End of the Year Review: Peace Corps Edition

Another year has come and gone. I KNOW! How is that even possible?  It seems like only yesterday I was packing my bags for Madagascar, and yet here we are.  

But Life, as life tends to do, happened, and my long awaited trip to Madagascar turned into a should I or shouldn’t I go to Rwanda [spoiler alert:  I probably shouldn’t have gone to Rwanda]

But despite any misgivings I may or may not have had I DID in fact get on the plane headed to Kigali on June 5, 2018, and late in the evening of June 6, I along with 23 other Peace Corps trainees arrived in Kigali dragging behind us entirely too much [actual] luggage, and if I’m honest, a bit of invisible luggage in the form of fears, hopes, dreams, and expectations.

Just a few weeks ago, the newest volunteers were sworn in and sent to their sites with their own literal and figurative baggage. The key difference between these new volunteers and our group is that these new volunteers are based in the education sector while my group is based in Health. I don’t know if that makes me a ‘veteran’ volunteer or not, but I feel some relief that my cohort is not the ‘newest’ group in country any more.

Can I believe that I have made it this far? No, not really.  I’ve had issues with my health center from the beginning [see living that med hold life] for an example. Do I have thoughts/feelings/words of wisdom?  You better believe it.

  • Advance research about your host country is a good idea but has limits. For example, when researching Rwanda the 1994 genocide is the first thought in everyone’s mind. Then maybe gorillas, if they are into nature.  Guidebooks will give you insight into the life of a tourist and ideas about places you might want to visit, but very little into the life of a local. And especially not as a rural local.
  • Time goes quickly. Even the difficult days of PST, where every waking moment was controlled by Peace Corps, time passed by rather quickly.
  • Time goes slowly. There are days when I do very little.
  • Being able to be Peace Corps Volunteer is a huge privilege. Sure, you will hear people say “it’s a privilege to serve” but I mean a different kind of privilege. The path to getting here—which at minimum requires a college degree and the ability to leave responsibilities in the U.S. behind for 2 years—is littered with privilege. I wish more Americans could have this experience but the barriers for entry are too high.  Especially if you are not a recent college graduate, have children, an exorbitant amount of debt, ect.
  • For people who don’t like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and [fill in the blank with social media de jour], I hear you. People who can’t have a thought without making a post about it annoy the snot out of me, but for PCVs living in remote spots, Facebook, WhatsApp et.al. are nothing less than a godsend for feeling like you still have contact with the outside world.
  • My mental health has be mostly stable. I’ve had a few issues; a few what the fuck am I doing here moments, but I have maintained my sanity.  I’ve never suffered from depression and/or anxiety before, but I’ve had more panic attacks in six months that I have ever had in my life. I assumed leaving would be 100% my choice. Turns out that’s not always how it works. And if I do end up not serving the two years, who knows what the actual  cause will be.
  • I am American. Not I am “an” American. That I knew. Living in another country has made me more aware of the things about me that are truly American: personal space, free will, self-reliance, imagination, and non-conformity are all things to be celebrated; my preference for a straight answer rather than vague mumbling in agreement when someone really had no plans to agree; my thoughts on pet ownership [despite what our Country Director thinks/says cats are great for companionship and critter control] and child rearing [hitting a less that five year old child for not wanting to take medicine, go speak to the ‘muzungu’, or a myriad other offenses] is not OK in my book, and I’ve lost count  of the number of times I’ve had to sit back and sit on my hands and watch parents literally BEAT their children. [PC’s official policy is that volunteers are not to get involved in matters concerning host country nationals. PC can kiss my ass on this policy and if I’m ever administratively separated it will be because I stood between a child and adult daring the adult to, as the saying goes, ‘pick on someone their own size.’] There are million other little things. It’s all American.
Excellent critter control
  • I am proud to be American. Mostly. I have no illusions that America is the greatest at everything and I disagree with many stances that my government takes but I don’t believe you have to have a “love it or leave it” mentality to be patriotic. It turns out that I do love America and have affection for many of our most ridiculous habits, traditions and idiosyncrasies.
  • Some things are neither better nor worse, just different. But some things are most definitely better or worse. Living abroad gives you the chance to clarify your values. What merits compromise? What doesn’t?  I feel confident in saying that as a woman moving through western society, I have it way better than 99% of the women I know moving through Rwandan society. Cultural relativism is one thing, access to education and reproductive rights, freedom to reject misogyny, the ability to have legal recourse against rape and domestic violence—that’s another. Not that these things are perfect in America. But they are So. Much. Better.
  • It’s hard to explain to Peace Corps to outsiders. From the long periods of idleness where you struggle to find work  to the long periods of idleness that actually are work [sitting for four hours drinking tea with your neighbors because some neighbor’s relative–you’re not sure whose–died]. Important community integration work! A lot of it does not makes sense to people who haven’t lived it.
  • Everyone’s service is their own. How I hated hearing that during training. It sounds like a platitude but it turns out to be true. As a volunteer in Rwanda I have it way different than those in Paraguay, Georgia, or Vanuatu ; as a woman my service is different than a man’s; as someone in a rural site my service is different from someone who lives in an urban environment; as a close to middle aged person with a career my service is different from a fresh out of college person. The list goes on and on.   Everyone’s service is their own.
  • I don’t regret it. A couple of months in I said “even if I had to go home tomorrow, this experience has been worth it.” I still feel that way.

