to indicate they may be late. When we were planning anything that include non-Americans  we always gave a fake time. 7:00 meant 8:00 or so. Indeed, most people didn’t arrive until closer to 8:30. I think this just reflects a more laid back attitude, but as someone who hates waiting around for no good reason, I will take the American way every day.
German trains and s-bahns are always so punctual. If I lived in Germany, I’d never be late anywhere.
Alexanderplatz

 I have found a general lack of respect for time in nearly every corner of the globe… except Germany and Switzerland… oh how I love that  place; they are so punctual.

  •  American men. I know many women love over foreign men.  Heck, I have even dated foreign men [One abroad, one who had moved to USA], but overwhelmingly, the foreign men I have met [mostly Italians and Hispanics] are overbearing, controlling, condescending, and overprotective.  I do not like being yelled at or whistled to in the street.  I do not like being asked if I ‘want to fuck’ because those are the only English words they know.  For me, that machismo attitude is such a turn off!  Give me a good old American guy who can see a woman as his equal and appreciate her independence. A guy that smells clean, wears cologne sparingly, and bathes regularly. A guy who wears baseball hats and khakis rather than skinny jeans, and who is at least my height (5’9).  If he has green eyes and curly hair, well, I’m a smitten kitten.
  • Free wi-fi:  Wi-fi is slowly making its way down south, but it is not always free, nor is it always reliable.  It brings me back to the Ethernet cords I had in college. Or dial-up.  Both make me appreciate how prevalent wi-fi is in the USA. [and Canada and Europe].  2018 hasn’t brought many upgrades to the poorer corners of the world.

But what I miss most about being away from the USA, is people and kitty cats …co-workers, friends, and family + Lucy and Molly.

 

From trainee to volunteer 1: New kid in town

It’s a busy week over here in trainee to volunteer land. First off on Monday morning, we moved stuff from host families’ houses to the HUB.  The we loaded a cargo truck and a Peace Corps’ Land Cruiser with our stuff.  It’s amazing how much stuff one can accumulate in 10 weeks. Then we made the one and a half hour trip to Kigali where we unloaded the two trucks worth of stuff into a classroom at a Catholic boarding house. The day began at 6am and six hours later, we are settled in the nunnery for the next few days. While at the nunnery, we’d go from trainees to volunteers.

We’d swear to support and defend the constitution of the United States in front of the Deputy Ambassador and a Rwandan television audience.

Trainee no more… we’re volunteers now

We danced  a traditional Rwandan dance on live TV.  We spent time at the Rwandan immigration office getting permanent residency cards. And we shopped for things for our new houses.

My first outing post- trainee was too a bookstore. It’s a wild life I lead.

We had free time in Kigali thanks to a government holiday where a few volunteers and I headed to a bookstore, bought beverages, and sat on the rooftop bar talking about life, love, politics, and whatever else popped up.

Katie, posing with my fruit smoothie

It was our last real care-free day as volunteers being together. Oh sure, we will see our neighbors at regional meetings and the entire group again at conferences, but at least for me, I was acutely aware that the little family, the support system I’ve cobbled together over the last 73 days would be split up and sent to the four corners of Rwanda  come Thursday morning.

I stayed up til 1am talking to friends both in person and via telephone to my people I never America knowing that come daylight everything will change. As much as I give the appearance of being cold, aloof, and uncaring, the fact is I do care… deeply and saying goodbye to some of my fellow volunteers, in some ways was harder than saying good bye to friends and family in America back in June.

But goodbyes were said, tears were shed, and two by two we piled all out worldly belongings into a Peace Corps’ vehicle and made our way to our respective sites– home for the next two years.

Once upon a time, two girls from South Carolina made their way to Southern Province Rwanda with nothing but a truck full of stuff, hopes, dreams, and memories of the life they were leaving behind.

Swearing in and Moving Out

On Tuesday August 14, 2018 despite any reservations anyone may or may not have had, I, along with 22 others was sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda representing cohort Health 10.

