Cooking in the Corps 2: Crepes

My absolute first experience with crepes occurred in 2010 during my South America sojourn when fellow traveler [and now friend] Emilie offered to make some.  Emilie was a former pastry chef in France so if anyone would know anything about crepes, it would be her.  As those memories are now fuzzy and clouded by copious alcohol consumption, I sure they were delicious.  Everything she made was delicious.

Fast forward a couple years and I am back in America, living and working in a small town called Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina.  One of my fellow co-workers and RNs, had decided along with her husband to take an abandoned building is said town on open a creperie.  Before the restaurant actually open, Kristin brings several varieties of crepes to work to allow us hungry health care workers to sample and give feedback as to whether this particular rendition should make it on the menu.  A few months later, Tandem opens and 4 years after opening, it’s still going strong.

One of our rare South Carolina snow days… also I used to want to live in an upstairs of an old building
One of the many ‘savory’ crepes, Tandem has on the menu.

Fast forward again to 2018, and I’m in quite literally the middle of Africa, in southern Rwanda, and my closest stage-mate just happens to be a fantastic cook who just so happened to spend some time in France. Whether the two are related, I don’t know, but I digress.  Anyway, said mate and I get together at regularly planned intervals for cooking and movie watching.  I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, can easily pass on chocolate and Nutella, but nearly go bananas for cinnamon apples, a recent addition into my food repertoire called Biscof cookie butter, and bananas foster.  I also love savory crepes filled with bacon, eggs, and cheese.  Needless to say I was excited to learn how to make this ‘fancy’ dish and was promised it was easy.  It is.  If I can do it, so can you.

What you will need [obviously adapt this to your surrounding.  If  you’re in America, you can probably find All-Purpose flour.  In Rwanda, not so much]

Ingredients

  • 2eggs
  • 1/2 cup of milk or 1/4 cup of milk powder + 1/4 cup of water
  • 2 tablespoons of butter [or butter-like substance]
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • dash or pinch of salt
  • whatever you want to stuff your crepes with [fruit, meat, sweetness]
  • cooking oil

Tools of the trade

  • a true non-stick skillet
  • a wire whisk
  • a bowl
  • spatula

Directions

  1. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and the eggs. Gradually add in the milk and water, stirring to combine. Add the salt and butter; beat until smooth.
  2. Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium high heat. Pour or scoop the batter onto the griddle, using approximately 1/4 cup for each crepe. Tilt the pan with a circular motion so that the batter coats the surface evenly.
  3. Cook the crepe for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is light brown. Loosen with a spatula, turn and cook the other side. Serve hot.

See. Easy Peasy, and tasty AF.

By the numbers 2: Food and Market

1:  Number of times I had pizza. Although advertised as ‘cheese pizza’ it certainly had a lot of onions on it.  Also the number of kilograms of peanuts and sugar purchase since August.

2:  Number of times I go to the market each week. Once to the Huye market and once to the Mbazi market.  I absolutely hate the market and as much as I hate the grocery store, I’m looking forward to just having to deal with Publix instead of 10 different people for 10 different items. Also number of kilograms of rice and beans purchased since August

4:  Number of new dishes I have learned to cook courtesy of my closest fellow volunteer who loves to cook

Potstickers… one of the dishes I’ve learned to cook in the last two months

5:  Number of times I have fixed spaghetti in the 2 months I’ve been at site. I went a couple of weeks without but now it’s my Friday night activity along with watching a movie—dinner and a movie… I’m leading a fancy life over here among the hills.

6:  Number of Rice Krispies Treats eaten in one day [I received 8 in a care package; had self control on day 1 and 2, then….] 3 number of days said rice crispy treats lasted

8:  The number of times I’ve eaten at the local Chinese restaurant. 4 number of different dishes I have tried at said restaurant.

Molly loves me

12:  Number of recipes in my current rotation.  Other than the spaghetti, this ensures that I eat something different every day in a two week period. [soups, sandwiches, potatoes, eggs, and rice and beans make up the bulk of my diet]

Tomato and Avocado sandwich with homemade pickles… a lunch staple

15:  KG the amount of gas I bought in August that I am hoping will last me until February [or longer]

23:  The total number of pounds lost since my arrival in Rwanda; also the number of  pounds of pizza the average American eats.

24: Number of Fanta Citrons consumed since my arrival to the South [This may or may not be a lot, but it is my only beverage other than water.  And it’s much better for me than Dr. Pepper.

52 (out of 60):  Number of times I have skipped ‘the most important meal of the day‘.  Mornings and I are not friends.  Even in Rwanda when everyone is up with the sun.

500 RWF:  Cost on a 500ml Fanta in a restaurant. 1 or 2:  Number of Fantas I drink per week.

1440:  The number off calories my fitness pal says I am supposed to eat per day. 0:  the number of times I have exceeded 1440 calories in one day; although one time I did exceed the number however the total was offset by the gratuitous amount of walking I did that day upping my calories to 2145 for the day… I came nowhere near 2145 calories.

3500 RWF:  The average amount I spend at the market buying the following:  Cucumbers, carrots, potatoes, red onions, green beans, green peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, mandarin oranges, apples, and bananas + bread and cake.

