Category: Life Lately

Why am I here?: Part 1

I’m a stranger here myself

When you hear the term Peace Corps Volunteer, a certain image pops into your mind, doesn’t it? It certainly does mine, and I am both fortunately and unfortunately, painfully aware of the stark discrepancy of that image of a Peace Corps’ Volunteer and the perceptions of who I am as a person.  When most people think of Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m sure the image of 20-something political activist, crunchy-granola type, professional do-gooder, and dare I say it, modern day hippie. People who have minimal life experience, still see the good in everyone, still want to save the world types of people. People who are unsure of their career/life’s goals.

I am none of these.

My 20’s have long passed [thankfully]. I about as apolitical as they come. No one would dare call me the crunchy-granola type with a straight face, 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 wish I could say my reasons were entirely altruistic. That I just want to ‘help people’.  I’d love to climb up on my soapbox and tell you about the ills of the world and how I, personally, plan to address and fix all of them. But that would be the EGO talking, and I try daily, to keep the beast in check.  However, I am a human being, and sometimes the EGO runs amok, does thoughts to run through my head.

My reasons are as varied as any other PCV’s reason are.  At my core, I would like to do some Good, as much as it is possible. GOOD being composed of Concrete GOOD and Abstract GOOD. Also, I have never been one to follow the PLAN.  The PLAN being go to college, start a career, get married, buy a house, have babies, retire with a healthy pension. I did go to college [and again, and again and plan to go again]. I have bought a house, butI don’t ever plan to have babies, and pensions are a thing of the past. So aside from doing GOOD, I want to travel and do something different, immerse myself in a culture foreign to me, go not only somewhere I’ve never been, but somewhere I’d otherwise never go. What better place to accomplish that than the Peace Corps? They have volunteers that are strewn, quite literally, all over the globe. And while I have traveled somewhat extensively even at times for long periods of time, I have never lived in one area other than the Upstate of South Carolina for a period longer than two years.

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.  When planning your last vacation, how many of you even considered sub-Saharan Africa? I’ve never even seen an advertisement for anything other than a safari. Even in this age of the ubiquitous travel blogger, very, very few are from Africa, and even fewer still visit/write about things other than Safaris and Vineyards. So if not for this Peace Corps opportunity, not only would I likely never go to a place like Rwanda, but no matter how much money I made or prestige I earned or opportunities I had to travel, I would likely never even consider it.

I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.

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. Of course, I say that now… while I sit here in the relative comforts of familiar environs with reasonably fast internet.

“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-worker 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, ostensibly through their own blog which many volunteers take advantage of. I would encourage many of you, if you are interested in getting great stories and reading great writing, to take a look at these blogs and get a feel for what life is like in other countries. The majority of them are very well done and informational. I’m excited to have what I think is a legitimate avenue to share my thoughts and writing in the context of traveling in the Peace Corps. There isn’t much more I can do other than report my story, simply, as I see it whether that is GOOD or BAD.

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.  Momentum is carrying me along this path or that path and sometimes I can’t seem to stop it.  Of course, there are less dramatic and more practical methods of changing your habits and behaviors than signing up to live in an African village for two years. But where would be the fun in that?

Back country transport–how things are here

11 weeks to go

In the time between now and June 4, I’ll be posting some of my favorite past adventures because they’ll be much more exciting that another omg…it’s getting closer post.  Also it will help to remind me of my adventurous self, and that I have been through some amazing life experiences [good and bad], and I’ve done some pretty amazing things in life so far.  Peace Corps isn’t always fun and games; sometimes it’s damn hard work.  It will help me to remind myself that I’ve taken on challenges before and I have succeeded.

An Aspiring Journalist

Every aspiring journalist knows what the five W’s are–it’s essentially a how to for writing. Who, What, When , Where, and Why.  If you can answer all those questions, then you’ve got an effective story. So let’s begin, shall we?

 

WHO

I’m Michelle and until the end of May, I’ll be hanging out a my little house on the prairie in South Carolina.  I’m a RN and will be working right up until I leave.  I’m always up for an adventure.

WHAT

I’ve accepted a position at a Maternal-Child Health in Rwanda with the Peace Corps. The official Peace Corps job description reads like this:

[This is the one for Guatemala; I’d suspect Rwanda is essentially the same.]

