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Friday, November 30, 2012

On the Road

Hello from Koh Phangan, Thailand!  I feel like I ought to revise the name of my blog since it’s going to be more of a travel blog now – in the last two weeks I’ve been to three countries on three different continents and I’m just getting started!  Unfortunately I’ve also realized that it’s a lot easier to blog about my experiences when I’m sitting at site with nothing to do than it is when I’m moving around, even considering my vastly improved internet access.  It’ll be quick, sporadic updates from here on out.  But that’s better than nothing, right?

Our first stop was Cape Town, South Africa.  Leaving the airport, the first thing I noticed was the juxtaposition of the townships and slightly wealthier neighborhoods.  There would be a block or two of shanties made of old sheet metal with laundry lines strung between them and then the next block would look like an American suburb.  Once we were in Cape Town, the townships disappeared from view altogether and it started to feel disturbingly like home.  There were grocery stores and 7-Elevens and people walking dogs and jogging along the beach.  It was completely surreal.

I bought a variant on Raisin Bran and some nonfat milk at the Pick n’ Pay and lived out my dreams of having cold cereal for breakfast.  I think that was my single best moment in Cape Town.  Not Table Mountain, not the Red Bus tour, not the wine tour, not even running along the waterfront at sunrise.  Cape Point was a close second, but nothing beat having cold cereal for breakfast.

Our next stop after Cape Town was Bangkok, but in-between we had a 20-hour layover in Istanbul.  Rather than staying in the airport, we decided to venture out into the city and meet up with a couple of other RPCVs.  Istanbul was, in a word, enchanting.  Damp and cold and gray, but enchanting nonetheless.  We saw the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, explored a massive bazaar and ate some delicious baklava.  I also entered a Starbucks for the first time in two years and had my first bout of culture shock since Cape Town.  Then we returned to the airport and passed out for a few hours before boarding our plane to Bangkok.

Smells are important.  Every place we’ve gone to, I’ve had a distinctive smell-based first impression.  Cape Town smelled like the ocean.  Istanbul smelled sweetly like smoke.  Bangkok has a faint ginger-garlic smell that permeates everything, even the airport.  When we arrived the sweltering heat and humidity came as a shock, not least because they air-condition the heck out of the airport and the trains and basically every indoor place.  When you step out of the train into the street the temperature differential makes your head spin.  But heat and humidity aside, I love Bangkok.  Everyone we encountered was extremely friendly and helpful, even the cabbies and tuk-tuk drivers.  And the street food is amazing.  There’s phad thai and seafood and miscellaneous fried delicacies and iced coffee and juice and all kinds of fresh fruit sold in little plastic bags.  Coming from Rwanda where there’s no street food whatsoever – and Cape Town, where there really isn’t any street food either, and Istanbul, where the only street food I saw was donuts and baklava – I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  We tried phad thai in four different places and the best we had was the phad thai we bought from a street vendor on Khao San Road.

We only spent a day and a half in Bangkok before heading to Koh Phangan, an island off the southeastern coast of Thailand.  I could’ve spent ages in Bangkok but we wanted to get to Koh Phangan in time for the Full Moon Party.  For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the Full Moon Party is a massive beach party created by and for tourists.  I think it started with some hippies proclaiming that Koh Phangan is the best place to watch the full moon rise over the ocean and steadily evolved into what it is now, thousands of people from all over the world covering themselves in blacklight paint, drinking buckets of booze (literally buckets, they sell cocktails in buckets) and dancing on a beach until the sun comes up.  We went with some people we met at our hostel and had an amazing time that, frankly, I’m still recovering from.

So now I’m here.  In some ways I haven’t quite processed the fact that I’m no longer in Rwanda.  Cape Town made me homesick for my village, but here on Koh Phangan, with the rainforest backdrop and locals zipping around on motor scooters, I don’t feel completely out of place.  It worries me that when homesickness does hit me, it isn’t homesickness for America.  But I’ll deal with that later – for now, the sun is setting over the beach and I have a Thai curry craving that needs to be satisfied.