 

Apple Cinnamon Crepes

 

Peace Corps Rwanda | Clothing, Electronics, and House Things

I received my nomination to Madagascar in July 2017, moved from the apartment I was living in to the house I now own in October/November 2017, didn’t board the plane to Madagascar in February 2018, re-evaluated the suitcase now headed for Rwanda in May 2018. The suitcase[s] were packed and re-pack 3 times before I even left the US, but the question is, did I do a good job packing?  Did I pack the right things?  Is there something I wish I had packed but didn’t?  Is there enough clothing, or too much? Is my kitchen too ‘extra’ or just ‘extra enough?  Let’s see

Luggage

4 bags that you can see; 2 you can’t… So much stuff

Let’s start with the bags.  I have so.many.bags. It’s unreal. My big green duffel bag’s handle broke during one of the many transfers during PST. It’s now used as a bedside table.  The main compartment has stuff left here by the previous volunteer [think mosquito net and some clothes] + clothes that no longer fit me nor can I make them work.  I’m using the small pocket on the top at a drawer of sorts where I keep my Vaseline, nail maintenance tools, and my battery operated foot scrubber.  I’ve used the larger outer pocket as sort of a trash collector.   I gathered so many papers/books, ect during PST that I don’t/won’t use anymore, and I hate the idea of burning trash so I jsut put it there. Out of site, out of mind.

The Osperey Backpack and REI backpack were solid choice which are now empty, hanging on the wall waiting patiently to be put to use again.

Another volunteer and I bought a Target suitcase set the day before leaving [and some clothes], and I have the carry-one size suitcase.  The bag is fully packed waiting on its return trip to America in February.  It will bring back a lot of things to America that I don’t need, and will bring to Rwanda a lot of things I do need [mainly food items]. I’m also taking home a few things for a fellow PCV that he will pick up upon his return to American.

My checkered tote bag served its purpose in getting my electronics here, but now sits lonely under a table.  I almost always use my backpack for quick trips around town and going to the market for the sole reason that I can carry my backpack on my back.

My leather purse will be going back to America.  It has literally been used once.

My daily backpack was packed in side another bag.  I use this bag the most and honestly it probably won’t make it the two years.  I also used this bag for my entire nursing program and paid less than $20 for it in 2014 so I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth out of it.

I have a small canvas bag that I use for my weekly market trips. I bought it at Primark for about 10 Euros in 2012/2013 that is serving it’s purpose well, and I won’t be taking it back to the US

I have acquired two more bags since arriving in Rwanda [I know. I have a problem]  One’s a padded tote and the other is more like a small cross body purse.  Currently they are serving as wall decoration. I bought them more for souvenirs than anything, but the padded tote will house my computer [if it survives that long] and my camera when I COS.

The green Osprey bag is going back to America and not returning to Rwanda. I plan to have my orange backpack + the padded tote and small  fabric purse as the only bags when I leave.  The rest are staying in Rwanda and I really don’t care what happens to them.

Clothing [I have lost nearly 25 pounds in the first 5 months so a lot of my clothing is comically large now]

In the terms of every day life, I didn’t pack a ton of clothes.  In PC-land, I have way too much clothing.

To revisit I had the following:

  • Fleece pull-over x1.  YES, I could probably use another. My plan is to completely wear this out.
  • Lightweight rain coat. YES. I use it for wind and rain. And moto rides.
  • Cardigan x3.  Three is too many. I’m taking the black one home [it’s the best quality, and I do like wearing them]; the other two I’ll wear while in Rwanda, but aren’t making the cut back to America.
  • Blouses x5.  I  brought them because PC says we need business casual clothing. I’ve worn 3 of the 5. The nicest of the bunch is returning to America when I visit. 2 will be left behind in Rwanda, and 2 [may] make it in the POST-COS wardrobe.
  • T-shirts x5.  YES. Plus I’ll be bringing more when I return to Rwanda… Plain colorful T-shirts. I doubt these will make it back to the US as I wear them everyday and hand washing isn’t kind to clothing. But they are relatively inexpensive at Target, which is where all of these came from.
  • Hoodie x2. One is returning to the US because it’s too nice for village life, and the other one won’t last/make the trip home. I fully expect it to be in threads two years from now.
  • Flannel Shirt. MEH.  I wear it occasionally. It won’t be returning to the US.
  • Other miscellaneous shirts x3. Just NO.
  •  Pants x 12.   This is INSANE. 6 will probably be too many. To be fair, I didn’t pack 12 pairs of pant, but due to care packages and shopping, I now HAVE 12 pairs of pants [most of which are too big, but I still wear them] The jeans I wore to Philadelphia are way too big and I never wear them anymore. I wore them a lot in PST, so I don’t feel too bad. I have another pair of jeans that were too small when I left for PST, but now fit. I brought one pair of scrub pants, and had 3 other pairs arrive in care packages. 2 gray, 1 black, and 1 blue.  The original gray and blue pants now look like clown pants on me. They won’t be returning to America. I bought 2 pairs of pants at Target prior to leaving. One is too big for a belt and the others I wear sparingly. [They are heavy weight brown cargo pants and washing them is a bitch].  I have 2 other pair of brown/khaki pants + 3 pair of gray/stone pair of pants. My plan is to alternate between two pair of pants, hopefully wearing them out [literally… My favorites always break down in the thigh area]. For COS, I want to be down to no more than 3 pairs of pants [possibly khaki/gray only].  I’m hoping to wear the scrubs out even though I love the quick wash/dry capabilities of them.
  • Skirts  x4– I brought 2 –one mid-calf brown skirt and one slightly below the knee blue, and have had 2 made. I’m planning to bring at most 2 back with me.
  • Socks and underwear x a lot… seriously I think I have close to 40 pairs of underwear and 20 pairs of socks SERIOUSLY!  A lot of the socks are returning to the US since I only wear wool socks or sandals.  I have 12 pairs of underwear in rotation. During training, I took out 6 pairs of underwear and 4 pairs of socks and used those exclusively. Once I moved in to my house, I took another 6 pairs of  underwear and 4 pairs of socks and put them in rotation… so now I have 12 pairs of underwear and 8 pair of socks in rotation. At the 8,16, 24 month mark, I will remove the too worn items and replace as necessary. In reserve I have 5 pairs of underwear and 3 pair of socks for my COS trip.  I have found that the cotton ones have a much shorter lifespan that the quick-dry kind.
  • Bras.  I have 3 sports bras and 4 regular bras. One of the sports bras is now too big [Yes, I’m losing weight there too]. I fully expect to be down to 2 or 3  at the end of 2 years
  • ShoesI brought 5 pair; 2 are returning to the USA, and it their place, I will be adding my hiking boots and another pair of shower/house flops, and possibly my tennis shoes. One pair I brought just for swear in, another pair isn’t practical, and I don’t think the slide ons will last two years, and I HATE shoes that go between my toes [which are readily available here].
  • Additional clothing:  Yoga pants x2, mesh basketball shorts x2… One of each would suffice… Swimsuit not used regularly but glad to have it