Maternal and Child Health Volunteers collaborate with health clinics, community organizations, and family members to promote healthier lives for mothers and children. Volunteers are assigned to health clinics in the most rural and needy communities where many children suffer from chronic malnutrition. You will help improve the training system of public health clinics to deliver high quality training to women, community members, and midwives to deepen their understanding of maternal, neonatal, and child health topics. All work done within the project will have a focus on behavior change, community empowerment, and sustainability.

Volunteers train health workers in adult education methodologies, behavior change theory, motivational interviewing, lesson planning, and overall development of educational resources. These actions will enhance health workers’ abilities to deliver high quality education. Having trained health workers and developed educational resources, Volunteers will co-plan and co-facilitate educational activities with household and community members, especially with women who are of reproductive age.

Volunteers with also work with the community at large, as community organization and empowerment is key to promoting community health. Volunteers and community members will engage in campaigns, activities, and projects to address community health needs. Methods include raising awareness around health issues, providing training on community project design and management, implementing educational projects, and implementing structural projects such as latrines, improved cook stoves, or vegetable gardens.

WHEN

Technically, the journey begins on June 04, 2018. I will serve for 27 months, returning home [if all goes according to plan October 2020! In all reality, the journey began September 2016 when I first applied. Since then, through the rounds of interviews, incredible amount of paperwork, and frequent doctor visits, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  [I’m still not getting my hopes up too much because my last opportunity fell through]

 

WHERE

Rwanda

Rwanda is a small country, technically in East Africa, but being land-locked, seems more central Africa to me.  It borders Uganda, DRC, Tanzania, and Burundi. It’s mountainous; not as mountainous as Lesotho, but still not many places are.  As a result of the altitude, despite being practically on the equator, the climate is much more temperate.  It occasionally snows there. Rwanda is about the size of Massachusetts and is one of the more densely populated countries in Africa [1211 people/sq mile as compared to my current situation of about 150 people/ sq mile].  I’m about to get a whole lot of curious neighbors.

 

WHY

This is a complicated answer. Why am I  completely flipping my world upside down and exchanging a comfortable life for Rwanda? Honestly, the simple answer is because I can. The more complicated [much, much more complicated] answer, I’ll discuss later.

Straddling both worlds

Part I [The Travel Life]

When I was little, my fiercest desire was to be a National Geographic Photographer.  [Or a veterinarian] I was the elementary school kid reading National Geographic and being mesmerized by the stories and photographs on those pages.  I stalked my cat–hardly taking National Geographic-worthy images, but getting some really good shots of her.  I took my little camera everywhere and there were tons of pictures to prove it.

Fast forward 20 or so years… I still take a camera with me everywhere.  I still stalk my cat.  [not the same cat, obvs] I know that I will probably never be published in National Geographic, but that doesn’t stop me from traveling.  And taking pictures. And making up stories to go with the pictures.  The only [well, not the ONLYdifference between me and those National Geographic photographers–I don’t get paid to do what I love… not one little cent.  In fact, every trip I take, costs money… $100 for a weekend trip away to $1000 or more for a month away.  I could play golf or tennis or going out, but I choose traveling as my hobby of choice.  I absolutely loved my time in South America.  I would do it again in a heart beat.

Part II… [The ‘normal’ life]

I have a job that I love.  It is not travel related at all.  It is not location independent.  I rarely have weekends off.  I have to be where I have a license to practice [currently SC and NC].  I have to be where there are sick children.  I am in  graduate school to hopefully get to what is my dream job… As it is, the program will take me about 4 years or so to finish.  I have an address.  I have a car and a cat. And I like that.

Part III… [Straddling the line]

How do I make it work?  I work in a field where 3 days a week is considered full-time.  I choose to work on an as needed basis [I am almost always needed somewhere so there no fear there]  so that I can make my own schedule.  Do I get paid time off?  Nope.  Insurance paid partly by the company?  Nope.  Participation in the company’s retirement plan? Nope, again.  Do I get ‘guaranteed’ hours each week?  Nope, but neither do the full-timers [I may be the first to go, but not usually the only one].

So how do I make it work?

First, I buy insurance as if I were self-employed.  I have a catastrophic health plan with a Health Savings Account attached to it [Tax benefits#1].  I am generally a healthy person and don’t take any medications on a regular basis.  Second, I opened up an IRA on my own.  Non-profits generally don’t have the best plans anyway, and I don’t have to wait until I am vested should I want to leave. [Tax benefit #2].  Third, I work in different facilities.  This way, if one place slows down, I can usually pick up more time at the other place.  It’s a win-win situation. Fourth, I have a $100 a week deposited into a separate account.  This is my discretionary income.  I could use it to go shopping or out to eat or whatever; I choose to use it to travel.  $5200/year can go a long way. Fifth, I let my boss[es] know that traveling is a priority for me.  When I am home, I am available to work 95% of the time.  When I go away, I am not.  It’s that simple.