‘Til next time.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Painfully Detailed Chronicle of My Last Week(s) in Peace Corps, Part II

Saturday, November 10, 2012

I wake up early with the intent to go for a run, but it’s raining. Instead I make coffee with fresh ginger root and honey and write a list of things to get done that day.  Then I make banana pancakes and bring them to the convent to share with the nuns.  Over the course of the day my rooms are slowly stripped of furniture, kitchenware and other odds and ends.  I sell my chairs and the stool I use for cooking.  I give my wall calendar to the gardener.  By the end of the day the larger of my two rooms is more or less empty.  I sit on the floor and stare at the bare walls.

I expect to feel something, but I still don’t.  It’s like my head is full of white noise.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Despite my best efforts to be innocuous about leaving, visitors trickle in and out all day.  Louise comes by in the morning.  Meredith invites me to get tea with her at the market, and when I get back Valentine is there with her two younger sisters and her newborn baby.  Innocent comes later that morning with his father and sings me a goodbye song he composed himself.  Abakecuru and students come and go.  As news spreads through the health center that I’m leaving, nurses start to drop by.  With each visitor, the fact that I’m leaving sinks in a little more.  The white noise dissipates, but it’s replaced with a cacophony of divergent emotions – sadness, elation, anxiousness, relief.

Rain clouds roll in over Gihara and the stream of visitors slows to a trickle.  Then I get a visitor I wasn’t expecting.  Josias has walked all the way from his home in the valley just to say goodbye.  He’s dressed to the nines, in a secondhand suit jacket, pressed pants and leather hat.  When I ask him why he’s all dressed up he says, “To come say goodbye to you.”

I have no furniture left in my house so we sit together on a bench on my porch and watch the rain fall.  It reminds me of my first year at site when he was still a night guard at the health center.  Before I leave, I gift him two more parting gifts – a micro fleece blanket and my radio.  As he leaves I feel oddly content – I’ve given him the two nicest things I had left in my house.  It feels right to give him the best I’ve got, even if it’s less than he deserves.

A vehicle from Peace Corps drops by on its way to the office in Kigali to pick up some of my Peace Corps-issued effects.  I help load my trunk, my bicycle and my water filter.  Then I go back to sitting in my empty kitchen and staring at the blank walls while the rain lashes the windows.  I smile into space and think about going home.

Later that night I have dinner with the nuns for the last time.  They’ve baked me a cake and bought Fanta for the occasion.  We celebrate until Sister Marie Rose starts to fall asleep at the table.  Then they walk me back to my room and wish me sweet dreams on my last night in Gihara.

Monday, November 12, 2012

It rains again so I skip my morning run and spend an hour unpacking and repacking my bags.  I have a duffle full of things to bring to Kigali for other PCVs.  Everything else has been given away already except my spare pair of sandals.  While I’m standing on my porch trying to figure out what to do about them, two barefoot old women walk by on their way to the health center.  I greet them and they respond with a predictable, “What do you have to eat?” This isn’t so much a request as a convention.  I know this, but I tell them, “I have no food right now but I have these shoes.  Do you want them?” 

I smile as one old Rwandan walks away with what might be the best pair of shoes she’s ever owned.

I have tea and leftover cake with the nuns.  They ask me how I plan to get to Kigali with all of my bags.  At one point I’d had a plan for that, but I got caught up in packing and giving things away and forgot to actually arrange for a car.  The nuns suggest that I go out into the market and find a couple of available moto taxis.  Sister Donatile offers to accompany me to Kigali, but I convince her to go only as far as the main road.  I then spend a good twenty minutes waiting in the market for moto taxis to show up.  It figures that the day I leave Gihara forever is the one day I can’t find a ride.

I finally acquire two motos and send them ahead of me back to the convent.  Sister Donatile meets me at the gate and helps load my giveaway bag onto one moto.  We quickly realize that we’d need a third moto to transport me, her and all my things.  I tell her, “Don’t worry.  It’s better to say goodbye here than at the bus stop.  This was our home.”  She takes my hand and puts it against her cheek.  We spend a good minute just looking at each other with tears in our eyes.  Then I get on the moto and I’m off.

I expected to feel good on my last ride out of site, but I cry silently the whole way. 