Household/Kitchen Things

I didn’t pack a lot of house things since I knew I’d be living with a host family the first three months. Instead I packed a box, and shipped it to me the day before I left. In retrospect this was one of the better decisions I made concerning packing. Things inside the box included:

  • Set of knives
  • Measuring cups/spoons
  • grater
  • vegetable peeler
  • can opener
  • Stainless steel mug
  • Assorted spices
  • A few zip lock bags
  • A head lamp
  • Seeds
  • Snacks [tuna, peanut butter, hard candy, clif bars…]

Each of these things was worth the space and cost of sending myself the box.


  • Two sets of sheets [one used in PST, the other not used] Fun fact: I brought twin and full sized sheets. While I did use the twin in PST, the bed I have at my site is essentially a queen.  I had to buy sheet anyway.
  • I quilt/comforter. YES.  It was so heavy in the bag, but every day since breaking it out, I’m glad I have it. It’s warm, and I like the color.
  • 2 pillows from home. YES. Annoying in transit, but I’m so grateful to have a ‘real’ pillow.
  • down blanket and travel pillow YES. I use these when I visit other PCT. It’s nice to be comfy when outside my home environment
  • Toiletries. YES. It’s nice to have brands my skin is familiar with in an environment that’s not familiar. Leave the make-up at home, but bring quality skin care products. And lotion.  Lots of lotion.
  • Meds. YES. PC does give an adequately stocked med kit, but it’s also nice to have some things of my own because the last thing I want to do is make an hour long trek to the bus station to pick up medicine when I’m feeling sick. I use the PC med refills for things like insect repellent, condoms, lip balm, tampons, and malaria med.  Everything else I use my own supplies
  • Quick Dry Towel–Meh. I rarely use it, but will on my post COS trip.
  • Decor–I brought 3 flags, USA, SC, and University of Tennessee plus some photos/cards of/from friends back home.  These are comfort things I’m glad to have but are not at all necessary. I’ve also used ikitenge fabric to decorate the walls
  • Curtains–Totally not necessary, but I’m glad to have them

I am over all happy with the household things I have, and the only thing I wish I had was a water bottle.  How I overlooked this is beyond me.


Electronics

  • Laptop FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, YES. Bring a laptop. It doesn’t matter what kind, but have one.  I fully expect this one to not last the entire time, but it makes doing PC reports much easier.  Blogging is MUCH easier from a laptop.
  • External Hard Drive x2. One is a 1TB drive, and the other is a 2 TB. YES.  One quit working so I;m glad to have the other one.
  • Kindle… Meh. I’ve read all the books on my Kindle, but I have an app on the laptop that allows for e-reading.  The Kindle is going back to the US
  • Camera. Yes, but not unequivocally yes  I don’t like taking pictures of people so it hasn’t gotten much use yet, but I do plan to use it more when I travel.  My smaller camera is returning to the US because I never use it.  I have a tiny action camera [think Go Pro knock off], plus my iphone [which I use mainly for music since its not 4g capable], and my cell phone.  I have enough cameras
  • Flash drives x2 32GB each Meh. They are small so they don’t take up much space, but I haven’t used them yet
  • iphone I was hoping to use this as my phone but since its an older iphone its not 4G capable and the only service I get in 4G so I had to buy a Rwandan phone, but I love using it as an Ipod
  • External speaker–it quit working after about a month, or more accurately it works, there’s just a lot of static when I use it
  • Headphones x4 I have yet to use them so why I though I needed 4 pair is beyond me.  They will return to the US and I’ll use them at the gym.
  • USB charger YES. You never know about the electrical grid in the rural villages
  • Flashlight and headlamp YES  my kitchen doesn’t have electricity so  I either have to eat at 5p or use my headlamp to cook
  • Rechargeable batteries Absolutely
  • Outlet adapters  one or two should suffice; I brought 10! of the 2 pin kind [like used in Europe] which is what I need for Rwanda, but apparently places like South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya use different ones.
  • Power strip I brought it because I had it, but these are widely available in Rwanda

You will hear people say this, and if you are anything like me, you won’t believe it, but here goes anyway:  Pack half the clothing and double the snacks of the original packing plan. I legitimately wear the same clothing All.The.Time. 4 pairs of pants would have been sufficient. Maybe 6 or 7 shirts. In a country like Rwanda, villagers wear the same clothing all the time so it’s not weird if you do to.

