Sunday, April 3, 2011

My Parents Come to Visit (it's a long post.. go get that drink)

>> Sometime around last fall, I began talking to my parents about the possibility of them coming to Sierra Leone. I had known from the beginning that (being a loser) this experience would be difficult for me (and for my parents as I'm their only kid). They were supportive of me wanting to come home halfway through my service (and that was helped by a close friend of mine Miles who is a PCV in Honduras who did the same) but we also began to broach the idea of them coming to Sierra Leone, to see my host family (who I loved), my village, my school, and the general beautiful chaos that is this country. The details we needed to work out were numerous, but we finally decided that we would give it a try. Blogspot sucks with bullet points.

  • Fast forward to this past Sunday (March 27th) and me waiting at Lungi International Airport at about 9:15 PM for my parents' flight (an hour late). It's a really weird feeling, I'm not sure how to describe it, to see a flashing red/white light over your head and know that your parents are inside it, the same parents you haven't seen for nine months. Indescribable. They landed, and after taking forever to secure their luggage, we moved quickly to my waiting Mercedes-Benz sedan (courtesy of a friend who drove) and we went like crazy people to the ferry. *A note on the ferry: The last ferry is at 9 PM UNLESS there's a big flight coming in that will likely have people needing the ferry. The bmi flight my parents were on, even though it arrived at 9:15, was big enough for the ferry to wait. We arrived at the ferry around 10 PM and it was there waiting for us in all of its rusting white flourescently-lighted glory* We crossed over, and I fed my parents some chicken and rice I'd bought them and their first STAR Beers, which they both enjoyed. After reaching the other side and having tried to debrief them on the next few days, we moved quickly through a darkened but busy Freetown to the Hill Valley Hotel where we moved to our room, talked about everything, and fell asleep.

  • The next morning meant visits with some Peace Corps administration and then back into the Benz for the long journey to Bo for my host family. Having my American family meet my African family (the ones that took care of me for my first ten weeks in country) was incredible (and incredibly surreal). They hit it off immediately. We ate food, we laughed, my host father talked about how mature, amazing, independent, assured, etc. I was, and I did my best to downplay it. I'm mediocre, really. My parents got their first taste of real African cooking (petete leaf, groundnut soup, pineapples, mangoes) and we were all amazingly comfortable with each other. This was also when my parents had their first taste of palm wine. While the palm wine in Bo is good (I’m being generous), the palm wine in my village is far superior (I’m being modest). My parents did like the Bo wine though, and I was anxious for them to try the wine I can get locally in Gbendembu.

  • On the second day I took my parents to our training site, showed them were I spent my time those first ten weeks, and even got to have a drink with them at Graceland, our old stomping ground for after-training drinks and comiserating. Again, having a beer with my parents at the same Graceland where I drank beers with my fellow volunteers many months ago? Surreal. I got the picture of all my parents like I wanted, and it was just an 'aw shucks this is great' couple of days :)

  • On the next morning, (March 30th for those keeping track), we had a vehicle pick us up and take us to Masiaka where we traded for another that took us to Lunsar where we traded for another that took us to Makeni. I hate trading vehicles this much but it's pretty much standard. In reality, it gave my parents a more realistic view of what I have to do. I paid big money to charter cars so my parents would be comfortable, but for them to see the switching, the haggling, the bitching, the agreeing of how transportation works here was better than anything I could have planned. From Makeni, I wanted my parents to have the real experience of riding a poda-poda, our typical 18-30people small mini-busses/big vans that most people take. The road from Makeni to Gbendembu is.. challenging, and while my parents were probably sore from it, the experience is something I know they'll never forget. Something about not being able to move while you move up a rocky slope with a small child crying in your face and the person next to you's body odor mixing with your own... perfect. Once in Gbendembu, we moved to my house (after greeting just about everyone we saw, who were of course curious), and had petete leaf and I more or less hid my parents. We also had some of the local palm wine, and my parents remarked on the differences. (They found, as I know, that each gallon of palm wine is different). They were tired, needed to wash, and the last thing they really needed was to go be dragged around the village. I felt that we could start introductions the next day.