I wore a fancy dress. I put on make-up. I danced on live TV. I listened to speeches given by my fellow trainees/volunteers, the Charge d’Affairs, the Country Director, the Program Manager, the director of Training, a Ministry of Health official, and a tuitulaire.  Some speeches were in English; some were in Kinyarwanda, and around noon, after starting nearly an hour behind schedule, I stood, raised my right hand, and swore to protect the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.

It’s the same oath everyone who works for the government takes including the US Military.  The military was never intended to be my career path, but in taking the same oath that several friends and family have taken, I felt a momentary surge of patriotic pride.

After becoming an official volunteer, we munched on snacks and Fanta, and mingled with the people there.  All in all, it was one of the happier days since arriving in Rwanda.

All good things must come to an end, and around 1:30 we were escorted to immigration to get our Rwandan ID cards made.  These cards mark our official residency status and in theory gives up Rwandan citizen status especially at places that charge a higher price for foreign tourists [Rwandan national parks, I’m looking at you].

Things get crazy while waiting out turns at immigration

On Tuesday evening, after the ceremony and after immigration, nearly everyone went out for drinking and dancing. I know myself well enough to know that would have been a mistake on my part, so I spent a quiet evening at home—home, one again, being our Catholic nunnery.  Before anyone starts to feel sorry for me for ‘missing out’ on anything, having the nunnery to myself was pretty awesome.   I had unlimited food and drink [I think I had 5 fantas and at least 2 plates of food], I was able to take a hot shower that lasted longer than 5 minutes [seriously, only my second since leaving America. The first one being at the PC infirmary a mere two weeks prior].  Without any competing devices, I was able to use the internet to my hearts’ content, download books to my Kindle, movies to my hard drive, and even video chat on WhatsApp.  I had a perfectly enjoyable evening doing the things I love with the people I love, and didn’t suffer the hangover that most of my cohort had.

Glow in the dark Jesus for the win

Thanks to a Catholic holiday, we had a free day on Wednesday saving the actual moving until Thursday, and thankfully, most stores are not Catholic and were open for business. I’m not a huge shopper, but I did enjoy hanging out at the bookstore with the rooftop bar, getting my gas stove and a few other home goods, and going to the grocery store getting some food favorites in preparation for my first weekend alone.

Thursday morning involved moving all the stuff that had been stored in a room up to the parking lot to be loaded in to the moving vehicle.  I was as surprised as anyone when everything was loaded, and two volunteers’ stuff for two years fit in one Toyota pick-up truck.  Good byes were said; tears were shed, and off we went [I admit to remaining mostly stoic until one of my Northern friends hugged me and had tears in her eyes. Then my eyes did the same].  With bananas and bread in hand [who can eat breakfast at an emotional time like this] plus a couple bottles of water, my fellow volunteer and I set off to the South.

 

I still can’t believe nothing fell off the truck while we we’re moving

We dropped her off first, and I was a little envious of her site. A proper house with a small front porch, right in town, with neighbors for visiting.  Her HC happened to be a 15 minute or so walk which is just about perfect.  [I can hear the babies being vaccinated from inside my house].

Somewhere between her site an mine

After she was ‘installed’, we bumped along back roads for about an hour until we reached the town of Nyanza, and the dirt roads once again turned to pavement. Another 30-45 minutes later, we pulled up to my house. Things were unloaded; the gas stove was tested [it worked!], and suddenly I was alone… truly alone for the first time in quite some time.

I had planned for this eventuality, had ample international phone credit and data, and set about to making my first meal in my ‘new home.’ [It was delicious].  I unpacked a few things, hung some wall decor, made my bed [pulling out my quilt for the first time], and listened to some tunes.  Later on, I called some friends. Past experiences have taught me that I don’t make the best decisions when I’m either hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, and on my first night here, I was two of the four.

First meal at the new homestead… Moving all that stuff in the house is hard work

On Friday, I made my way down to the city, to get a few more food items, go to the bank, meet some current volunteers, have some Chinese food, and start to figure out how all this works.

I am in a small village in rural Rwanda.  Doing things the way I am used to doing is no longer an option.

This is my new normal.