So here I am at almost 7 months in. Do I think I will I make it to the close of my service? [July 2020 for those who are tracking.] Who knows? Do I feel some great loyalty to the Peace Corps? Not really. If we were evacuated due to Ebola, would I be sad? Not at all. If I get accepted to grad school at an earlier time than my COS date, will I go? Almost certainly.

Leaving Early

Despite the title, I want to reassure everyone that as of today, December 23rd, I am still IN the Peace Corps, and have no immediate plans to leave. Although this could change at the whim of the US Government, I could be heading home via airplane at any given moment. Just know that as of now, I am still in Rwanda, and I HAVE NOT left the Peace Corps. But now is as good of a time as any other for information about how one does in fact leave the Peace Corps.

After getting reassigned to Rwanda, my mantra was “It’s not prison. I can leave whenever I want.” Perhaps this is surprising to some who thought that maybe, while not prison, the Peace Corps was kind of like the army, where getting out is hard. It is not. If I want out, I’m on a plane back to the USA within a few days. I think.

But before we delve into how one leaves the Peace Corps let’s back up:  Most people imagine that one leaves the village, tearfully, after serving 27 months [in actuality it’s about 23-25 months], in which the village has erected a permanent [at least for the duration of the remaining tenure in said village] shrine to said volunteer. There is a ceremony of sorts where the volunteer is gifted some local [but often meaningless] trinket, and the volunteer cries and promises to come back after some period of time.

THIS IS A MYTH. FAIRY TALE. WISHFUL THINKING… Although in some [very few] cases it could/does happen like this;  the truth is more complicated and there are lots of ways people leave. Here are the main ones:

  • Close of Service: The “normal” way. In PC | Rwanda Health cohorts, COS conference occurs in March, and actual COS can occur anytime between June and August.  This conference occurs 21 months after having arrived in country.  The reason for this is the month of April is an official/unofficial month of mourning for the entire country and at the government level NOTHING is scheduled or gets accomplished.  So March it is. Everyone remaining from your original cohort gathers for a final conference to discuss reentry into post-Peace Corps life.  You get information about what your post Peace Corps benefits will be [a months’ worth of medical coverage, a bit of “re-settlement” money that should fund a security deposit on a place to live and if you’re lucky dinner and a movie]. You decide if you want Peace Corps to buy you a ticket back home or if you want cash in lieu so you can travel on your own or find a cheaper ticket and pocket the extra cash. Then people head back to their sites for a final two months or so and, regardless shrines and trinkets, say goodbye to their communities. There are exceptions of course. Some get permission to leave up to six weeks early if they have a pressing reason–job, grad school. Conversely, some attend the conference but aren’t leaving: they’re extending service for six to twelve months to finish up a project or start a new one; or they married a local and decided to settle here.

Bye village… just so you know this is not my village. Mine is not quite this scenic

  • Administrative Separation: “Admin Sep” happens when you screw up and get caught breaking the rules. There are big rule breaks like possession of, buying of, and selling of drugs or leaving the country without permission ‘ie crossing into the Congo just because‘, but it can technically happen for relatively minor violations of PC policy like riding a moto without the PC approved helmet or traveling [to the next town or even your banking town] without telling the Peace Corps where you are going. Depending on the rule(s) you break, you might get booted right away or be put on a Corrective Action Plan and then booted after several offenses.