  • The next day, March 31st, involved me taking my parents just about everywhere for introductions. They met most of my teachers, the Paramount Chief, the people in town who I like, and any and every child that came in our way. I should mention they'd already met my dogs in Bo and in Gbendembu and enjoyed them thoroughly. For lunch, we moved to Pastor's house, a good friend of mine, where she had prepared porridge. This isn't the porridge you're thinking of. It has fish, chicken, potatoes, cassava, onions, salt, peppers, spices, bananas, and probably some ingredients I'm forgetting. It's considered a 'commoner' dish because of how simple it is (i.e. what do we have in the kitchen, hun?) but I love it and hoped my parents would too. They did. The Pastor is quirky, but her sense of humor and ease with my parents made the lunch truly enjoyable. We also had “Pop” which is a millet drink. I hope my mother is able to reproduce this sometime(?).. After lunch we moved to the school where my mother addressed the gathered SS students. She spoke of dedication, motivation, of the responsibility of education, of progress. It was (again) so surreal to see my mother giving a speech to my students. We moved to the classroom, where I worked to complete my World-Wise Schools program; the students wrote a letter to American students and my parents had brought their replies. Now, my students got to reply back. My students LOVE this program, even if many of them asked for phone numbers and to be taken to America. Such is Africa. After this, we went on back to the house and relaxed. I made a few more introductions, and my parents and I had a long-awaited discussion. I love my parents. We went to my principal's house for dinner, and then into town for them to meet Sori Bangura. We had some beers, and watched the gathering storm on the horizon. When one lightning bolt was brighter than the rest, we called the evening and hurried home. It didn't end up raining for a few more hours, but when it did, it was substantial.

  • April Fools Day. Foday fooled me. Jerk. We went to the school in the morning where my father addressed the JSS students. We thought this might provide a nice sort of symmetry. Then, my mother was asked to speak again. They both emphasized that education is the students responsibility, that education is more important than athletics, than dancing, than fooling around. I don’t know if any of my students really got the message, but it was great to hear and see it spoken to a group of students by my parents. I’d like to believe that while people are unhappy at my progress in Loko, I am widely respected. (I could be wrong on this. I return home to find my house spray-painted with “YOU’RE A BAD DANCER”) My parents garnered silence from the students, and my principal was very pleased with the entire exercise. After this, we returned home, ate some pineapple, and then joined Sori Bangura for our trip to the river. We picked up some STAR Beer and off we went. I wrote a blog post about the river; it was a really great time and a completely different Sierra Leone than they had seen in Bo or thus far in my village. The river honestly looks like something out of Illinois or Colorado or anywhere in the continental USA, just a beautiful river with beaches. The difference may lie in the naked women who were cleaning their clothes and the lack of Budweiser bottles littering the shore (they were our STAR bottles.. we picked them up). After the river, we returned back to the village and went back to the Pastor. The rest of the day was to be spent cooking. My father killed my chicken (CONGRATULATIONS :) and we all worked in some fashion for the preparation of a salad (chicken, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise, ketchup, onions, luncheon meat) and later of canya (the peanut butter / rice flour / sugar delicacy that I love). It was a great afternoon and evening, even if I did get a little frustrated with the Pastor (after she called me lazy). We moved back to my house, had some palm wine, and relaxed and packed. We visited my friend the Councilor and he was able to elaborate on some of the shenanigans volunteers got into when he was in charge of training (when training was in MY VILLAGE Gbendembu!). The sun set, the gentle breezes began, and we went home to sleep.