Thinking about what to do

Since starting this way of life in 2007, I have managed to take 16 months off to travel in South America, one month off to travel in New England and Quebec, Canada, another month to enjoy Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Seattle, and Mt. Rainier National Park, and another month to travel in Central/ Eastern Europe.

People constantly tell me how jealous they are of all my travels. They tell me how “lucky” I am. They say they wish they could travel like I do.

But you know what?

They absolutely can do it. They just choose not to.  For whatever reason. [Usually it’s a job, relationship, home, money, or some combination of these four things that holds people back]

A lot of travel blogs are written by professional nomads who are actively traveling. Or people who have been professional nomads at one point.  Many of them lack a home address, and can fit most of their worldly possessions into a [somewhat large] backpack. [I have one of those too] They flit from here to there to back again, and we ordinary people think –“wow, I wish I could do that”, or “this is so awesome that I will never be able to do that”, or “I  would do that if I didn’t have significant other/mortgage/car payments/ kids or whatever.”

We psyche ourselves out and buy into a lot of misconceptions about living a life full of travel. We begin to believe things like:

  • You must be rich to travel.
  • You must be single to travel.
  • You must be brave and outgoing to travel.
  • You must be free from responsibility to travel.
  • We convince ourselves that we can never be one of “those people” because we have a job and debt and a family and pets.

These misconceptions are just that — misconceptions. You can travel without being rich and single. [Although I am currently single, I am certainly not rich.  I traveled for nine months with a boyfriend at home] You can travel without being particularly adventurous [ I am not the most outgoing soul.  There are things that I will never do voluntarily such as jumping out of a plane or off a bridge with a rubber band on my ankles] And, most of all, you can travel without completely setting aside responsibility.  [Find a good pet sitter/house sitter.  Find a job that allows a modicum of flexibility.  Work two part-time jobs if necessary.]

There are ways to have a normal life and a traveler’s life…you just have to be more creative to make that happen than you do in either one.

I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy, though. Because it’s not. If you have a strict work schedule or a young family or a lot of debt to pay off, it may be challenging to live your “ordinary” life and still manage to fit in travel.

But just because something is challenging doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Here are some tips for how to fit travel into your ordinary life:

  • Start saving now. It’s never too early to start saving for a trip. Even just setting aside $25 per week can go a long way quickly [$1300/year and you will probably never miss it]
  • Plan your dream vacation. Even if you won’t be able to take it right away, planning a vacation can keep you upbeat about traveling and give you something to look forward to. I really, really, really want to go to Spain, but I want to have the time to do it right.  The right time for Spain is not now, but it will happen… someday.
  • Make the most of vacation time and holidays. Americans get a raw deal in my opinion when it comes to vacation time. 2 weeks is a joke, and if it’s like most places I know, you can’t even do the two weeks consecutively. If your employer isn’t cool about letting you work overtime or giving you unpaid days off, you’ll have to get creative in order to make the most of the vacation time you have. You can stretch your 2 weeks much further if you plan travel around paid holidays, or if you can elect to work your holidays and save them up for later.
  • Don’t wait for someone to travel with. I would love to have a travel partner, but no one I know wants to travel the way I do.  They all have full-time jobs and/or small kids. Sometimes it’s hard enough just to be able to coordinate dinner with friends. But that doesn’t mean you should forego travel. It just means you may need to consider adding “solo travel” to your vocabulary.
  • Pick up new hobbies. I am a shutterbug.  Part of my reason for traveling is wanting to capture a fresh perspective on life.  And see some amazing scenery along the way. I have taught photography in Peru, public health in Brazil, and English in Mexico.  I have helped with sea turtle conservation in South Carolina and Uruguay and animal conservation in Ecuador and the  Galapagos Islands.  I have volunteered with big cats in Bolivia.  My goal is to volunteer my way around the world.
  • Take advantage of all opportunities. Right along with picking up new hobbies, be sure to take advantage of any travel opportunities that those hobbies might afford you. For example, I traveled a lot during college because I was on our the fencing team.  We weren’t great and didn’t get to compete internationally [like Notre Dame’s football game in Ireland this year–so jealous], but we did get to go to a lot of places in the USA that I would have never thought of visiting before… and it was [mostly] paid for by the school.