No amount of confession will get you out of a admin separation

  • Medical Separation: “Med Sep” is when a volunteer gets sick/injured in a way that can’t/shouldn’t be dealt with in country. Sometimes it’s automatic but sometimes you and the medical staff have a longer conversation about the pros and cons. No one from our cohort has been med sep’ped yet, but if things keep heading in the direction they are heading, I might be the first.  Sometimes it’s an automatic thing and sometimes much deliberation is required.  I guess I’m in the much deliberation required category as here it is almost four weeks after the original injury and I’m still in limbo.
  • Early Termination: ET’ing is probably the most common way to leave early. Why just leave? Maybe Peace Corps just isn’t for you. Maybe you need a little more direction in your work activities. Maybe you need a little less harassment [sexual or otherwise in you life].  Maybe you’ve decided that pizza is the true love one for you. There’s a million reasons, most of which you don’t figure out till you’re actually here. Maybe the mismatch is with PC or maybe it’s with the specific country you’ve been sent to. Who knows? I do know it happens all the time and it’s okay. It’s not easy to go from one of the most privileged societies the world has ever known to living in developing nation. Despite beliefs to the contrary you’re not on vacation and the daily stress of living in a new culture shouldn’t be underestimated. You might also ET because stuff happens at home that makes you rethink your commitment. Or maybe something bad happens here. You’re going along fine but then get robbed and no longer feel safe in your community.  A site change is possible but ultimately you might think “Screw it. The pay’s not high enough to put up with PTSD.”Or you could ET for positive stuff. Like you got a kick-ass job or accepted into your dream university for grad school. Basically, I’ve heard a lot of different stories. What leads one person to ET leads another to shrug and keep going. If you do decide to leave, PC generally pulls you out pretty quickly and you’re home within a week.
  • Interruption of Service/Evacuation: Sometimes civil war breaks out in a host country. Sometimes the U.S. makes foreign policy decisions that are unpopular in a host country and Peace Corps thinks they should move volunteers out of country while things cool off.  Sometimes Ebola breaks out and PC decides for the safety of all to evacuate the country. Or the methane deposits under lake Kivu decide to explode. Ideally this doesn’t happen a lot. But it does happen. For the record, if they evacuate Rwanda for civil unrest or Ebola, my time in the Peace Corps is just over. I don’t see myself signing up for a new 27 months somewhere else. I recently heard that the Interruption of Service can be given for a few other reasons as well like if your spouse is Med Seped and you want to join him/her at home. These different labels matter because they relate to your post-PC status, benefits you might accrue, and how easy it is to rejoin the Peace Corps at a later date, etc.

  • Crazy combinations of things: Oh the stories I have heard. Any and all of the above can combine in ways that you would not expect. A low-level stomach upset has been plaguing you for months.  Your best friend has a baby while you are away.  Your best friend here in the PC gets mugged which makes you feel unsafe even though nothing happened to you. And while none of these things by itself is enough to send you home, you start to think maybe sticking it out isn’t that important. So you ET or you ask PC to med sep you and they agree or they give you some other label that sends you home with some other status that I’ve never heard of. And depending on when in your service you leave and what label they stick on you, you may or may not still be able to claim the label of RPCV.

In the end, PC loses a lot of volunteers every year. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. The process to get into the PC is long and involved and while I am sure there is always room for improvement, it’s not like they just let anyone in and then shrug it off if it doesn’t work out. I do think that sometimes the PC probably manipulates its drop out rate to make it seem lower–which is not helpful to anyone involved.  My cohort started with 24.  We lost one only a couple weeks into PST and the other one in early November.  Our drop out rate is currently 8.3%, however, if I am med sep’ped, I’ll be leaving early and it jumps up to 12.5%.

Having just passed the six month in country mark  I am relatively confident that even if I leave early [for whatever reason], it will still have been a worthwhile opportunity.

Away for the holidays

This is not the first year I haven’t been home for the Christmas holidays.  As a registered nurse and before that a respiratory therapist, I’ve spent most of or at least part of nearly every Christmas in a hospital of some sort.  Sometimes is was a children’s hospital where we got to ‘play Santa’ for the sick kids; sometimes it was in a psychiatric hospital where someone actually thought they were Santa.

Sometimes I wasn’t home for the holidays because although I worked on the actual holiday, I spent the weeks leading up to or immediately after traveling.  I’ve spent Christmas traveling in France and Germany trying to determine the best Christmas market. 

I’ve spent Christmas in Bosnia and Serbia where it truly looks like a winter wonderland and bonus!  these countries celebrate ‘western’ Christmas and Orthodox Christmas so if you time it right, you can have 2 solid weeks of holidays.

On the road to Sarajevo

I’ve spent Christmas in Mexico watching the sun dip into the Pacific Ocean while laying stretched out on a beach and in Argentina watching the sun rise on the Atlantic coast. But this year it’s different.

Sunset in the Pacific

This year I’m 8000 miles from my actual home and about 100 from my temporary home in Rwanda.  It’s been 5 weeks since I’ve seen my little house on the corner and been able to pet #notmycat.  It’s been longer than that since I’ve set foot in my health center.  And I’m not heading home in a couple of weeks like all the other times.

These days I spend most of my time lying around the Peace Corps HQ recovering from a fall.  It’s cruel punishment really, as I am mostly alone.  PC staff has a ‘no fraternization’ policy with volunteers and I guess this even means a ‘hello’ on my part is greet by a curt and/or terse response and quick retreat on their part, and since my condition, at this point is chronic, I see the PCMO at most for 5 minutes.  I’ve had a few visitors but life in the capital is forbidden per PC policy [and expensive!] so I keep to myself. And my books.  And while I can be melancholy about my situation, it doesn’t change it so I try to be positive, and hope for the day my situation changes.