 

 

I’m a stranger here myself

What the actual F*ck am I doing here?

It’s a question I ask myself daily, sometimes hourly, and occasionally every few minutes.

I have been in Rwanda just under two months and have spent all that time save one week in our training village of Rwamagana learning Kinyarwanda and how to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, because as of now, I am still NOT a Peace Corps Volunteer, merely a lowly Peace Corps Trainee.  The one week not spent in Rwamagana was spent visiting my site aka the place where I’ll be living throughout my two years of service, and let me tell you, during that week I asked myself the above question about 100 times.

What the actual f*ck am I doing here?  Where the h*ll am I?  Why isn’t there any food?  How can I get the f*ck out of here? Why am I headed to yet another bar when I’ve told this person I don’t drink?  Is it too late to go back to work at my [nice] job in America?  The one with awesome co-workers? Or my house with my [oh-so-comfy] bed? Or my kitty cats? Why did I think becoming a Peace Corps volunteer was a good idea anyway?

Before applying to the Peace Corps in 2016, it was something I considered while I was in high school.  And then again after college. It was part of the reason I studied foreign languages in college.  But as LIFE tends to do, it got in the way and I saw my immediate post-college years running away from a bad relationship [quite literally as I  years 22 and 23 on the run in Mexico–and Belize–and Guatemala–and El Salvador…you get the drift] and then running towards a career [any career]. 24 would have been the perfect time for me to join the Peace Corps. I was mostly unencumbered by responsibilities. I was nearly fluent in Spanish. I’d spent much of the last year and a half teaching English as as Second Language in various places to various groups of people.  Aside from the political aspect [and while PC claims to be apolitical an overwhelming majority of PCVs lean democratic], at 24 I was a Peace Corps’ poster child–a person with just enough life experience to still see the good in everyone and still want to save the world. I was a person unsure of my life and career goals. I was exactly the type of person that the Peace Corps seems to attract.

At this stage of my life, my 20’s have long passed [thankfully]. I am about as apolitical as they come, and I while I have a career as a nurse, no one in their right mind would call me a professional do-gooder.  I am as sure of my career and life goals as one can be when FATE is involved.

 So what am I doing here and why I am I doing this exactly?

Well, it took me a long while to work that out.

I’ve written about that a couple of times already, but even though there are several contributing factors, at my core, I want to help people. And yes, I could ‘help people’ without putting my life on hold, and moving 7800 miles and three continents away, but where’s the adventure in that? To date, I have traveled in 54 countries [although none in Africa until now], but never really lived in one area other than the upstate of South Carolina for a period longer than four months [except that one time, I moved to North Carolina, but my LIFE was still firmly ensconced in South Carolina.] My reasons are as varied as any other PCV’s reason are, and yes, at the end, I hope to get something tangible in exchange for my service.

My site seems to already know about permagarden techniques

Where is here? And Rwanda?

Well, it wasn’t my first choice.

But when was the last time you met anyone who has been to Sub-Sahara Africa, let alone lived there.  I know a few people who have visited a handful of countries, mostly in East/Southern Africa, but on the whole, not many people I know even consider Africa [as if it is one country instead of one rather large continent consisting of 54* individual countries] as a vacation destination.  And Rwanda?  If not for this Peace Corps opportunity, I can almost guarantee than I would have never set foot in the country. And I like to consider my self a traveler and not a tourist, and in my mind that means doing my best to experience the great touristy parts of the world, as well as the places that are off the grid.  And in 2018, Rwanda is still off most people’s grid.

“I want to help people.”

And I really do want to help people. I’ve worked in healthcare for most of my adult life.  If I didn’t truly want to ‘help people’ there are a lot of other, less strenuous, less soul-draining professions out there where I could probably make more money, have a better life-work balance, and certainly not spend all hours of the night awake.

But American healthcare is complicated. The overwhelming majority of my co-workers want to ‘help people’,  yet we often know that whatever we do–whether it’s a life-saving measure in the Emergency Department or Continued Care in a Rehabilitation Department–it’s a stop-gap procedure.  Yes, SOME people do GET IT.  Some people see it the catalyst needed to do massive behaviour change, but for the most part, Americans are repeat offenders in the health care system, and generally speaking look to blame their problems on others.