How I spend my days

When I was preparing to go into Peace Corps|Madagascar, I read a lot of PC blogs from a lot of countries and I found that there are a plethora of “Day in the Life of a PCV” posts out there.  At first, I read them with fascination, completely hooked on every activity.

Example:

5:30am – Wake up.
My thoughts: Wow! They get up so early!  They must be so productive! I’d also like to point out that this was my usual bedtime for non-working days in the US.  I am the epitome of a night owl.
6:00am – Start cooking breakfast.
My thoughts: Wow! I wonder what they’re eating? How do they cook? How long does it take? I’ve never really been one to eat breakfast… mostly because that’s my bedtime.

7:00am – Fetch water.
My thoughts: Wow! Fetching water! Just like Little House on the Prairie!

I know. I am a Peace Corps nerd.

Truth be told, my day-to-day life in the Peace Corps is, not unsurprisingly, much like day-to-day life in America.  We get up, we do what it takes to eat,, and clean up. We work, we sweat, we come home, we bathe, eat again, and we relax. We have days off, we travel, we come home and panic about how much work we have to catch up on.  See?  Just like at home.

Well, almost. Peace Corps life, while much like life at home in some ways, also has its dramatic differences.  I think a lot of people really wonder: just what are you doing over there aside from your assigned job?  Today, instead of the hour-by-hour breakdown of my daily routine, I want to give you a glimpse of what fills my days.

I’ve never been one for routine, but in rural Rwanda  it’s all about the routine.  Here, I rarely use an alarm clock. Instead, the roosters go off around 4:30am, and continue pretty steadily and increasing incremental volume until around 5:30am when I am awake and just procrastinating getting out of bed. I usually get up around 7 or so depsite the roosters cockle-doodle-ing for hours[In Ecuador, it was the monkeys howling, here roosters.  At least the monkeys are cute. I threaten the roosters with my soup pot]

First order of the day: eating.  Like many volunteers, I try to organize meals around what will involve the least amount of dish washing and water consumption.  For me, this is generally a piece of bread and a fruit, usually a banana or sometimes an apple. I don’t drink coffee or tea so it’s usually just 500ml of water to go with it.  On the mornings when I have a wild hair to do something crazy and have extra time or Saturday or Sunday, I may whip up a batch of pancakes complete with hot chocolate. [<—–This does not happen often].

After eating, it’s usually time to haul water. I use about 80-90 liters of water a week, all of which must be hauled by hand or head from about 150m away. I usually haul water 2x/week. 50L at a time. [of course during the frequent water shortages, this chore become infinitely easier as there is no water to haul] Then, I have to treat and filter my drinking water. Next, I may glance around and find dead insects or any number of other deceased night invaders. Sometimes I find a dead mouse head if SadieMae [the friendly compound cat] has been a good cat instead of a lazy cat. 

Finally, it’s time to dress myself for work and head out to the clinic. Or maybe someone has given birth overnight and I’m doing baby measurements. Or maybe I’m going to the market to buy some vegetables. Maybe I have a meeting, and everyone is likely to be two hours late.  Either way, these work related activities can take up a good chunk of the day, and as a rule it’s always longer than I expected it to take.

By mid-afternoon, if it’s not raining, the sun is hot and it’s time to ‘rest’ or in my case get some chores done and cook my big meal of the day.  This means dishes, laundry if I’m getting desperate for underwear, taking a bath if I’m feeling extra ambitious, and hauling the water to go with those activities. Laundry must be hung to dry, and it can take a few hours to hand scrub sweat stains out of T-shirt sleeves. 

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As the sun creeps lower in the sky, I might fire up my the stove. I’m still wary of cooking with gas.  I have a somewhat not-so-irrational fear of blowing myself up.  Then, cooking. I never know what I want so often I boil water and cook vegetables or something easy. Finally, just as the mosquitoes are coming out, I’m headed under the bed net. I use this time to edit pictures, blog, write letters,talk to my US peeps, or read.  Sometimes I read for fun; other times I’ve got my nose stuck in medical books.  I’m usually in bed no later than 9pm, but often don’t actually try for sleep until 11p or 12a.  (Once a  night owl, always a night owl).