Living that med hold life

A Story: how IST turned into med hold

A couple of weeks ago, my cohort got together for what’s called IST [In-Service Training].  IST occurs approximately 90 days after moving to site and serves as the end of our probationary period.  Oh and we invite counterparts as well. I haven’t gotten into a whole lot about the cluster-fuck that is my assigned health center because if you can’t say anything nice… Anyway, I’d asked my official counterpart to come, but she said she could not. [This is a person that I enjoy working with and while I realize she is exceedingly busy, a person I can see building a successful relationship with.]  I asked another person to come, and she too, said she could not.  So I was prepared to attend all alone and be totes fine with it and display my message to PC in a obvious way [you want to know why nothing is happening?  I can’t even get a counterpart to IST]  But alas PC circumvented my plan by calling the HC direct and inviting the previous volunteer’s counterpart–he has since moved to another position in the HC, and I’ve talked to him before IST exactly once.  Well played, PC… well played.

Fast forward to Sunday night.  I still don’t know that a counterpart is coming, but we get started.  First topic, Ebola [short story: it’s coming]. A PC epidemiologist and our country director spent time with PC | Uganda trying to develop a plan on what to do if a case enters either country [I give our evacuation chances to be 50-50, and if I had to narrow that down even more, I’d go with April-June as prime evacuation time.  There are a whole host of reasons for this, and if you really want my opinion ask me and I’ll tell you in private].

Imagine my surprise on Monday morning when a vaguely familiar person greets me [Surprise:  it’s the HC data manager aka my counterpart for the week].  Monday is what you’d expect from a conference involving roughly 50-60 people [welcome…we’re glad you’re here…review…how to work together with the PCV… blah, blah] Yay… it’s 5:00 and day one is in the books.  A group of us decide to go out to meet a few ED 8 volunteers who are COS’ing in the next few weeks.  We toddle off… it’s about 7:00 or so so in Rwanda, dark.  But we’re in a city. A city with street lights. No problem, right?  Wrong.  This is what I remember.  I was walking alongside 2 other volunteers, sometimes on the sidewalk sometime off.  We were talking.  Then I was on the ground with intense pain in my left leg.  The though–well that hurt– went through my head, and I know myself enough by now to know if that thought goes through my head then I am essentially screwed [The ripped toenail of 2017 and the broken bones of 2015 as evidence].  I sat on the ground for some time [if felt like a long time, but I’m sure was less than 30 seconds], looked to see if any bones were poking through the skin, look to see if my jean were intact, and I in fact did not have bones poking through the skin, and my jeans were in fact intact.  Win- win, right?

Not so fast…

I could feel the swelling occurring and even thought I made it to see the ED 8’s off, I came back early because I was seriously worried that my leg would swell to the point that I wouldn’t be able to get my jeans off, and well, the jeans are important.  They are probably the only pair that fit me in this entire country.  I got back to my room at the hotel, took off said jeans, and went about applying First Aid the best I could given the circumstances.  I knew that our PCMO was coming tomorrow so I thought I’d have her take a look at it, and that would be all.

I was wrong… So very wrong…

After her session, she took a look, and was like hmmm, there’s a lot of swelling. I think x-rays are warranted in this situation.  You are coming back to Kigali with me for x-rays so you’ll be on med hold today and tomorrow, and if things are OK, then you can go back. I’m thinking… OK, nbd, I can go to Kigali for a day, then meet back up with my peeps in Musanze after med hold, and enjoy the rest of the conference [read:  free food that I don’t have to cook, hot showers, and a king sized bed].

That did not happen…

I got the x-rays. Nothing was broken, but there was still an abundance of swelling and pain so I stayed on med hold another day.  [To be honest, I doubt I would have not gone back if it were not for Thanksgiving–so while in retrospect staying in Kigali would have been the better medical decision, I do appreciate that I got to spend Thanksgiving with my cohort].  Thursday night, Friday and Saturday were pretty much a blur as I was in a lot of pain and despite the opportunity to explore a new city, I just could not.  And that made be somewhat sad.

I returned to Kigali in the PC truck on Saturday after deciding that public transportation would be too dangerous and/or painful to deal with. So I have been hold up at PC HQ since Saturday, November 24.  In that time I have read 21 books, drew countless versions of the remodeling I’m going to be doimg post-PC, searched for new furniture for my post-PC house, thought of projects to do, stayed up past midnight and slept in past noon, eaten 3 pizzas, 5 hamburgers, 8 green apples, 2 jars of Biscoff, 4 containers of Pringles [Cheddar Cheese, Pizza, and Sour Cream and Onion x2], 3 versions of spaghetti, and 3 burrito bowls.  I  have also had 13 holes poked in my arms, including lucky #13 where I did it myself [yes, I know… I’m a bad ass].  I’ve taken 126 tablets of ibuprofen which has done nothing for pain, and minimal for swelling but that’s all I can get from PC. [I’ve also taken 14 tablets of prilosec so those 126 tablets of ibuprofen don’t eat a hole in my stomach].  I have had one x-ray and one CAT scan with another to be scheduled this coming week. I’m on Day 15 of med hold which means I haven’t seen my little house in Mbazi in nearly a month.  I’m sure my plants [mainly lettuce]  have died and #notmycat thinks I’ve abandoned her.  This also means I haven’t been to the health center in the same period of time so if/when I do go back, it will be exactly like starting over and with my upcoming vacation in less than two months I think why bother starting something now when I’m going away again.

