Please note that the opinions reflected on this blog are solely MY opinion. They do not reflect the Peace Corps or the US Government in any way.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What's a sept-place?

I know what you’re thinking…another post already?! Must be Christmas early or something! I guess I feel like I have some making up to do for being such a slacker the entire month of October. In a previous post I promised to talk about the joys of public transportation in this country so I figured there is no time like the present! Now, I’m not very savvy on how transportation works in other developing countries so perhaps it is like this everywhere, or even worse; this is simply the experience that I have had so far.

In order to get anywhere in Senegal the first place you need to go is the local garage. This is fine unless you’re in a town or village that doesn’t have a garage. If this is the case then you need to basically hitchhike, walk, ride in an animal drawn buggy or take whatever form of transportation that is available to the nearest garage. It’s when you get the garage that the real fun starts. First of all, you will be hit with a plethora of different, interesting aromas. These can range anywhere from sweat, feces (human and animal), to different foods and decaying trash all mixing together. These smells are pretty typical throughout Senegal but they seem to be compounded at the garage. Along with the odors you are also going to experience people shouting at you in several different languages trying to figure out where you’re headed. Some of these people may be helpful but they are mostly trying to rip you off.

Travel tip number 1: When at the garage, handle your own bags. The minute you give them over to someone else to help you, they have become your bellhop and you are expected to pay them. This may seem obvious but sometimes they may have literally put your bag in the backseat of the car so just keep track of your own things.

After you finally locate the area of the garage where you can find your destination you have to decide which form of transportation you are going to take. There’s the more expensive, posh option that is designated as the sept-place. This is basically an old station wagon that has an extra set of seats in the trunk space in order to fit seven, or sept, passengers comfortably inside. I use the term comfortably loosely as the majority of the time you are nestled in there between two other people and I’ve even heard stories of livestock being crammed in as well; but, as far as the transportation choices go, sept-places are the cream of the crop. There are also alhums (medium-sized buses), mini-buses and the popular, but deadly, night buses. Once you determine your vessel there will be a man shouting at you, “Pass, pass!” This is not your driver or even the man who will start the car, this is simply who you will pay for your fare. Usually they will try to charge you for whatever baggage you have as well. Unless you carry your items on your lap, you’ll probably end up paying extra for it.

Travel tip number 2: Travel LIGHT. I’m talking wear the same thing 4 days in a row light to avoid having to deal with extra fees for baggage. As Peace Corps volunteers we typically don’t change up our wardrobe too much anyway so this tip is more for you people who still care about your general appearance. This tip always goes for traveling light regarding your money as well. Try to have as small of bills as possible so that getting change is not an issue as it is always an issue in this country.

Alright so now you’ve paid and you’re probably being herded into the car. In some garages you’re issued a seat number so there is no negotiating where you will be but in other garages it is first come, first served and the fight for a good seat can get pretty brutal.

Travel tip number 3: In a sept-place, always try for the front seat first. Good luck, I have yet to sit there and I’ve been here for 6 months. Most likely the front seat will be impossible so then you should attempt to sit in the middle row near a window. The back row is your last resort but if there are no other options, at least try for one of the sides so that you have something besides a person or a goat to lean against. If you're lucky enough to be traveling with fellow volunteers, at least you'll have each other to lean/sweat on (see pics below).

Once you’re seated you will probably check out the car and hopefully it has a floor, doors that properly shut and windows that roll down. If you’re looking for a seat-belt then you have forgotten where you are! Bring yourself back to Senegal and rest assured that you’re packed in so tightly that you’ll probably be fine in the event of a problem. When all of the passengers have arrived, and this part of the process can take hours as the car will not leave until each place is filled, someone will come and start the car. And by start the car I mean he will steer while a bunch of other guys push it in order to push-start the vehicle. You might think that you’d be on your way but this is when your driver finally arrives. You will be lucky if he looks a day over 14. He usually will drive you over to the gas station, a step that would probably make more sense before getting passengers, and then you’re off!

Did I mention that during this entire process you are probably dripping sweat, have people shouting in your face, coughing on you, shoving you and also trying to sell you all sorts of crap? Some of what they’re selling makes sense like water, snacks, and tissues but then there’s that guy selling a live bird or a pamphlet on karate. I just want to know, who is actually buying this stuff? You also have a more difficult situation of beggars, as young as 5 year-old children trying to solicit money and food from you.