When I get to the main road I realize I have no idea how I’m going to get myself and my bags onto a bus.  Fortunately for me, the motari recognizes the hopelessness of my situation and immediately goes in search of a car taxi.  He finds me a driver named Bosco who agrees to take me all the way to the Peace Corps office for 10,000 francs.  It normally costs more like 15 or 20 thousand.  I thank him and ask him in all candidness why he didn’t try to overcharge me like taxi drivers normally do. He says, “You’re leaving Rwanda, yes?  You need to go with peace in your heart, and we must send you away with love.”

I wonder at the benevolence of Rwanda.  For a moment, the anxieties and frustrations of past weeks melt away.

I arrive at the Peace Corps office, unpack and take a lukewarm shower. 

Tuesday, November 13 – Thursday, November 15, 2012

Since Monday is a national holiday, none of us can begin our COS process until Tuesday.  Things go alarmingly smoothly.  I manage to turn in all of my Peace Corps stuff, get my paperwork signed off on and see the PCMO before noon on Wednesday.  When it finally dawns on me that I’m no longer a PCV, I feel the same blankness I felt before leaving site.  It’s too much to take in.

Wednesday and Thursday night are spent out on the town with other COS-ing volunteers.  There’s a lot of benevolence and nostalgia but not too many tears.  One by one, we start leaving for the airport.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bags have been packed, francs have been exchanged for USD, boarding passes have been printed.  It doesn’t occur to me that I’m actually leaving until I’m hugging people goodbye.  In the kitchen at the Peace Corps office, Kay tells me she’ll miss me and I finally burst into tears.

I realize that the silent crying I did on the moto out of site really didn’t count as much of a release.  Now, this is real.

Jed, Shawn, Jamie and Keira accompany Brittany, Caroline and I to the airport.  We discover that our flight has been delayed by five hours.   By sheer luck, we won’t miss our connecting flight from Jo’burg to Cape Town.  It’s a fitting start to our adventure.

And now I find myself here.  In an airport in Kigali with Caroline and Brittany, waiting for a 1 am flight.  Goodbye, Peace Corps service.  Goodbye, Rwanda.  Goodbye, ibitoki and cold showers and abasabirizi and abakecuru and abanyeshuri, spiders and lizards and filtering our own drinking water, Peace Corps rules and Peace Corps guidelines, to everything and everyone familiar from the last two years.

Hello, the rest of our lives.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Painfully Detailed Chronicle of My Last Week in Peace Corps

For those of you who are interested.

Sunday, November 6, 2012

4:45 am.  I wake up in pitch darkness.  The call to prayer tells me I’m still in my room at the Dayenu Hotel in Nyanza.  It’s the day after our COS dinner and going-away party.  My bunkmate, Brittany, is still asleep, so instead of showering I get up and look through the photos I took the previous night. 

Then I get out my laptop and look through photos from the last two years.  I expect to feel something, but all I can think is how different we all look now.

8:00 am. Breakfast is comp’ed so I eat way too much toast.  I spend an hour on the hotel balcony uploading pictures to Facebook and watching rainclouds drift in over the undulating green of Nyanza.  I think about how spectacularly beautiful Nyanza is and wonder if I’ll ever get to see it again.

2:00 pm.  I say goodbye to some of the other volunteers and head out into the rain with Jed, Shawn and Nicole.  We have a Rwandan buffet lunch at Café Ideal for the last time.  On my way to the bus stop I say a quick goodbye to Jed’s host brothers from training.  They reply, “See you next time.” I hate that people keep doing that.  They know there isn’t going to be a next time.  Don’t they?

3:00 pm.  I catch a bus to Kigali with Shawn.  We have an intense conversation about how Peace Corps feels like a simulation of reality, maybe because you can opt out of or into it like a game.  

4:45 pm.  I get into site.  It’s dark and rainy.  I dump the damp contents of my backpack onto my bed. Since it’s too much effort to put things away, I crawl under the pile and fall asleep.

9:00 pm. I wake up feeling cold.  I watch Money Ball on my netbook and go back to bed.

Monday, November 5, 2012

5:30 am.  I wake up to pouring rain and think, “Nope, not yet.”  Back to sleep.

6:30 am.  I wake up, imagine saying goodbye to more people, and think, “Nope, not yet.”  Back to sleep.