To be sure… I have no idea when I’m leaving Kigali. Going up and down hills/stairs is still exceedingly difficult and when you are located in the country that calls itself ‘The land of 1000 hills’ that means that I have nowhere to go that relatively flat/ safe. And so I sit… living that med hold life

By now, I know that guards by site.  They know I ‘live’ near the tanks [meaning I sit outside and read a lot and my sitting space is near the water tanks.  I know there are 87 stair steps to get from the med hold room to the front gate of PC HQ [and even more if you want to go inside PC HQ depending on where your final destination is..  I know that guards do security checks every 30-45 minutes, although they don’t always badge the same spot each time.  I know that when it’s raining, there’s even more time between security checks. I know the bottom bunk bed is the most comfortable of the 4 in the infirmary, and if you leave a fan running, it helps to act as mosquito control. I have gone entire days without speaking another word in English or Kinyarwanda. And of the 16 days I’ve been in med hold, I’ve been by myself for 11 of them.

Who knows where I go from here?  I’m still swollen, not fully bearing weight, and in pain almost daily. I do know if I’m here another 30 days, medical separation from the Peace Corps becomes a distinct possibility.

 

Cooking in the Corps 3: Southern Comfort Foods

In some ways, Rwanda reminds me a lot  of the Southern United States… especially the rural South The food is pretty basic, but good cooks know how to jazz it up. People still believe in old wives tales [but here they are called something different]. Church still takes up a big part of your Sunday… Football is pretty important [although a different kind of football], and kids play outside and create their own fun.  That being said this dish is as simple as they come and instantly transports me back to childhood. Introducing 2 super simple southern dishes.

Stewed Tomatoes

Ingredients:

  • Tomates [canned works best]
  • Rice
  • water
  • Oilve oil
  • Salt/pepper

Directions:

Cook rice until fluffy. If you have an onion, add it if you want to, but totally not necessary. Bring tomatoes to boil and boil off some of their juices. Add tomatoes to rice. Season with salt and pepper. That’s it.  Seriously, the easiest dish I could ever make in Rwanda.

 

Spam and Eggs

Another seriously southern dish that’s readily available in Rwanda.  Also it had been YEARS since I had Spam until this.

Ingredients:

  • Spam
  • Eggs
  • Potatoes
  • seasoning to taste
  • oil for frying

Directions:

Wash, peel, and cut potatoes into cubes.  Fry potatoes until brown. Add water to accelerate cooking using the fry/boil method. Cut the SPAM into bite sized cubes, and fry cubes until brown.  Crack eggs in a separate bowl if you want scrambled eggs, or the frying pan if you want fried eggs.  Cook eggs until done.  Mix potatoes, SPAM, and eggs together. Enjoy.

On being thankful and having gratitude

What I am thankful for–Peace Corps year one edition

Once upon a time a friend and I used to send each other our daily gratitude lists.  A list that would have anywhere from 3-7 items on it that we were truly thankful for, and would sometimes be as basic as clean water and air or as complex as a peaceful resolution to a serious problem. It was a good way to start the day… being in a state of gratitude before leaving the house.  Because sometimes life happens, and life can be a bitch.

This week contained the American Holiday of  Thanksgiving, and for the second time in a decade I find myself outside the US for this distinctly American holiday. I find myself feeling more grateful than I have in quite some time, thanks to the last few months living in Rwanda and its inevitable way it shifted the way in which I experience the world.

Why am I so full of gratitude lately?

I am thankful for my education. 

Lord knows I have enough of it and sometimes it was a struggle to get and pay for, but never, not even once, did not think that I couldn’t finish high school or go to college.  I may have been/be on the most circuitous path ever, but dropping out of school because I’m female has never crossed my mind.

I was a latchkey kid, got myself up and fixed my own breakfast from about 8 years onward, and caught the school bus until I could drive, but these struggles are nothing compared to what many students in Rwanda face. Many students walk up to six kilometers every morning to get to school, some without shoes over the hilly and rocky terrain. Some struggle to concentrate, because their growling stomachs compete for their mental attention. They sit snug as bug next to their classmates — three, sometimes four to a wooden desk — in the hot or cold classroom of up to 60 students. They rely one notebook and one pen with zero additional educational materials. Kids return home, make dinner for their families, sell food at the market, and take care of their younger siblings. And repeat it all, the next day.

Living in a place where so many students stop attending school after primary school… primary school! reminds me how much of a gift my education is. I am lucky for the teachers that challenged me and the resources made available to me, and while I can’t name every teacher I’ve ever had, I do remember some of the more special ones and am thankful for them on a regular basis.

