Monday, May 23, 2011

Advice for the new 'guys'

Advice for the next group of volunteers for Sierra Leone

This is some advice for the next group of volunteers that will be useful to you immediately.

1. It is best if you wait a while before reacting / judging. If you, for example, become angry quickly, it will send the wrong message, especially since usually you're misinterpreting something. I am quick to anger and have made this mistake. Later, someone clarified that it had been a casual joke and not meant seriously. If I had waited instead of getting upset, I would have done better.

2. Be honest with yourself. There are many volunteers that take the Peace Corps to be a time to reinvent themselves. If you want to try, fine. However, it's best if you act the same way in PST as you did the week before. For some volunteers, they have begun to show some 'cracks' where we see their real personality. I feel I did well at this. Other people tried too hard.

3. Stop thinking as quickly as you can in dollars. It will be useful at first to think, 'how many dollars is that?' but if you continue to do that, you'll end up hurting yourself. The dollar is very strong compared to the Leone. You may think, 'Oh, that's only five dollars. That's nothing!' but in reality that's a LOT (~23,000Le). It is better to think in terms of food prices. A bag of rice is about 150,000Le and should feed a family for a month. Most people's salaries (teachers) are around 200,000 or 250,000Le. At first, dollars will help. But try to get out of the habit quickly.

4. There are no awkward silences. The culture just doesn't have them. For a good chunk of PST, after dinner at my house and after it was dark, we simply sat in silence in the parlor. We'd talk a little, but there would be long LONG moments of just nothing. In America, you might twitch or be thinking, 'UGH...' and you still might here, but understand that it is not awkward for Sierra Leoneans.

5. Defer to Staff / Host Families / Resources. The staff knows more than you. The host families will expect you to be obedient and like their own children. Being a smartass with them will not go over well. Being difficult will not help anyone. It is best if you act like you need assistance. Sierra Leoneans will appreciate being able to help you, instead of getting upset with you. Also, and this is not ego boosting, but we, the first group, know more than you too. Please ask us for help. There is nothing embarrassing about asking for help. You may wish later you'd just simply asked. We have probably gone through your problem in the past year and know how to best handle the situation.

6. You are NOT alone. Never feel that you are alone. Call someone on the staff. Call someone in SL2. Call someone in SL1. If all else fails, call me. It is easy, once you get started, to feel very alone and isolated. For some people, they find a strength in this, kind of a 'yeah. I can do this on my own.' but for others that isolation can be too much. You are NOT alone. There are 34 volunteers here now that are also living in Sierra Leone, also struggling and succeeding. Once you arrive, we will be 84. You are never alone. (ducks fly together. quack. quack. quack.)

7. Pack some USD$. Let me explain. You will have plenty of money during training and during your service. Those of us that suck at budgeting money are sometimes low on money at times, but you'll never run out. The reason I suggest packing some money is for your mental health. It can sometimes change a day / week to cash your American money somewhere (usually men on the street who are looking for whites looking for men on the street to change money) and splurge. I can mention a couple of details. I went to Makeni and splurged on chocolate ice cream. (I LOST MY MIND). In Freetown, I cashed a $50 I had been saving and was able to treat myself and some friends to a night out at The Atlantic. It was the perfect release. You should not bring bills smaller than $50 and bring the new bills that have the larger president’s head. You should bring around $250, that's what I brought, five $50s. More than this is too much. You will be able to live OK on your Peace Corps salary. The money you bring from home is for emergencies and for an occasional splurge. You shouldn't be living on Pringles and chocolate ice cream alone, but you'll definitely be happy you have a $50 to cash in sometime down the road.)