8:00 am.  I wake up, see the time and try to jump out of bed.  Instead I get tangled in my mosquito net and go crashing to the floor, taking the net and probably a chunk of the ceiling with me.  Not an atypical start to my day.

9:00 am.  Bucket-bathed and breakfasted, I still don’t feel ready to go into school.  There’s no telling what can happen in the absence of scheduled classes.  Instead, I head out into the banana groves to visit a woman named Mukecuru.  We sit in her mud-and-thatch house and talk, mostly about my plans for the future.  She tells me I should stay in Rwanda, get a job and marry a Rwandan man.  I tell her that no Rwandan man would accept me.  She said, “Why not? You’re a beautiful girl.”

My well-rehearsed response: “I expect my future husband to cook, clean and take orders.”  Mukecuru almost falls over laughing.

She sends me off with a bag full of fresh chicken eggs and ample blessings.  At the road she tells me, “You will have a wonderful journey home, and a wonderful life after.  Goodbye.”

I think, thank God.  She understands.

11:00 am. I arrive at school with my students’ graded exams in hand.  At the door to the teachers’ room, the dean of studies, Clement, stops me short.  He says, “I need your other exams.” This week is second sitting, the week that failing students can retake certain exams. 

Never, not once in the last two years, have I been asked to write anything for second sitting. I always assumed our school didn’t do one.

I say, “I don’t have any other exams.”

Clement: “Why?”

Me: “You never asked me to write any.”

Clement: “Mm.”

Me: “When do you need them by?”

Clement: “Now.”

After some negotiating he agrees to let me use his office while he goes home for lunch.  An hour later I lock up for him.  I leave him two exams, a grading rubric for each and a thank-you note decorated with stickers.  I’m not sure what I’m thanking him for, but it seems like the right thing to do.

2:00 pm.  I climb down into the valley where Josias lives, slipping in the mud as I go.  With me, a woven mat and an envelope full of photographs.  They’re parting gifts for my adopted Rwandan grandfather, the best ones I could come up with.  I wish I had more things he could actually use, but such is life.

Josias’ wife greets me at the door and welcomes me into their living room.  Josias emergs a few minutes later taking careful steps .  Last week he was trampled by one of his cattle and suffered a few broken ribs, but he seems to mending well considering the gravity of his injuries and his relatively advanced age.

He asks, “Are you happy to go back to America?”  I say, “Yes and no.  I’ll miss you and everyone.” He says, “Yes, but you’ll be with your parents and in your own country and that will be good.  You’ll be happy.  You’ll be very, very happy.”  There are tears in his eyes.

Two hours later he follows me out to the road.  It’s a custom in Rwanda for hosts to accompany their guests.  At the point where the path gets steep and treacherous, I insist that he turn back.  He embraces me – not a custom in Rwanda – and says, in English, “Bye bye.”

I discover how much it hurts trying not to cry while climbing up a steep hill.

5:30 pm.  With nothing left to do for the day, I resort to burning old exam papers in my imbabura.  I also burn some worksheets from COS Conference, a guide to Kinyarwanda noun classes, the remnants of a compromised debit card, some photos I brought with me from college, copies of my passport, and two pairs of old socks. 

It feels therapeutic, though it’s probably just carcinogenic.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

5:30 am.  I wake up, stumble out of bed, lace up my trail runners and go for a lazy jog through the cornfields.  When I get home I think about taking a bucket bath but instead I fall back asleep on top of my covers.

8:00 am.  BOOM.  I sit up sharply, thinking for a minute that the ceiling’s falling in.  It always sounds like that when a magpie lands on my tin roof. 

9:00 am.  While I’m heating up water for coffee, Louise calls.  She tells me that her sister, Anna, is visiting and that I should come over to have my hair done.  Anna works in a salon in Kigali.  For weeks she’s been after me to let her braid my hair “Rwandan style,” i.e. in cornrows.   I acquiesce without much of a struggle. 

12:00 pm.  Anna finishes braiding my hair.  I look like a more stereotypical Peace Corps volunteer.  I like it for its novelty, but I know I’m going to take it out as soon as I leave Gihara.  Hopefully it won’t take the full three hours to undo it all.