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So there’s a day in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Rwanda.  And this is just a village day. Conference days are really different.[Breakfast at the ungodly hour of 7a; meetings all day] Travel days are different in that they involve a whole lot more sitting and gnashing of teeth [get to bus station, buy ticket, wait for bus, sit on bus, arrive to Kigali. change buses,ect] . Each of us do the same chores and daily routine activities that we did back in America, but here, these things can take half the day instead of a few minutes. Take laundry for example: instead of wadding up my dirty clothes, tossing them in the machine, pouring in soap, and walking away and doing something else for a bit, laundry here can take hours. I have to first haul the water, get the clothes soaked and soaped, scrub until my knuckles are raw, do a whole rinse cycle in a different bucket, then wring everything and hang it to dry.  While you learn little tricks to cut down on the time consuming nature of these activities [like soaking your clothes in a bucket of water and soap overnight], maintaining ourselves at our sites takes a lot of our time and energy.

Work, which can vary with the day of the week, takes up the other large bulk of our time.  Babies come when they want whether a meeting is scheduled or not. Screenings can take all day.  For example, if a mom/baby doesn’t show up to a scheduled meeting, we have to chase them down. Is the baby OK? Are they eating?  Is mom OK?  If it rains or there’s a funeral, your whole daily plan might fly out the window and you have to start rescheduling things all over again. 

Day to day life here is full of little joys, little disappointments, and lots of the regular things we did back home, but now we do them Africa-style.  In Peace Corps, no one day is quite like the next, and if you ask me, that’s the best kind of daily routine.

Handwashing station takes the place of running water and a sink.

Spaghetti with tomato sauce: Cooking in the Corps 1

Welcome to my first post in the series called Cooking in the Corps. By the end of the series, there will be [hopefully] a collection of 27 [see what I did there] recipes that I personally cooked in my kitchen either on the gas stove or the imbabura.  A couple of these are of my own creation, but most are modified versions of dishes my fellow PCV Taylor taught me to cook.

Spaghetti with tomato sauce was my first meal at site.  We were installed on a Thursday and this was Thursday night’s dinner [and Friday’s lunch].  Once the gas stove was set-up and tested, and once Peace Corps’ left, the first order of business, even before unpacking suitcases, making my bed, or any other essential task, was to fetch water and set about making the spaghetti sauce. I’d planned this meal from Kigali and acquired the vegetables needed while there so that there would be no difficulty in finding what I need.  A hungry Michelle is not a happy Michelle and hungry Michelle makes snap decisions/judgments that a satiated Michelle would not make.

Tools Needed:

  • 2 cooking pots
  • Non-stick skillet [or frying pan]
  • A heat source [I used a gas stove]
  • A sharp knife
  • A cutting board [preferable]
  • A stirring spoon of some sort

Ingredients:

  • 1 kg of fresh tomatoes [diced]
  • 1 onion [diced]
  • 1 green pepper [diced]
  • 6 cloves of garlic [diced]
  • 1 small can of tomato paste
  • Spaghetti noodles [only what you can use at one time; noodles DO NOT keep well overnight]
  • Spices to taste [I used salt, pepper, oregano, and rosemary]
  • ½ L of water
  • Bread
  • Parmesan cheese [if you’ve got it]
  • Butter or margarine
  • Red wine [about ½ cup if you have it, but totally not necessary]

Tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, and tomato paste… Add seasoning to your liking and you’ve got homemade spaghetti sauce… much healthier than anything from a can or jar

Directions:

Turn gas on and pour water in pot.  Dice all vegetables and add to water. Add 2/3 of the garlic to vegetables. Add tomato paste to pot. Stir. Add about a tablespoon of salt and a teaspoon each of pepper, oregano, and rosemary. [Add more if the flavor isn’t to your liking]. Bring sauce to boil and reduce heat. Allow sauce to simmer for 15-20 minutes until water cooks out.

Bell peppers and onions cooking together before adding tomatoes

While sauce is simmering, add water to another pot. Break spaghetti in half and add to boiling water. Cook approximately 7-10 minutes until noodles are done. Drain water.

Pour noodles on plate.

Take one loaf of bread and cut lengthwise. Slather in butter and add garlic.

Melting butter

Put face down in fry

The deliciousness that is garlic bread

Super easy and super tasty.

From Trainee to Volunteer 5: Home wasn’t built in a day

This is the last post in my series From Trainee to Volunteer relating the trials and tribulations transitioning from Peace Corps’ Trainee to Peace Corps’ Volunteer [See the others here:  Swearing In, Site, Goals, and Expectations]

 

The first time I cried during Peace Corps service was Monday during site visit.  We arrived on Saturday, and that Saturday morning had been last meal.   Also keys to the latrine and shower were missing and I was told to ‘just use what the others are using’.  There are a lot of things I can deal with but sharing bathroom facilities with 20 or so others isn’t one of them.  And so I didn’t.  I only went to the bathroom at the health center and didn’t bathe for the entire week [yeah, by Friday, I was pretty disgusted by myself].

I brought snacks—peanuts, eggs, chips, a couple of bananas and 8L of water smuggled out of St Agnes—I didn’t realize that these snacks would be my only food for three days. I went to work that Monday morning—really in a state of shock—came back at lunch, went in the room that is now the kitchen, sat on the floor and cried.  Big, giant ugly tears.  I was hungry. I didn’t know where anything was to even get food. Other volunteers were staying with host families and current volunteers.  I was in a two room house with no electricity [let me clarify that the house has electricity; I just had no way to access it during site visit] by myself. I called a friend and said ‘I have to get out of here now’, and to his credit, he didn’t say ‘just tell me when to pick you up.’  He probed around for the cause of my mini-mental breakdown, and we created a plan for getting me food which would lead to a better head space—one that was more equipped to deal with the challenges of serving in the Peace Corps.