8. You will have the time of your life. Don't go crazy packing (you can always have stuff sent later. Relax. Learn. Experience. Do NOT hide in your house. You will always remember the moment the aircraft door opens and you step out into the Sierra Leone air for the first time. I love and miss you all.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Story of Remy

So I was passing the French man's house on the way home and saw this bouncy happy little puppy run up to me. He was already big for his age and happy! This is not Remy. Remy was next to the house, under the bench, huddled. He had flies on him. His fur was falling off. He looked like he was dying. He was tiny and fit in the palm of my hand. I smiled but didn't want to intervene. I felt that might set a bad precedent. The next day, though, Remy was still there. Still alive. Still fighting. The next day, the same. Finally, I made a decision to take Remy to my house and rehabilitate him. I've been feeding him milk and rice and slowly trying to bring him up to size. He seems happier and bigger and stronger each day, but I know that for someone without the mother's milk, protection, guidance, etc., that his chances are still slim. But, I know that if I hadn't done anything that I would have felt worse. (Btw, Foday named him. He's just as stupid as I am in terms of falling for dogs.. :) I love and miss you all.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

River celebrations

So for Easter and Independence Day, the big venues for celebrations are the neighboring rivers. We went to (misspelled) Mayoko and Makoikoi. I'll paint the picture of these events. We approach the front gate, aka tarp, where two men ask for the entrance fee. We pay our 2,000Le and work our way down a slope of sand and rocks that I nearly die twice on. I died on them last time. For Mayoko, we get down, and there's a forest on the right and, across the river, a huge beach packed with hundreds of Sierra Leoneans in various stages of nudity. Foday and I wander over, buy some warm beer, and settle down to people-watch and be part of the fun. There's a huge speaker system blasting African tunes, and while hot, we had a lot of fun. For Makoikoi, there is no beach, but an island where everything happens. We had learned our lesson and so we brought palm wine and popcorn (which we ended up sharing) and did more of the same. Foday and I went swimming in the river (probably not healthy) and again had some warm beer and relaxed. It was an amazing experience at both events to see SO many people together at once to celebrate, in such a sublime environment. Amazing that the rivers look like something you would see in Illinois. Just beautiful. I love and miss you all.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Food Cravings

Here is a list of some of my current cravings:

1. Slim Jims (I never ate Slim Jims in America. Why do I crave them now?)
2. Oreos (Again. Never really ate them. But there was something amazing about my parents handing me a pack of Double Stuf Oreos from home that nearly made me cry)
3. A cold cranberry and vodka (I can't get cranberry juice. I can't really get vodka. I can't get cold drinks.)
4. Fruit (I haven't had grapes, strawberries, or raspberries in forever.. nor is it possible to. I'm gonna eat me some grapes when I get home.)
5. Chicken (I know you know I want chicken. But fish is 2,000Le and a chicken is 25,000Le sooo chicken doesn't happen. Even though they're always around me. Crowing. Being stupid.)
6. Mexican food (I can't get beef. I can't get cheese. I can't get tomatoes. I can't get chile. I can't get beans. I can't get tortillas. I can't get margaritas. Yeah.)
7. Onion Dip (Those that know me know that I make a mean onion dip. It's not angry though. But I miss it. With Ruffles. Or carrots. Ooo or celery.)
8. Pizza (I don't need to explain this.)
9. MCD / Taco Bell / Subway (The simple idea of going somewhere and being served hot food along with cold drinks, or someone making me a sub sandwich with exactly what I want is amazing to me right now. I can't wait to go back to these places, not to indulge in them like crazy, but just to.. do it. Hard to explain)
10. Cold Water (Whenever I go to Freetown, my bosses offer me cold water. And I nearly cut them off everytime with YES YES I WANT. The water I get is warm. And is all I get. The idea of putting a bottle of water in the fridge and then later drinking the water, now magically cold, blows my mind..)

