December 16 2018

On Leaving Early

Despite the title, I want to reassure everyone that as of today, December 16th, 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 late 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.

December 9 2018

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.

 

November 25 2018

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.

November 18 2018

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.

November 11 2018

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.
November 4 2018

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.

October 7 2018

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.
September 3 2018

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.

 

July 29 2018

I’m a stranger here myself

What the actual F*ck am I doing here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My site seems to already know about permagarden techniques

Where is here? And Rwanda?

Well, it wasn’t my first choice.

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

“I want to help people.”

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

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

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

Third Goal

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

Forth Goal

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

Back country transport–how things are here

June 10 2018

What is a PCT?

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

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

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

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

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