Such are the joys of traveling in a developing country. One way I know that I’m becoming more integrated is how much less bothered I am by traveling here. When I first saw the garage, I remember thinking that I will never leave my village. Now, it’s just a matter of knowing a few words in the local lingo to get where I want to go and to not pay more than I should to make the trip.

On top of integrating in the transportation realm I am feeling much better in my village as well. I’m not going to sugarcoat it here; my first few months at site were incredibly tough. Not to bum you guys out or anything but there were a few mornings that I woke up and just had to cry a little. I mean I usually would pull myself together, snap out of it and get on with my day but life in the Peace Corps is no joke. They really weren’t kidding when they said it is the toughest job you will ever love. I’m sure I’ve talked plenty about why it is so tough so I won’t bore you with that again. Of course, the language becoming a little easier and people becoming more familiar with me has helped but I’ve also developed some strategies that get me through those rough days.

I have this new game I play where I make up what people are saying to each other. You see, 90% of my interactions are in a group of people that I don’t understand what is going on; therefore, if I just make up conversations they could be having, everyone wins! I am entertained and they just think I’m even crazier than they already did when I bust up laughing at my imaginary conversations. Along the lines of people thinking I’m strange, I’ve been known to sing greetings at people. Greetings are very important in West African culture so you have to know what to say to people and, in Serer culture, the proper time of day to say these things. I have found that even if I don’t know exactly what I’m saying, if I say it in a high sing-songy, happy way they either think it’s cute or that I’m just a little strange and those are better than thinking I’m an idiot for saying good morning when it’s 6 PM. This is getting better as I learn more but it was for sure a coping strategy in those early days.

This has been ridiculously long so I’ll wrap it up with one final point. This might seem obvious but I have learned that I can’t expect every, or even most, interactions to be a positive experience. Some days I will go from having the best conversation with someone to another person literally bringing me to the verge of tears. Some of the best advice I have learned to heed is to be patient, observe, listen, smile, shake it off and most importantly, laugh. Peace Corps is certainly no joke but there’s no way I’d make it through if I couldn’t laugh it off.

Until next time,


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Giving Thanks

Well IST is officially over which means another Peace Corps milestone has been passed, yay! The week was filled with (mostly) useful sessions, good times with friends and TONS (literally, tons) of yummy food. I think I've neglected thus far to talk about the food that is served at the training center, or I guess the food in general here in Senegal. You see, Senegalese food is really quite delicious but the food we get at site compared to the food at the training center is very different. Senegalese food typically consists of rice, fish and some type of sauce. The less well-off families, including my own, usually have the lowest grade quality of fish for lunch and often eat left-overs or couscous for dinner. This is fine with me, I want to be integrated into my family and eat what they are eating. However, this causes problems when we get to eat 10 days straight of the tantalizing training center food. The training center always splurges for the best meat including not only fish but also chicken AND beef. We get salad and pizza or pasta for dinner and there’s fruit after every meal. This food may sound fairly basic but compared to what’s available to my isolated little village, this stuff is amazing and I gorge pretty hard.

After IST, myself and the 10 pounds I had to have gained headed to the big city (Dakar, capital of Senegal) to enjoy some rest and relaxation and also to celebrate Thanksgiving with the US Ambassador (no big deal or anything). We were invited to the ambassador’s house for a feast that I will never forget. More food talk, what’s my problem? Part of the deal was that we had to each bring a side dish or dessert and the Ambassador would provide turkey, stuffing, beer and wine. I know that I have mentioned my lack of culinary creativity in here before so I was more than proud of the au gratin potatoes and garlic green beans that my friends and I managed to throw together. We may have had to use the Ambassador’s oven to finish our potatoes and they were the last thing to get put on the table but all turned out well and our efforts were praised. Thanksgiving was full of laughs, good food, good wine and even a sing-a-long around the piano at the end of the evening. It was lovely, as picturesque as a scene out of a romantic comedy or something and will probably go down as one of the best Thanksgivings I've ever had.