I am thankful for the kindness in my life.

Rwanda is not an easy place to be a foreigner, and I’d guess it’s probably not that easy to move to a different area within the country.  My guess for that is due to the genocide that occurred almost 25 years ago. Depending on their age, most adults in Rwanda were alive during that period either as babies, children, or young adults themselves.  It doesn’t come easy or natural for Rwandans to trust outsiders. That being said, I have experienced kindness while I’m here.  The people I work with who help me learn Kinyarwanda on a daily basis. The people who have helped me find my way when I’ve gotten turned around. Kindness comes in many forms here, but one usually has to prove his or her worthiness in order to receive it so it’s nice to experience true kindness with no strings attached.

I am thankful for life’s challenges and the values instilled by overcoming them.

It’s the hurdles I had to jump in the past that make me the driven, independent person that I am happy to be today. If it weren’t for the bumps along the way, I would not have had the opportunity to grow in ways that I did and continue to do.

As much as I have dealt with and overcome in my life,  people in my community face an entirely different set of challenges than challenges I have faced and ever will face. Their resilience, perseverance, and unwavering hospitality in these times of difficulty, is admirable.  Going through tough times in America, while still challenging, is not the same as going through tough times in Rwanda.

I am thankful for learning more about myself.

As noble as “saving the world” sounds, a majority of my Peace Corps experience thus far has been a heroic adventure of self-discovery. I have found the beauty in stepping outside of my comfort zone and saying “yes” to self-growth opportunities. I have practiced patience, continued to learn the value of making mistakes, and appreciate the importance of perseverance. I am becoming more sensitive to what makes me happy or sad, and making decisions based on those observations. Self-respect starts with making decisions with your happiness [among other things, of course] in mind.

I am so grateful that my time here has allowed me to grow in these ways.

I am thankful for my friends and family.

Though there are few places on Earth I could be where I would be physically farther from my peeps, my time away has made us closer in many ways. In order to join the Peace Corps, I had to quit a job, ‘alter’ a relationship, and give up my kitty cats to the care of another person. The support from my friends and family allowed me to  start a new chapter of life in Rwanda.

Separation often acts as a test, whether it intentional or unintentional, and to my delight, I have a small little team of supporters cheering me on this adventure of mine. While I probably could have survived [ definitely not thrived]  without them, it makes it a whole lot easier knowing that someone I know is watching Lucy and Molly, people are sending me little notes and gifts, letters and postcards, and people are generally interested in what I am doing.

I am thankful for a gained perspective on the world and its people.

I’ve traveled a fair amount prior to joining the Peace Corps. I’ve even been outside the country for an extended period of time before.  I always try to be a temporary local rather than a tourist whenever I go some place new.  But staying in a neighborhood for a week or even a month  at a time is not the same as staying in one place for a year [or two if I make it that long].  Being in the Peace Corps gives one the opportunity to truly immerse oneself in  a community, and if that person is lucky, have the community accept them as one of their very own.

I often think to myself how lucky I am to be experiencing the world through a different lens while I spend each day immersed in a community on the other side of the world. With each culture brings unique values and it has been enlightening and refreshing to experience Rwandan values, and see how they take precedence over things that are often obsessed over in the American world, such as technology, material items, money and work. Life here has changed my perspective on my personal values and I am grateful for the lifelong lesson my neighbors has taught me.

I am thankful for my cohort.

We are now a group of 22 unique and individual souls having lost a member just a few weeks ago. [She went home; she didn’t die]. To be honest I would have never even crossed paths with a lot of my cohort, let alone entertained friendship. But at almost 6 months in, I now have a ‘brother’, and a handful of close friends in the cohort which makes sticking out through the tough times a little easier. Being together [however brief] during this last week has made me realize how much I miss those who don’t live so close to me.

Where there is no wi-fi: blogging

My house is a two room brick structure surrounded by concrete with with a tin roof. It has intermittent electricity, and there’s no wi-fi to be found. So how do I manage to blog from my rural Rwandan village?

Here’s what I have in the way of technology:

  • a simple laptop, case, and charger
  • SIM card for buying mobile data bundles
  • a smartphone I bought in Rwanda
  • a USB to micro-USB cord

Gone are the days of firing up the laptop, connecting wireless-ly to the cloud, and writing while also uploading and editing photos.  Gone are the days of having 10 tabs open at once. After some months of trial and error, these are the steps I now take to produce one blog post:

  1. Charge the laptop fully either while having electricity or at the health center.
  2. Draft and edit blog posts at night in a Word doc.
  3. Plug phone or storage drive into laptop and grab images for said blog post.
  4. Walk 4 miles (uphill both ways –no snow–) with laptop, cell phone, and USB drive into Huye, go to the nicest Catholic boarding house around [or second option a coffee shop with spotty wi-fi], buy a Fanta or milkshake depending on my location, add mobile data to my phone, and take a seat.
  5. Set up a hotspot
  6. Copy and paste posts onto WordPress, upload photos and add tags. I usually upload a month of posts at a time and set the to auto post every Sunday.