All this to say that it was not love at first sight at my site.  I arrived late in the afternoon on Thursday and the first thing I did was set up a basic kitchen.  We’d missed lunch and St. Cristus’ breakfast was not nearly as complete as St. Agnes’ breakfast was and I knew that the last thing I wanted was to have another meltdown due to lack of food since I still did not know where anything was.  I had my pots and pans and a special bag of food I’d gotten in Kigali in preparation for making this meal easily accessible, and set about making my first meal.

First Peace Corps’ meal at site

Later on a full belly, I set about unpacking and settling in.  I hung my US Flag, SC flag, US map and UT flag on the walls.  I hung two large ikitenge fabrics on the walls. I made my bed then sat on the couch and opened up my first care package [from me]. While eating a Heath Bar [that amazingly didn’t melt] and reading going away cards/letters, I formulated a plan to turn the two rooms on the corner into something of a home.

‘Murica, the great state of South Carolina, and the University of Tennessee make up the wall decor in my living room

My bedroom has these amazing brown curtains that have hung in every place I’ve lived since 2009.  My bed has two pillows [from home], a nice weight quilt [from Target] and a fuzzy blanket [from T-2000]. Next to the bed, my large duffel bag now serves as an end table.  I keep all my electronic cords here since it’s near the outlet and I use electronics in bed anyway. [I know…I know…bad sleep hygiene]. The large green bucket has many uses but most of the time it serves as my dirty clothes container. I have a small trash can that I put trash in.  On the floor I have my small rug [purchased in Rwamagana] that allows me to walk around barefoot. The accordion wall hanger, an over the door hanger and about 15 nails make this room ‘homey’.  Lastly I’ve hung a few photos up on one side of over my bed, and cards, notes, and motivational sayings on the other side.

 

I had a local carpenter make a table that I sit my two metal chests on. [The smaller chest contains socks, underwear, tank tops, ect and the larger one tops and pants.

Bicycle delivery of two tables costing approximately $20 each; also you can see the health center where I work in the back ground.

My living room is more generic with the sofa, two chairs, and coffee tables all belonging to the landlord. In this room, I just moved the furniture to a different location than where the previous volunteer had it. I hung up the flags, added some glow in the dark stars, another accordion wall hanger, and a hook for my moto helmet. I have a small stool and two basins by the front door for no other reason than I don’t know where else to put them and that space looks empty.

The curtains hanging over the two windows and front door I made myself from a panel of ikitenge fabric I’d bought because I liked it, but had no idea what to do with it.  I also like that it’s black, and although not black-out does a decent job of keeping it dark. I keep the windows open nearly 24/7 [I know…. I know… bad example for preventing malaria], and most of the time the breeze coming in keeps it pretty cool in here.

The latrine is your basic squatty potty, but instead of just having a hole directly underneath, this one has a concrete step and is built at an angle.  So I have to pour water in after I use it to ensure the products end up in the intended destination.  I have to ‘flush’ my latrine.

I’m most impressed with my little shower room. I still don’t shower every day [for example, I’m not getting naked outside when it’s cold out], but this room makes is a lot nicer when I do.  I keep all my supplies together so it’s a ‘just add water’ situation when I do shower.  It still smells like shit but what can you expect when it’s located next to the cow stalls and has ‘open-air ventilation.’

Finally on the tour of my little house on the corner is the kitchen. I spend more daylight hours in this room than any other, and not because I’m in there cooking all the time. Twenty five nails in the wall have made this kitchen a home. I have a place for the pots and pans, the hand towels, the oven mitts, coffee mugs, and kitchen utensils.

 

One table, courtesy of the health center, holds my gas stove, PC-issued water filter, and a dish drain.  I had a table similar to the one in my bedroom made and keep it in the kitchen. I use this one for food prep and dry goods storage.  The 4 tier plastic shelf holds fruits and vegetables as well as plates and plastic storage.  The chair in the corner was relocated from the house. I moved it from the bedroom to the kitchen.  It gives me a place to sit ‘outside’ but still inside. I also have a small stool and two basins that are put into use when I’m doing dishes or laundry.  My favorite pieces are the two shelves I made from scrap wood.  I’ve got one hanging in the kitchen as a spice rack of sorts, and the other in the shower room holding toiletries.

I still miss my little house in the country, and the two kitties that live there, but over the last month, taking the time to make this a little space a little more like me, makes it easier to be away from my ‘real’ home.

I miss this girl more than I should

From Trainee to Volunteer 4: Lowering Expectations

This is the 4th post in the series From Trainee to Volunteer [See the others here:  Swearing in, Site, and Goals].  This one is all about expectations. During PST and even before, Peace Corps tell its trainee not to have expectations because whatever expectations you may have  [good or bad] will not be met.  Come into service with a blank slate so to speak, and you’ll have a chance to mitigate disappointments.

BUT…

Back home, most of my jobs had clear expectations, and there were generally accepted ways of doing things.  Be at work on time [call if you are going to be late], take care of assigned patients/customers, don’t be a smart ass, and don’t kill anyone were the basics of just about every job I’ve ever had.  How exactly said job was accomplished was generally left to me, and as long as I didn’t break any rules [or laws for that matter], I was generally left alone to do said job, and ask for help when needed.