2:00 pm.  It starts raining again.  I crawl back into bed with my paperback copy of Moby Dick.  I might even finish it before the week is out.

9:00 pm.  I make stir-fry and watch a fascinating documentary on the secondhand clothing business in Africa.  I feel even more convinced that Peace Corps service isn’t a self-contained experience, but a starting point for something bigger.  What exactly I’m not sure, but it’s a good feeling.

10:30 pm.  My mom calls.  I ask her how the election is going, then realize it’s still early afternoon on the West Coast.  Results won’t be in until tomorrow my time.  I sleep fitfully.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 

5:30 am.  I’ve put my alarm clock on the other side of the room specifically so that I’ll have to get out of bed to turn it off.  Instead, I wait for it to stop beeping and fall back asleep.

7:00 am. I wake up to Jean Paul yelling nonsense at Saverine across the garden.  I eat a banana and head into school to see how second sitting went, only to discover that no one is there.

10:00 am.  I’m hanging my laundry out to dry when Baptiste runs up to me with his portable radio and tells me that Obama won the election.  The entire health center is celebrating.  I smile and thank him, internally feeling unsettled that the American presidential election is this important in Rwanda. 

12:30 pm. I visit Mama Valentine and her daughter Fanny and give them some photos I had printed in Kigali.  Unlike most families in the area, they have their own TV.  The results of the American election are playing on a Rwandan news station.  They, too, congratulate me on Obama’s victory.  “We like him because he’s African and because he wants to work with other countries,” they tell me.  Again, I’m unsettled by the apparent importance of American presidential elections in Rwanda.  I feel like telling them that Obama isn’t actually African, but I decide to keep that fact to myself since they probably won’t believe me anyway.

2:00 pm.  I cook an omelet with some of the eggs Mukecuru gave me.  My neighbor, Brigite, stops by to ask when I’m leaving.  I tell her that she gets my imbabura when I leave.  I’ve already pawned off or given away my furniture and most of my kitchen things. 

5:30 pm.  I give some of my clothes to Ingabire, the convent housekeeper.  She thanks me and leaves.  Five minutes later she comes back and asks what else I’ve got.  I die a little inside.

9:00 pm.  Meredith calls to ask if I’ll be going to Kigali in the morning.  I have my COS interview in Kigali and she has some errands to run, so we make plans to travel together.  I try to sleep, but end up watching the second season of Arrested Development until midnight. 

Thursday, November 9, 2012

5:30 am.  I actually wake up to my alarm and throw on my running clothes.  Halfway through my run, a thick fog settles over Gihara.  I’m thankful for the concealment – no children try to run after me – but by the time I’m home I’m freezing and wet.  The power is on so I use my kettle to heat bathwater. 

6:45 am.  Meredith stops by to find out when I’m leaving for Kigali.  She can’t call because signal is unattainable.  Not an atypical problem at our site.

8:00 am.  I wake up to Meredith knocking on my door.  I don’t remember going back to bed.

9:00 am.  Meredith and I part ways at the Peace Corps office.  My interview isn’t until 11 am so I try to return my Peace Corps medkit at the med office, only to discover I need the GSM to sign for it.

10:00 am.  I’ve found the GSM, but now I can’t locate my medkit.  The med office secretary has disappeared.

10:30 am. I discover that the med office is unlocked.  I sneak into the secretary’s cubicle, retrieve my medkit, take it to the GSM, get his signature on my property checklist, and restore the medkit to the secretary’s cubicle.  It took me an hour and a half to return one article of Peace Corps property.  I still have to return my Peace Corps bicycle, trunk and water filter, close my bank account, get the PCMO to sign off on my COS physical, and have about half a dozen other papers signed by various PC administrators.

I begin to wonder if I’ll actually COS on schedule.

11 am.  I have my interview with Brian, our new PM, who’s standing in for Steve, our Country Director.  Steve broke a tooth and had to leave the country.  Brian and I have a wonderful getting-to-know-you conversation.  He then bids me a fond farewell and wishes me luck with the rest of my COS process. 