I can, and have, written and published many posts entirely through my phone. I prefer to type on a computer for quantity and quality writing.

This set up works OK… Not great…Not perfect but it gets the job done.  I for one will be glad to returning to the land of Starbucks and free wi-fi sooner rather than later.

Peace Corps is a lot like prison…

One of the things I said before joining Peace Corps was ‘It’s not as if I am going to prison; I’m volunteering. I can leave if I decide to leave.”

Well, as a result of the Peace Corps’ sharing spirit, I was recently gifted Seasons 1-6 of Orange is the New Black. [In return, I contributed The Americans Seasons 1-6 to the vast share drive that is Health 10].  In case you are just as out of tuned with pop culture as I am, Orange is the New Black is a book [and Netflix series] about life in a women’s prison. [Also I now want to read the book].  Turns out Peace Corps service is a lot like prison. [For the record, I have never actually been to prison or even jail so my observations on similarities are solely based on my 5 months in the Peace Corps and a TV show].

How exactly are the Peace Corps and prison similar?  Glad you asked…

  • Intake
    • Getting to our intended destination involved a lot of scary moments on various forms of transportation with the final leg of the journey being ‘greeted’ by an peppy official and all the volunteers being bleary eyed and hungry.
    • First stop after customs and baggage retrieval was the nunnery where we were promptly segregated by sex and fed a communal dinner in near total silence.
  • First day deer in the headlights feeling: After a first night of sleeping on uncomfortable, lumpy, mattress, the new PCT is fed communal breakfast and promptly split up into groups, and interrogated [interviewed?] by several officials about health history, ‘what makes you happy?’ ‘how do you cope with stress?’ and ‘why did you decide to join Peace Corps’. Upon first arriving in prison, the main character author discovers a plethora of rules and regulations that she doesn’t understand, isn’t allowed to question, and needs to follow to the letter. I feel like that applies to PCVs both in the sense of expectations from Peace Corps the organization and from the host country in which you are placed. Things that make no sense to you at all (in prison: you sleep on top of the covers; in Peace Corps | Rwanda you aren’t allowed to ride a moto on a paved road even if the paved road is a shorter distance and safer.
  • Strange hook-ups:  We are a group that would never mix if not for our common affliction”.  I heard that somewhere once or twice, but it’s applicable for both prison and the Peace Corps.  Some times its just a hook-up.  In the Peace Corps, the need for affection is strong; while in prison, the need for protection is real.  Hook-ups happen; they are frequent, and often occur among people you would never suspect.  People who wouldn’t given each other the time of day on the outside become cozy bedfellows on the inside.
  • The Rumor Mill:  Everyone knows everything.  Never has the adage “three can keep a secret if two of them are dead” meant so much as in the Peace Corps and, apparently, prison. Want to keep something private? Tell NO ONE.
  • It takes one to know one:  Friends [parents, significant others, other people on the ‘outside, loving kitty cats] will never really know what it’s like to serve either in the Peace Corps or prison [or military but that’s outside this scope of post] unless you’ve been there.  Having supportive people on the outside is important, but sometimes there are things that can only be expressed to another PCV/prisoner.
  • Pushing the boundaries: Very few things in my world are black and white; very few things in Peace Corps [prison] are any shade of gray.  This leads to some interesting decision making choices on the part of PCVs such as myself. While I am not stupid, and have no desire to run to the capital city, drink, and party all night in a night club, other ‘rules’ in my opinion are a little more fluid.  Both PCVs and prisoners like to test those boundaries.  One key difference though, pushing the boundaries too far while in Peace Corps will get you sent home early while pushing the boundaries too far in prison keeps you from going home.
  • Focusing on the outside too much or forgetting that there is an outside: I’m still early in my service so things are moving at glacial speed, but I am acutely aware of what’s going on on the outside.  My best friend is having a baby in 3 days. 3 days! and yet it will be another 10 weeks until I can meet the little munchkin.  People are celebrating holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving and Election Day none of which are even on the radar in my little Rwandan village.  My kitty cats are going on without me. Friends are graduating, going off to college, starting new careers, and I’m… weighing babies… every day.  Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp have been lifesavers for these slow days, but on the flip side, what am I missing?  On the flip side, there are other volunteers who are so immersed in site-life that you wonder if they realize that this [Peace Corps] is only temporary.  Either way, prison or Peace Corps, you have to find a way to come to terms with ‘imprisonment’ [service].  You have to navigate the fine line between staying on the staff’s good side and integrating into the local community yet not getting too comfortable and forgetting that another world exists on the outside.
  • Care Packages/Visitors: The presence or absence of one [care package] can make or break your entire month, and having a visitor can give you enough energy to get through the darkest times.