I love and miss you all.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Story of Sunkist

It had been a bad day. I went to Amerigo and splurged on a can of Fanta (We're going to pretend it's Sunkist. Because Sunkist is better and everyone knows this.) I wander on home, doodily doo, and drink the Sunkist on my porch. It provides a temporary high. I crumple the can and toss it. Only 37% less grumpy. I presume that this is the end of this Sunkist can in my life. I am wrong. It ends up in my garbage.."area".. where it is grabbed by a child and he runs away with it. Apparently the Sunkist had a bigger impact on his life than mine. Now, for sure, the Sunkist is out of my life. The next day, my neighbor's youngest son is walking toward me and behind him? Being dragged? Like a bad puppy? The Sunkist can. On a string. I'll never look at Sunkist (GRR FANTA) the same way again... I love and miss you all.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Twenty Questions (#16-#20)

The final questions. (That sounds scary).

16. How do the Sierra Leoneans see the USA?

America is seen as a beacon of excellence and the land of milk and petete leaf, as it were. No one in America struggles to find a job. No one in America has any problems. Every American has a car. Every American has a huge house and endless money. Now you're saying, "They don't believe that. You're exaggerating." I've heard these said. When I sat down with a calculator to show my wages at my last job, rent, fuel, food, etc. and showed the limited amount left for anything else, they were shocked. When I talked about poverty in America, Katrina, ghettos, Welfare, food stamps, they were shocked. When I said that my parents worked for thirty years so that we could enjoy the quality of life we did, that it didn't just *happen*, they were shocked. I know that for some people, it is the glittering castle in the sky that keeps you going, so I've tried not to be too negative but only to correct the more preposterous beliefs. Many people have asked me how they can get into the country, where the easy jobs are, etc. (The problem is that a minimum wage job, figure $8 an hour, and a dirt-cheap apartment, spending frugally, would amount to little money, but even $20 saved each week is 80,000Le and 320,000Le a month, a huge amount for most people.)

17. Are you inspired to do anything differently now?

I know that it's the wrong mindset, but I want to be more extravagant in some areas. I miss driving. I miss staying up late at night with no reason to be awake. I would love to be correct and say that I'll use electricity less, drive less, etc. but from evidence (whenever I come to Freetown and me and other volunteers are up until the wee hours BECAUSE WE CAN, I'm skeptical at my own resolve.) However, I will never look at money the same way again. For the amount I used to spend to get some McDoubles, fries, and an Oreo McFlurry, I could have bought a bag of cement for someone to fix their foundation. I could have send a child to school for two terms. I could have purchased fuel for a generator to run so children could study into the night. Etc.

18. What are you going to miss about Sierra Leone?

The people. I've already thought about when I'll be hugging Foday, Mr. Bangura, Sori goodbye and how terrible it will be. I will miss my home, my village, and teaching, but it is inevitably the people and the relationships that you build in a foreign environment that sustain you and are ultimately the hardest to leave behind. I'm tearing up a little thinking about hugging Foday goodbye. Moving on.

19. Has your personal outlook on anything changed?

I will continue to and even-more-so enjoy my freedoms. I can be who I am in America, with relative ease. I have enough money to drive where I want to. I have electricity and water and internet, and the things I used to complain about seem devastatingly shallow (although I believe I wasn't that bad, honestly) but still, I remember being upset when my gas stove wouldn't light. In the bedroom my computer was on, music playing, an apartment with a solid roof, air conditioning, heat, wooden and tile floors, a plethora of food to cook, a fridge to keep my food cold, mail service that worked, my car outside with fuel, etc. Was it really so bad that my stove wouldn't light? As stated before, I will always look at money differently now. Going to Chicago and staying at the Hilton Suites for $135 a night? 135x4300Le = a ridiculous amount of money. I'm not saying that I'll stop. I've (and my parents) have worked hard to enjoy such luxuries, but I'll always have a voice in the back of my head saying, 'this is a LOT of money if you converted it to leones...'

20. Do you know what to do with your life now?

Absolutely not. When I left, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school after my Peace Corps experience. This may change. I knew for sure that I would only stay for 2 and not the optional 3 years. I don't know. I thought I wanted to teach, or be involved with biology or public health. I don't know. The Foreign Service Exam is in February, and I've really enjoyed the lifestyles and attitudes of those I've met in the State Department here. Could I take that exam, pass it (lol right), and be an attache to a country on behalf of America for the rest of my life in different places? Yes. Could I see myself teaching biology to high school students? Yes. Could I see myself getting involved with conservation? Yes. If anything, sitting at The Atlantic with a crowd full of mostly NGO workers and Embassy officials, enjoying delicious food and a sunset and knowing my work is helping improve the lives of many people has made my future plans all the more complicated.