  • The next morning was complicated. Plans changed, were destroyed, re-hashed, and finally we were on our way to Freetown from Gbendembu in the vehicle the belongs to my Paramount Chief. This journey seemed exceptionally long (I think the driver wasn’t sure how to go faster than 50 mph although it may have been the vehicle) but we eventually, after dealing with more charismatic Freetown traffic, arrived again at the Hill Valley Hotel. In retrospect, I feel it may have been better to get a hotel closer to the ferry dock, but the air-conditioning, fast wireless, and running water seemed to win us over. I had one final surprise for my parents, though. We found a vehicle and went off to The Atlantic. The Atlantic might be my favorite place in Sierra Leone. It’s a bar / club ON the beach that has been around since 1971. (Mary-Jean went there). My father mentioned early on that he wanted to get to the beach and while I had initially planned to take my parents to a restaurant called Bash’s, I knew that The Atlantic would be the perfect conclusion to their trip. It doesn’t hurt that The Atlantic has ice-cold STAR beer on draught. We ordered food at ridiculous prices and watched the sun set over the ocean. We talked about the future. We talked about the past. We talked about my service, my frustrations, and my hopes. We talked about my parents, their opinions of the trip, their fears, and their desires. It was the perfect conclusion to my parents visit. We drove back to Hill Valley, I uploaded pictures with the quick internet, and we went to sleep.

  • We woke up lazily (after having to turn the a/c off because we were cold. BEING COLD (?!?!) An AMAZING feeling. We went to breakfast (where we again were served omelets, bread with butter, a small salad, and a hot dog). There was a large group of Americans present, and I cringed not only at their attitude toward the staff but the carelessness with which they offended the locals. They soon left, in a privately-chartered bus, and I wished them well. Some people shouldn’t leave America, says I. After breakfast, we packed and went to visit one final Peace Corps staff member. It was a great visit, and my parents finally met the woman who has saved me from giardia, boils, dehydration, etc. After the visit, we moved back to the hotel and waited for our ride, which never came. Miscommunication, mistakes, and problems meant that we were leaving for the 2 PM ferry at about 12:45 PM in a vehicle I didn’t know. We ended up having to pay more than we should have both there and for the ferry-Lungi run, but I got my parents to the airport and I felt happy to have them at their destination. Then, we had *that* moment. As when my parents landed, (although we didn’t get to hug until we got to the hotel), we had to part ways again. My mother cried, and my father (who usually doesn’t) cried, which meant I cried. Fail. I think that this sadness was not only the separation but the knowledge that I really had no plan of how to get back to the Peace Corps compound, not really promising for parents about to head back to London. I left, found a vehicle to the ferry, made a new friend, and after breezing through Freetown hit bad traffic but finally, at about 7:30 PM, made it. My parents, as of now (at 11:14 PM), have half an hour to go, and I’m here typing this blog post. It was pretty surreal, pretty amazing, and I am PROUD of my parents for coming. They now have a sense of my interactions, my frustrations, my hopes, and most importantly, as I’ve put it before, the beautiful chaos that is Sierra Leone. I’ve asked my parents to post about their experience. I hope you enjoy that too. I love and miss you all :)


  1. Great post. I'm commenting on these in reverse order (though I skipped the most recent few because I wasn't sure what to say), so I apologize for that. ;-)

    I'll read your parents' post next, but this is good insight on what it's like to bring in someone new to the area. Maybe you had some of the same questions they did when you first arrived.

    I'll pause here to make a brief interjection -- I'm terrible at coming up with responses to a lot of these posts. I enjoy reading them (and don't mind at all commenting on them -- that's not the point of this paragraph) but sometimes I'm left speechless. What you're doing is so different from what I'm doing that I have a hard time accepting... well, let's put it this way: I *know* I'm not working proactively toward helping develop a developing country. We all do things our own way, of course, but I can't help but feel like anything I have to say will just come out a bit conceited or ignorant. Ultimately, my comments can be terribly lame but their lameness does not indicated a dissatisfaction with what you're doing or with reading your post. :-)

    It makes me sad that I won't be able to listen to you share these stories in person in July!

  2. On a slightly off-topic (but not entirely) note, I'm impressed that you were able to arrange such an itinerary for your parents. When my parents volunteer to visit me, I always decline and tell them there's nothing to do... but only because I hadn't taken the time to look into what might interest them. *pat on [your] back*