Better than Christmas…the day was September 26, 2018… The day 4 care packages arrived at once… books, food, toiletries, notebooks…

  • Release date:  In both prison and Peace Corps, you know your sentence before going in.  While prison sentences can vary depending on several factors, Peace Corps service is almost uniformly 27 months which is about 800 days.  In Peace Corps, you get time off for good behavior [aka vacation days] and since its impossible to close out service for an entire group at one time, someone gets to be first and someone has to be last.  For example, my official COS date is August 14, 2020 [only 644 days away] but I am hoping [praying] to be released a little earlier than that. Time will tell.

A Timeline of the Peace Corps Process

Applying to the Peace Corps is an arduous process even with the ‘new’ system rolled out in 2014.  My guess is they make the application process so difficult because serving is so difficult.  If filling out the require paperwork makes you break into hives, then there’s no way you will be a successful volunteer.  I’ve had a lot of questions about what the application process is like and what my specific timeline was so I thought I would write it down as best as I can remember according to my own memories and my “real’ memory, courtesy of gmail, which records every important incident in my life.  Fair warning. This is long… and there’s no pictures.

  • September 24, 2016:  While watching a football game one Saturday, I randomly click over to the Peace Corps site just to check it out.  Peace Corps was something my 11 year old self wanted to do, my 21 year old self almost did, and 31 year old self came up with a bunch of reasons not to do.  Randomly decide to apply to Peace Corps while watching football. I choose the ‘go anywhere, do anything’ option.
  • September 29, 2016:  Placed ‘under consideration‘ for Healthy Youth Program in Lesotho.  Undecided about if I want to work with ‘healthy youth in Lesotho’ but decide to continue on with the application process.
  • Nothing happens for three months and I essentially decide Peace Corps is not for me
  • December 27, 2016:  Get a request for an interview with the Lesotho placement officer.  Looks at remaining slot and notice only one available that could possibly fit my schedule.  8A, January 3, 2017, after a 24 hour post-call shift.
  • January 3, 2017:  Interview with placement officer for Lesotho position coming off a 24 hour on call shift where I’d worked 16 hours and been awake for 36 hours.  Don’t remember anything about said interview other than in lasted 30 minutes [They said to prepare for 1-1.5 hours]
  • Feb 28, 2017:  Received news that I’m not going to Lesotho [not surprised; not sad]. Decide I would reapply.
  • March 1, 2017:  Re-submit PC application. This time I chose HEALTH and Madagascar, Guyana, and Mozambique. I was also open to Central Asia/Eastern Europe and South America.  North/West Africa was a no-go.
  • March 3, 2017:  Placed under consideration for Community Health Volunteer in Madagascar. Excited, like I wasn’t about Lesotho.
  • May 5, 2017:  Interview with placement officer for Madagascar. Interview last 1.75 hours. I was reminded to dress and act professionally even though it is a Skype interview.  Wear pants even if the other person can’t tell because what if this one time, I have to get up to answer the door or the cat starts acting like an idiot and I need to throw him outside.  The only thing I am told is get some recent ‘health’ volunteer experience. I reply that I am a currently a RN, and have been working in health care for 10 years.  If I’m going to do any volunteer work, it won’t be in the ‘health’ sector since I’m already in it 48+ hours a week.  I was told that was acceptable.
  • July 29, 2017:  Receive invitation for Madagascar pending legal and medical clearance, and I only have three days to accept.  Mind you the invitation was sent on the 27th and it’s about 2a on a Sunday morning.  Have no one except my much older coworker to talk it over with, and decide ‘what the hell?’  I push the ‘i accept button’ and sent a return email.
  • DO.ALL.THE.THINGS [Physical, mental and physical health, get a PAP Smear, have dental probings done.  Have about a gallon of blood drawn because they keep adding tests]
  • November 16, 2017 Receive MEDICAL CLEARANCE
  • November 26, 2017:  Quit one job in preparation for leaving for Madagascar.
  • January 2, 2018: Receive LEGAL CLEARANCE; get excited in earnest about leaving for Madagascar on February 25 [right after my birthday!]
  • February 15, 2018:  Pack.All.the.bags... Begin the process of saying good-bye
  • February 23, 2018: diagnosed with influenza [1st time ever!]
  • February 25, 2015:  Madagascar staging happened without me there. [total sadness]
  • March 11, 2018:  Offered Maternal-Child Health Position in Rwanda leaving June 4; either accept or begin the entire application process from scratch.  Think that pretty much anywhere other than West Africa would be better than Rwanda.
  • June 04, 2018:  I got on that plane to Philadelphia. It was one of the harder decisions I’ve ever made.
  • June 06, 2018:  Arrived in Kigali
  • August 14, 2018Sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer

 

I spent 1 year, 8 months trying to get in the Peace Corps and as of today, I have 1 year, 10 months remaining to serve… Barring natural disasters, or any other as of now unforeseen legitimate reason to leave Rwanda.

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.