1 pm.  Shawn and I get lunch at Mr. Chips, a fast food restaurant run by a Canadian expat.  I reflect on the fact that most Rwandan food is at least as fattening as the burger and fries I’m eating but not nearly as delicious.  Suddenly I’m overwhelmingly eager to get on a plane out of here.

2:30 pm.  I close my bank account.  The whole process takes 45 minutes.  I spend 5 of those minutes actually closing my account, 40 of them trying to withdraw the funds I still have with checks that are apparently expired and a national ID that confuses the bank staff because it isn’t a passport. 

3:30 pm.  I use the free Wifi at a café downtown to send some emails, check Facebook and research things to do in Malaysia.  Having done everything productive I needed to do, I start looking up low-calorie recipes that I could never make in Rwanda because the ingredients don’t exist here.  The words “braised chicken” make me drool on the table.

6:00 pm. Having returned to site, I brew some herbal tea and organize my COS papers. 

7:00 pm.  Mom and Dad call.  We talk for a really long time.  Afterwards, I get the first good sleep I’ve gotten all week.

Friday, November 9, 2012

5:30 am.  I wake up but it’s raining, so instead of running I do some sun salutations.  Then I get back under the covers and revel in the coziness of my little room.  Suddenly I’m preemptively homesick for Rwanda.

It’s weird.

9:00 am.  It’s the last official day of the school year.  I go into school where I expect to find teachers handing out report cards.  Instead I find teachers frantically typing up report cards. 

The headmaster calls me into his office and I sit for half an hour while he reprimands one of my students for fabricating a report card with fake marks.  He asks me if I have anything to say to the student in question.  I say in Kinyarwanda, “If you’re going to cheat this skillfully, you should put marks that we can believe.”

My headmaster is not amused.

10:00 am.  Teachers are still typing report cards.  I read Moby Dick, then take a nap on a bench in the teachers’ room.

11:00 am.  It’s still raining and teachers are still typing report cards.  I tell Damascene to call me when they’re done and head back home to make some tea.

2:00 pm.  I’ve returned to school and waited another two hours for the last of the report cards to be signed and printed.  Finally, everyone goes down to the meeting hall.

Once the teachers are seated, the director goes over the program for meeting.  He gives a list of talking points that must be covered and explains that at the end of all of our official business, I will be saying a brief goodbye as I’m returning to America soon.  Mistakenly thinking I’ve been called upon to say something, I jump up and launch into my goodbye speech.

 A minute later I note the confused looks on everyone’s faces and realize I’ve made a fool of myself for probably the ten thousandth time in Rwanda.  I sit down and spend the next hour staring at the floor and blushing furiously.

4:00 pm.  Official business has been concluded, drinks have been distributed and I still haven’t given my goodbye speech.  My director is already two beers into the evening.  Deciding to be bold, I stand up, tap two bottles together, and announce that I’m going home to America in a few days and that I would like to say goodbye.  Then I launch into the same speech I’d begun earlier, but with more emotion, confidently enunciating the Kinyarwanda I so painstakingly prepared ahead of time. The words flow and the teachers get misty.  Their reaction emboldens me and I stop following my notes.  By the end I’m crying a little, but so are the others.  One by one, they stand up and thank me for my service. 

I think, “Thank God.  I didn’t blow it.”

5:00 pm.  The last speech is given by the director.  He presents me with an agaseke basket and urges me to take the good and the bad I have seen in Rwanda and put them in it for safekeeping.  He tells me that in Rwandan culture, a child is named eight days after it enters society.  He says that while my initial eight days in Rwandan society are long past, it isn’t too late to christen me with a Rwandan name.  He gives me the name Umwari, which means a girl who is educated, cultured and discreet.  I tell him that he couldn’t have given me a better gift – meaning the name.  He shoots a confused looked at the agaseke basket, then shakes my hand. 

The teachers commandeer my camera and spend the next half hour taking pictures, mostly of each other walking up the stairs outside the meeting hall.

8:00 pm.  I stop by my headmaster’s house to drop off some photographs and say a final goodbye.  I end up sharing a glass of urwagwa with his wife and chatting with the two of them for several hours.  He tells me that he feels privileged to have worked with me.  I feel a mix of emotions.  Mostly I wonder if he’s been hyperbolic on purpose.

~ To Be Continued ~