Now I’ll get my chance to work with patients who really want and need help.  Of course, creating behavior change is still going to be hard.

Third Goal

The Peace Corps, as one of their central missions for each volunteer, encourages each person to share their story with people in America. A blog or Instagram account is an easy way to do that, but also writing for the local paper or sharing my story via local meetings would accomplish this goal.  In addition to writing about my experiences in Rwanda as a Peace Corps volunteer, I’ll be doing a presentation in at least one elementary school classroom during my service.

Forth Goal

Ok so there is no official 4th goal, but for me, joining Peace Corps’ is a way to slow down in inevitability of life.  People say the older you get, the more time flies, and at this stage of life, I’m starting to see that.  The pressure to settle down, get married, have a career is intense.  Momentum is carrying me along and sometimes I can’t seem to stop it.  Of course, there are less dramatic and more practical methods of changing habits and behaviors than moving to a remote Rwandan village e for two years. But where would be the fun in that?

Back country transport–how things are here

By the numbers: 1st edition

This post is a little different than previous posts as I am currently visiting my future home. I thought I would quantify my experience in Rwanda thus far.

0: Number of pants that I brought that still fit.  Note: I still wear all the pants that are too big so my outfits these days are quite comical. Also the number of things i have accidentally dropped into the latrine. Thankfully.

1: Number of kittens I’ve seen. Also number of kittens that currently live at my house. Also the number of times I have eaten fish.

2: Number of volunteers from South Carolina in my cohort. Also number of volunteers from South Carolina that I know.

3: Number of ikitenge fabrics I’ve bought and have had made into clothing. Also the average number of liters of water I drink daily.

 

5: KM….Distance to Huye/Butare, the second largest city in Rwanda. I’m about to become a city girl.

6: number of pizza bites I ate at our last training meeting. They were delicious.

8. Number of times I have eaten spaghetti with tomato sauce after I explained that I don’t just like plain noodles. Also the number of people in my cohort also placed in the south.

10: number of kilograms I’ve list since arriving in Rwanda. This is not surprising as my activity level has increased and my caloric intake had decreased.

15: % number of women who currently seeking prenatal care at my health centre.

23: Number of people remaining in our cohort. One person left about two weeks ago.

49: Days since I left South Carolina.

86: Currently the number of children that suffer from malnutrition registered at my health center. My goal is to reduce it to 0.

148: Number of current Peace Corps volunteers in Rwanda serving in health and education. The distribution is about 2/3 education and 1/3 health.

~500: Words. My approximate Kinyarwanda vocabulary. This is a gross estimate and may be more or less.

 

725+/-: Days remaining in the Peace Corps assuming things go as planned.

36700+/-: The number of people in my cachement area. A cachement area is the geographical area a specific health center serves. My cachement area is the largest in Rwanda.

42000: Rwandan francs I receive every two weeks. It’s approximately $40 and I use it to buy lunch everyday as well as fabric/clothing, phone credit, data package, and anything else that pops up.

Other duties as required

‘Other duties as required’… it’s a phrase I’ve always hated–that very vague part of the job description where an employer can ask to to do almost anything and before you can say ‘no’ they come back with ‘other duties as required’.

As it pertains to a Peace Corps Maternal-Child Health volunteer, other duties as required means building your own hand-washing station, pooping in a hole, bathing with cold water in a series of carefully coordinated steps, doing laundry in a series of buckets, learning a traditional dance, bargaining for every franc, hugging small children on a daily basis, and learning a language so foreign from the Latin based languages I’ve previously learned.