21. What next?

After this weekend, I'm going to Moyamba in a few weeks to visit Megan and Allison. Then, I'll go back to my site until late May. Charles has mentioned plans to visit. But he lies a lot. (kidding). At the end of May, I'm hoping to organize a party for us. June 1, 2010 was when we went off to Washington, D.C. and on June 3, 2011 the next group of trainees arrives. This event in late May will be our last hurrah as Salone-1 and only Salone-1. I'm not against Salone-2, but the dynamic of our group will undoubtedly change. I love us. I'll probably love all of us when we're here. After that party in May, I have nothing planned besides to teach my students, love my life, and begin the inevitable freak-out toward my trip home in July 2011. Tonight? I'm going to the Atlantic to watch the sunset and enjoy a night out before people begin to move back to their villages. We'll probably buy some beer across the street and dance for awhile, then collapse into hot sweaty sleep (the a/c isn't in the bedrooms :)

I love and miss you all.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Twenty Questions (#11-15)

You're still interested?

11. What's your favorite part of Sierra Leone?

I enjoy a morning of reading on my porch, taking a bucket bath, teaching my students, drinking palm wine with Foday, eating a good dinner, lighting a candle and talking with my friends until they go home. I've had countless variations on this theme, and it keeps me here.

12. How much interaction do you get with the other volunteers?

Jimmy lives only 7 miles away, so I see him the most. Jessie is in Makeni, 22 miles away, and I usually see her when I am in Makeni to visit the bank or buy supplies. The rest of the volunteers I see rarely. For the Peace Corps Open House, there were 25ish of the 34 together at the Peace Corps Compound (which as you might imagine can be great and annoying all at once) but I hadn't seen some of these volunteers in months. Travel, as I mentioned earlier, is expensive and I try not to do it too much. Some volunteers have traveled much more than I have.

13. What is their passion and reason for going abroad?

This varies greatly. We have some truly idealistic volunteers who have had some of their hopes dampened a little bit by reality. We have cynical volunteers that take it day-by-day (me). We have volunteers that are only in the Peace Corps for selfish reasons. However, every volunteer, despite their reasons, is still here. There are 34 of us out of the original 39, and staying here for selfish reasons would be agony, because you cannot hide from Sierra Leone; you are constantly immersed in it. I've wanted to join the Peace Corps since I was in about 7th grade, then cooled from it when I learned how long the commitment was. The interest resurfaced in college and here I am.

14. Do you still want to teach?

Yes. I feel that teaching in a classroom with now windows, complete ceiling, proper desks, scarce chalk, erasers made out of foam, bats and rats running around above me, corporal punishment, ridiculous heat, students in uniforms full of dreams and hormones has adequately prepared me for future teaching. We'll see. (laughs)

15. How do you see the USA now?

Good question. It is very interesting to see America from a far-off viewpoint. I hear about it on the BBC and when I get to internet, but it's almost like an illusion. Sometimes it's hard to remember that life continues on just as it did while I was there. The USA is loved by Sierra Leoneans. Many have asked me how they can get there. How they can hide from the INS. Where the cheap and easy jobs are. The Peace Corps is highly respected here, and the relationship is usually great. However, America loses points for it's appearance as a war-monger. The name "George W. Bush" will get you an angry tirade and disgust. The name "Barack Obama" will bring smiles and hope. Deserved? You decide. The conflict now ongoing in Libya has led to some heated arguments at my school, where these same Obama supporters were now upset, "Does America LOVE war, or WHAT?!" and I have to shrug and say that I don't know enough about the situation to comment. Such is life.

I love and miss you all. I think I forgot to write this on the last one.