Peace Corps jobs are a little different.  One month in and I still haven’t met the boss. I wouldn’t know who he was if it weren’t for the supervisor conference we had in training. I still don’t have a schedule or any semblance of a schedule.  I don’t know when ‘work’ starts.  I’ve shown up at 7am and have been late and shown up at 8a and been early.  I still don’t know what I am supposed to be doing or how to do it.  Oh yes, I have my site goals, but without support and honestly without a plan those are just ideas.  My assigned counterpart doesn’t show up to work a lot of the time which leaves me to either sit in the office, go home, or just find something to do.  I’ve been ‘finding something to do’ but when I mentioned this to PC, I was told to ‘not be so flexible’.  It’s damn near impossible to co-create, co-teach, co-plan, co-present, co-anything when the person you are supposed to be co-ing is unreliable [PC’s new mantra is Co-co-co… We should never be doing any projects on our own; every project needs to have a counterpartsomething about fostering sustainability and having local-level buy-in so when I leave, the project continues on…]

During the first three months, the focus is on ‘integration’—meeting neighbors, establishing a house, getting comfortable in said home, learning even more Kinyarwanda, basically allowing the community to ‘see me.’  My job as described by Peace Corps is to be seen.  And for an introvert like me, being seen is hard.  Talking to strangers in a language I don’t have full mastery of is hard.  Meeting and greeting people is hard.

In order to accomplish ‘being seen’, I set little goals for myself each day.  Some days it’s ‘go to the AM meeting at the health center [even though there’s a 99% chance that I won’t understand most of what is said and isn’t applicable to me].  Walk across the street and talk to my neighbor for 3-5 minutes [this is about all my vocabulary will allow].  Go to the market and buy some things [I proud to say that I now have an egg guy and a tomato lady that seem nice and don’t try to rip me off]. Talk to the HC staff. Sit outside [weather permitting] and cook, or wash dishes or do laundry…

It doesn’t seem like much, but some days it’s exhausting.  Usually on Saturdays I don’t leave my house [I love Saturdays]. I may do laundry, cook, and fetch water, but I don’t often leave the front gates.  I have been assured by past and current volunteers that going slowly in the first few months are the best approach.  Show up, be available, and be friendly.  If I can do that, I will have a successful service.

From Trainee to Volunteer 3: Peace Corps Goals

PC |Rwanda is trying something new with our cohort of Health volunteers [He10] called site goals. In theory site goals are created by the PC staff and the health center boss prior to a volunteer’s arrival.  Once again, in theory, this gives the volunteer a little more direction on where the PCV should be focusing his/her time.  Site goals are developed to be completed over a period of 6+ years using 3 volunteers total.  Volunteer 1[He10] is the plan/lay ground work person. Volunteer 2 [He12] is the carry out the plan person and volunteer 3 [He14] is the wrap up person.  In theory, after 6 years the site will ‘graduate’ and no longer need a PCV.

Like I said, all this is great in theory, but putting it in practice is another beast entirely.  For example, I am the third volunteer at my site.  People here are somewhat used to having a volunteer around doing various projects.  They are used to telling a PCV what they’d like to have, and the PCV working on it either by education, tangible building projects, or receiving a grant.  Site goals create some issues with that.

For example, my site goals are reducing childhood malnutrition to 0 and to increase women delivering babies at the health center from 15% to 50%.  However, when interviewed both the staff and some of the inhabitants of the villages, said that bad hygiene practices/lack access to clean water is a more pressing issue than women having babies at home. Some of the nurses at the health center say malaria is more of an issue than women having babies at home.  It’s hard enough to convince people that have limited access to water that washing hands is important let alone to convince a women in labor to walk up to 2 hours to the health center to give birth, stay for about 24 hours, and then walk back 2 hours post-partum while carrying a newborn.  If I were in their place, I wouldn’t do it.  So nutrition, hygiene, and malaria are what I’ll be working on.  He12 and He14 can tackle the women giving birth at the HC issue.

So, while PC has their goals, I have mine, and they have absolutely nothing to do with PC’s site goals.  I’ve identified 5 goals I’d like to work on in the next two years, and to be honest, they’d be the same goals I’d work on back in America.  Instead of NEW YEAR’S resolutions, think more along the lines of NEW LIFE resolutions.

  • PC Goal 1: Lose weight.  Lack of motivation to exercise combined with unhealthy eating practices [I really don’t enjoy cooking and eating meals on the go] and schedules all over the place [should I eat a full meal at midnight?  Or what about breakfast at 8am even though I’ve just worked 12+ hours] has led to an unhealthy weight gain.  Add that to the 50 pounds I gained while on high dose steroids for six months, and you have a chunky Michelle.  I’ve already lost about 10kg in the 3.5 months I’ve been here so I just need to keep it up and keep it going.
    • Goal 1.2: Commit to an exercise program that will be possible to maintain whether I’m in my village, my country house, or traveling back and forth to work/school every day.  Right now, that’s yoga, and while I’m still finding it difficult to make it a daily habit, I am finding it easier to start back when I miss a couple of days. #progressnotprefection.

I can no longer wear those pants, and that shirt has room enough in it for a small animal.