 

Site announcement day

After much [much, much, much, MUCH] anticipation, and at least one delay, site announcement day finally arrived, and what can I say, at last I know where I will be living and working for the next two years. I know many of you have been waiting for this as well, but I’ll keep you in suspense for a few minutes more.  Site placement is a big deal. A volunteer’s site means not only the physical location of their house, but also their health center, their community, their PCV neighbors, how far away from pizza they live, etc, and it will shape their lives in so many way for the next two years, though possibly much longer.  While I didn’t have a specific location in mind, I did have a couple of preferences:  1.  To be rural; mountains would be nice, but mainly I wanted to have one of the 1000 hills of Rwanda to myself, 2. be the first volunteer at the site, and 3. if at all possible, I wanted to work at a Catholic Health Center with nuns. While it was next to impossible to remain neutral, all I could do was trust the process.

So where will I call home?

Peace Corps’ says that sites are not assigned at random, but at times it certainly feels that way.  While PC sites are assigned based on based on each volunteer’s interests and preferences, their skills, strengths, and weaknesses, and ultimately where the staff thinks each volunteer can make the greatest impact.

So finally the day arrived. We had morning language class, late morning sex-ed [we finished early and had a 3 hour wait for the officials to get to the training center from Kigali. We got cinnamon rolls, drank milk tea, and played Banana-grams.  The clock seemed to go in reverse.  Then finally, finally we went out back, and as our name was called, we had to find our health center on a map, and stick a pin in it.

So where am I going? Drum roll, please………

** Huye [Butare] in the Southern province.

I’ll admit that at first I was not happy with my site placement. At all.  Butare is the 2nd largest city in Rwanda, and I am a 45 min-1 hour walk to the city or a quick moto ride.  My cachement area is the largest of my cohort coming in at a whopping 35700+ people.  Not small. Not rural. No hill to myself. Not the first volunteer, and no nuns. For a good 24 hours, I was NOT HAPPY, but then I realized that my situation has an upside.  The bus to Kigali is a nice Express bus with assigned seating… No squeeze bus required.  Living in the south means the chance I will vomit on public transportation is minimal.  Living near Butare means there is pizza and ice cream and a hipster coffee shop.  It means electricity.  Replacing a volunteer means I already have a couch and some home goods so less money that I will have to spend to make the house ‘homey’.  I’m still slightly jealous of the two who are living on Lake Kivu, and the ones in the mountains, and the ones with small cachement areas, but it is what it is, and I’ll adjust.

 

**Per Peace Corps Safety and Security Policy, I’m not allowed to say in the blog exactly where my site is so I will have to be fairly vague in my location description.

 

 

Holidays and Exams

It’s been a busy week out here in training-land.  3 holidays in one week, and only one day off. July 1 is Rwandan Independence Day [but it’s not celebrated].  July 4 is both American Independence Day and Rwandan Liberation Day, and for us, our only day off.  My fellow trainees and I went to the local hotel,  had pizza, fajitas, cinnamon rolls, and Fanta [or beverage of  your choice].  For me it was a welcome day off from the onslaught of language classes that the week brought.

On Saturday, we had our a mid-training language exam.  The target at this stage is Novice-high, but I have a plan.  My plan is to score Novice-Mid, get put in remedial Kinyarwanda class, get extra speaking practice, and then WOW everyone at the final exam with my Kinyarwanda prowess. But here’s the real deal, I have performance anxiety, and I have had it for years.  I almost didn’t graduate from college with my Spanish degree because I had such anxiety for my final  oral exam.  And this was with my professor who I had known for three years, and was very familiar talking to him.  So while yes, I am older and wiser, but I still have so much anxiety concerning ‘public speaking.’


On Friday, I picked up my first tailor-made shirt.  It needed a few minor adjustments so I snapped this photo of my [15 year old] tailor making the adjustments.

On Saturday, after our mid-training language exam, I went to the talent show at my host sister’s school. There was singing. And traditional dancing.  And Drumming. There was a skit [in Kinyarwanda–I didn’t understand any of it], and some kid read the news.  And then there was ‘fashion’.  Fashion consists of about 10 couples of modelling different African fashions.  And these kids are stylish.  And they have real talent… unlike most of the talent shows I have been to  in the past.

We’re fancy. We met the US Ambassador to Rwanda.
Every so often, I see beautiful tropical flowers in unexpected places.

Wait, you’re still not a volunteer?