Most of all [and this one is important]

  • Don’t make excuses. Any excuse you can make about why you can’t/don’t travel can be overcome.  I’ve seen parents eschew traditional schools in favor of the education traveling gives.  I’ve seen professionals take jobs in other countries.  I’ve seen couples travel in a RV [or motorcycle] from Alaska to Argentina.  I’ve seen people start location independent businesses so they can be anywhere.  In the famous words of Nike–JUST DO IT.

Reality

An older post, from my private journal about my very first day night on the job right before I moved to Durham, NC for my ‘first’ adult job.   5 year ago.  Also, it was the last time I did something ‘crazy, and unexpected’.  Somehow, that was considered ‘responsible’ while taking some time off to explore seems ‘careless’.  I’ve done a bit more research and decided that I am going to try to visit all 13 countries on the South American continent.  I’ve been in touch with some volunteer outfits that will allow me to stay for free if I agree to work a certain amount of time each day. Win-win.  My current plan–if you can call it that–is to arrive in Caracas, skedaddle on over to Colombia as quickly as possible, follow my way down the Pacific coast all the way down to the Beagle Channel, scoot back up the Atlantic coast, and hit the interior where it makes sense. I’ve currently got applications for a Bolivian and Brazilian visas in the works and for the rest of it, I’ll figure out things as I go along.  I leave in 2 months; let’s get packing.

 


Reality is the first night on the job.

I have had a license to practice respiratory care in South Carolina for a whopping 8 days, and here I sit, at the hospital on a Saturday night, working.  I am the only respiratory therapist in the building.  God help us all if there in an EMERGENCY tonight. I am working with my favorite hospitalist, so that helps.

anmed-photo
one of the best thing about peds–getting to wear Oscar the Grouch to work

You know, I have never moved. I’ve done a lot of shuffling back and forth between here and there, but I have spent my entire life essentially within a 50 mile radius. (You know, other than when I lived in Mexico or spent the summer in UK) I am beyond nervous, somewhat excited, and generally hopeful that I haven’t committed a major fuck-up. My biggest fear is that I won’t be good enough or smart enough to handle taking care of actual sick people.

Here’s the thing… even though I worked at Hillcrest almost the entire time I was in school, spent time in ER and ICU, I can still count on my fingers the number of bona-fide emergencies I’ve been involved in because Hillcrest is a place for the  not-well or those recovering from surgery.  It is not a place for the actually dying or people in actual emergencies.  There just not the equipment or sheer number of people needed to participated in a real life-or-death situation.

And I am going to work in a hospital with a Level 1 trauma center, a level 3 NICU, and very large PICU, and while I don’t know where I’ll eventually end up, I chose, I chose, PICU, NICU, and ER as my top 3 choices of where I’d like to work.

The reality of what I’ve done is starting to set in.  I’ve packed up a month’s worth of clothes, a few books, my laptop, a sleeping bag, my kick-ass stereo that goes with me everywhere, and a sense of adventure. In the morning, after working a 12-hour shift, I’m moving to Durham, North Carolina where for a least the next year, I’ll be participating in a pilot residency program for newly graduated respiratory therapists.  I’ve left Shadow, Spot, all my friends, and all the bad memories of the last few months behind.

************************************************

And later that day…after driving 272 miles, crashing for a few hours in my sleeping bag in a hammock on the screened-in porch, and unpacking my paltry amount of possessions…

I’m living in a roughly 8 x 15 cement cinder block room in the basement of a rather large house. It’s double the size of a jail cell, slightly smaller than a dorm room. I have a minuscule closet, a wall full of wooden built-ins, and an old parquet floor.  It looks like a hallway and furniture arrangement is going to take some, um, creativity.  Lighting is awful; I have those old, tube fluorescent lights, and the tiniest of windows which I can’t even open.    My guess is that it’s not a ‘legal’ bedroom, but whatevs, it’s cheap, and close to the hospital where I’ll be working.

The bathroom beside my room has clearly seen better days. It has a stand-up shower, a pedestal sink, and a toilet. The minimum. Rent is $282.50/month… which hopefully after a month or so of settling in, I can begin to save up money, pay off student loans, and finally take a vacation. I don’t even have a bed yet.  I report to work at promptly 8:30am.  It’s too late to turn back now. This is my new reality.