 

  • PC Goal 2: Learn to cook. Well.  While I can cook, and have no doubt that I can cook well enough not to starve, with [extremely] limited options for dining out, I need to learn to cook a variety of things with very limited ingredients.  Learning not to rely on quick cook foods, frozen dinners, and snacks is like rewiring my brain.  And since my primary goal here is nutrition, I should be [at least] a better example. To that end, one of my fellow PCVs is teaching me how to cook all sorts of interesting things… all from scratch… all from common ingredients that we find in the market.  We meet periodically to buy fresh ingredients from the market and whip up something delicious while watching a movie.  These recipes are featured in posts called Cooking in the Corps.

One of my first cooking lessons—recipe coming soon

 

  • PC Goal 3: Apply to and get accepted into NP school.  I’ve only found one school that advertises the degree I want [dual FNP/PMHNP], but it is possible to combine programs at other school to get the same program offered at the one school. To this end, I am taking the GRE at home in February.  Some schools require it; others don’t, but it will be easier to take it in the US versus trying to schedule it in Rwanda. At present I have a list of five [with two others in reserve that only offer the FNP portion so I’d have to apply to a different school to do a post-masters PMH] schools I plan to apply to [I can’t afford any more on a Peace Corps’ budget]  They are as follows [in no particular order]: UTHSC [the only school I’ve found that offers the dual program], UT-Knoxville [the only school on the list that offers a Coverdell scholarship], USC [they have both degree programs; they don’t have the dual degree as an option], Frontier Nursing University, Eastern Kentucky University [both have both options available; neither have a dual program], and the two schools in reserve are both South Carolina schools that only offer the FNP degree [meaning I’d have to go to a second school for the PMH degree] Clemson University and Francis Marion University.

My goal is to start no later than Spring Term 2021.

 

  • PC Goal 4: Learn photoshop.  I have a copy of Photoshop Elements downloaded on my computer, but I barely know how to do much more than crop. I’ve got nearly 50000 photos on my hard drive that need editing so I’ve got a lot of material on which to practice.
    • Goal 4.2: Edit and organize said photos
    • Goal 4.3: Re-design the blog and ensure every post has at least one photo in it.

 

  • PC Goal 5: Strengthen relationships.  This one is kind of esoteric but with the exception of 2 [very important] outliers, the people important in my life today are people I’ve met in the last five years. These are the people I call when I’m down; the people I WhatsApp with regularly; the people who send me mail and care packages; the people I draw strength from when I think about quitting; and the people I don’t want to disappoint.  This also applies to PC friendships too.  I’ve identified a couple of others who have a similar outlook on Peace Corps service and life, and I am in contact with them weekly about how life is going at site, what’s coming up, just life in general.  Facebook and other social media apps make keeping in contact with others a whole lot easier than it was say 1998… I don’t think I would have survived PC circa late 90’s/early 00’s when technology was available, but oh so hard to access… especially in the developing world.

The best co workers on the planet

My favorite children at their favorite place

New friends are awesome too

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 2: Site announcement, first visit, and first week

I touched on the fact that I wasn’t altogether happy with my site back when we had the announcement.  I didn’t pitch a fit, cry, or really display any type of emotion, but the fact was nearly everything I had said in the interview concerning site placement, I ended up with the opposite.

I wanted to be a ‘first generation’ volunteer; instead I’m the third at this site, the last having been a Peace Corps’ poster child. [The only poster I’m ever going to end up on is a ‘Wanted’ poster].

I wanted to be rural. While I do live in a rural village per se, I can, and in fact do, walk to Rwanda’s second largest city. There’s pizza and ice cream and Chinese food.  There’s a university and an arboretum. Connectivity leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s a small inconvenience.

Huye has legit coffee milkshakes that are worth hanging around for

I wanted to be in the mountains, near one of the national parks. I’m near exactly zero mountains and the closest park in over three hours away.  I have a lot of hills, some very large hills to be exact, but it’s not like being in the mountains. It’s like being in the Midwest; you’re not exactly at sea level, but not really in the mountain and both the mountains and sea are quite a long way away.

Site visit was rough.  There was a food issue [there wasn’t any], a bathroom issue [missing keys meant I was to share with everyone else],  a work issue [what the hell am I supposed to be doing], a counterpart issue [he took me to bars after I said I don’t drink and left me to find my way home in the rapidly approaching darkness], and a supervisor issue [when I called PC about the lack of food, he became offended and probably embarrassed—I haven’t seen him since].  Getting home was no picnic as I’d agreed to meet some others and while I was at the bus station by 8am, no one else was.  One person of the four showed and we were on our way at 10:30, a full two hours behind schedule.

The day went from bad to worse and at 10p when I crawled into my bed back in Rwamagana, I wanted nothing to do with anyone.

Sometimes I am amazed at my own stubbornness and why I didn’t decide to GTFO after that week from hell, I’ll never know, but here I am, a full month later, still in the Peace Corps, still at my site, still trying to figure out what to do.

My first week at site was challenging, and to be fair, I’d guess most people’s week was challenging as well.  However, in addition to starting a new job and meeting new people, and figuring out what it is exactly that I am supposed to be doing, I had the challenges of having both an absent boss and counterpart.  Throw in that I still struggle a lot with Kinyarwanda, it made for a very long week [even though I only ‘worked’ four days].

I’m trying.  That’s all I can do.

Do laundry while its sunny; rain clouds blow in a soon as it’s hung up to dry. An apt metaphor for how things are going.