Wait, you’re still not a volunteer?

Ahhhhh, PST…Pre-Service Training.  I refer to it as Boot Camp, and our instructors take every opportunity to re-enforce that yes, as of now, we are just trainees.  Yes, the Peace Corps is about as far from the Army [or other military branch] as imaginable, but this 10 week period of training is very much the same. The preparation was even a little bit similar.  I cut off 10 inches of hair, paired down my wardrobe, started doing a lot more walking, and evaluated and re-evaluated each item that made it in to the suitcase[s] .  OK, not exactly the same as the Army….

6 days a week, we are in training nearly every daylight hour. We spend between 2 and 6 hours, depending on the day, learning [and practicing] Kinyarwanda; the remaining class time is learning about the Peace Corps’ mission, health and safety sessions, practical things [like mopping with a squeegee, cleaning shoes, sweeping the grass, and chopping the grass with something reminiscent of a metal hockey stick], the Rwandan Health System, and the government’s initiative to improve children’s health, focusing on the first 1000 days [essentially from conception until age 2—also the reason we are here].  It’s exhausting and I’m in bed nearly every night by 9p [unless there is a soccer match on—then I sacrifice for the greater good].

I’ve recently started doing Yoga again, every morning at 6:30am.  My last few months in America, I got sedentary, first sidelined by illness, then a lack of motivation.  A few of the other trainees go running; the last time I ran, I broke two bones so I’m starting with Yoga. I don’t want to have to be med-evac’ed before evening becoming an official volunteer.  The Kigali marathon is in May each year, and some of the trainees are training for that.  I’m focusing on the 10k that is also being held at the same time, and maybe next year, the half marathon [Small goals].

Previous and even current volunteers will tell you that PST is the worst.  The 6:30pm curfew. The 6 days a week of classes.  The language learning.  All of it, combined with the unfamiliar diet, the decrease in calories [especially protein], unfamiliarity of the culture, the inability to do simple things that we’ve all previously done before, having to rely on others for nearly everything, will produce some of the highest highs and lowest lows imaginable.  [I spent part of one afternoon crying in a latrine mostly due to lack of food but also being frustrated by the language, and despite several attempts, I. COULD. NOT STOP. Hopefully, this was a one-time meltdown.] And even now, with only four weeks complete, most of our group will say, ‘I cannot wait to be at site [wherever that may be]’.  However, we still have six weeks of training remaining until we can take the oath of service, hang out with the ambassador, pretend to be fancy, and be on our own.

I am one of those who anxiously await trading in the (T) for a (V) and finally becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer.


Helpful Peace Corps Acronyms

Like many government organizations, the Peace Corps loves it’s acronyms, so in an attempt to clear things up here is a list of a few of them and their meanings  (also I try not to use them exclusively). I’ll update as I learn more:

 

COS: Close of Service / Completion of Service

ET: Early Termination (Leaving service early,  I.E. deciding to terminate service anytime sooner than the COS conference)

HNC: Host Country National

ICT: In-Country Training

IST: In-Service Training

Medevac: Medical Evacuation

NGO: Non-Governmental Organization

OMS: Office of Medical Services

PCMO: Peace Corps Medical Officer/Office

PDO: Pre-Departure Orientation

PCT: Peace Corps Trainee (PCV’s prior to Swearing In)–> what I am currently

PCV: Peace Corps Volunteer

PST: Pre-Service Training

RPCV: Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

VATs: Volunteer Assistant Trainers (Volunteers who help train new volunteers/PCT’s during PST)

Other helpful non-acronyms terms

The HUB:  Where most of the PCT classes are held.  Additionally, we have language class in small groups at our instructors house.

Staging: When all the new PCT’s meet and receive their pre-departure orientation before flying out to their country of service. Typically lasts 24 to 48 hours.

Swearing in: This is when PCT’s become PCV’s! Happens at the very end of Pre-Service Training, this is when PCT’s agree to uphold the goals and standards of the Peace Corps.

Site: A PCV’s official community where they live and work for their 2 years of service.

 

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.