Though, as the festivities were dying down and I was slowly slipping into a food-induced coma, I couldn't help thinking about my family back home. This is the first holiday season I've ever had in my life away from all of them; usually at least some of us are able to be together. If this experience has taught me anything it is that I am very devoted to my family. I miss them more than words could ever explain and I truly cherish the time that I get to spend with them. Speaking of my family, I would like to share a sad event that was recently brought to my attention, call it a way of healing I guess. I heard about it only last week but it apparently happened over a month ago. It happened when I was having a rough patch at site and my parents didn't want to add to my anxiety. My sweet little Pomeranian pup passed away. Now, some of you that knew her may not use sweet as your top choice of description but she was always there for me. I cried into that dog’s fur more times than I care to admit and there was never any creature (human or otherwise) happier to see me than her. I can’t explain the pain I’m feeling right now because I almost feel numb. It doesn't seem real because I wasn't there having to deal with anything. I thank whatever higher power is up there that I was able to be removed from the situation because I wouldn't have been able to handle it. That dog meant too much to me and to have to be surrounded by her toys or, even worse, haunted by seeing her pass would've been far too difficult. The one thing I wish I could have been there for was to help my mom through it. Roxy – you will be forever missed and thought of daily. Thank you for being such an incredible dog and best friend to me. I love you always.

Now that the sad news is over I would like to use the rest of this lengthy (sorry!) post to express the things I am thankful for in my life because… tis the season after all!
  • I am thankful for my parents. I am thankful for their health, their generosity, their support, their success, and their love. I have never in my life felt anything but unconditional love from them and for that I am incredibly grateful.
  • I am thankful for my little sister and the close friendship that we have.
  • I am thankful for my older siblings and the amazing relationships that I have not only with them but their families.
  • I am thankful for the friendships I've developed with other family members and some of the amazing friendships and relationships I've had over the years.
  • I’m thankful for the time I had with my amazing little dog and all the joy she brought into my life.
  • I’m thankful for my health.
  • I’m thankful for the many opportunities I've had over my life to not only travel to beautiful places but to also live and work abroad in a completely unique and challenging situation.
  • I’m thankful for my education and the opportunities it has given and will continue to give me.
  • I’m thankful to be an American. Now, more than ever before, I can truly appreciate the freedom and rights that we have there.
  • I’m thankful for the good in the world. For the people I see helping each other out.
  • I’m thankful for the beauty of nature. A sunset. The waves crashing on the shore. Baobab trees. I am experiencing nature at a much slower and more intimate pace over here and it feels great.
  • I’m thankful for laughter and the fact that I have a sense of humor. Life would be much more difficult if I wasn't able to laugh things off.
  • I’m thankful that I have the ability to get up and walk somewhere, each and every day. 
I could go on and on and on but I feel that about sums up most of the big stuff. I guess I’ll end this post by saying I’m thankful for you. Whoever you are that is reading this and getting something out of it.

Until next time,


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

At least once

First of all I wanted to start this post by apologizing for how long it has been since I have written anything. I am a slacker. I usually try to wait to write posts until I feel like I have something incredibly witty or fascinating to say. Sometimes I forget that just the day to day things that I am doing are probably interesting to at least someone, right? 

I thought I’d begin this entry by talking about what I have been doing during this hiatus since I last posted anything. This past week has been the beginning of our IST (in-service training, I don’t have to reiterate Peace Corps’ love of acronyms). This means that I have been out of my site and participating in various sessions that are supposed to help easier facilitate projects in my village. This also means that I have officially been sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer for 3 months now! For those of you that don’t know, I am living in Ngallou which is a small village located in the community of Palmarin, Senegal. My village is situated right between the coast and the Sine-Saloum Delta. 

The program that I am a volunteer under is Community Economic Development and my focus is on the eco-tourism industry. This is largely because I live in a beautiful place that has a lot of potential for touristic activities (come visit me!!) but it’s also my job to make sure that this tourism is sustainable, environmentally friendly and benefits the local population (those are the main components of eco-tourism in case you didn’t know). See said beautiful place below.

The past few weeks have consisted of me making my way around my village trying to assess how I can help. I have already decided to implement an English class for interested eco-guides to better communicate with their clientele. I am also working with a local hotel in basic business principles such as marketing, accounting, customer service, etc. Along with the eco-tourism jazz I am also working on several secondary projects that include a school garden, compost/waste management projects, coastal erosion evasion work, a carbon offsets program and also collaboration with the local artists on expanding their product lines. Each day involves a new set of challenges and slowly but surely I am finding my place where I can be of use here in Senegal.

Well. Now that you’re caught up on most of the lengthy work-related information I have some of my more typical words of wisdom (ranting) that I would like to share. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the development of a society, namely of the United States. Because of our incredible wastefulness during our industrialization period, other countries are suffering the consequences out of the mess that we’ve made. We were able to progress and develop in a way that most other countries cannot copy due to the environmental detriment that we created along the way. I think that now, more than ever, we owe it to not only ourselves but to the rest of the world to try and live a more simplistic lifestyle.

I personally think everyone should have to do a few things in order to understand how many people in this world live. At least once in their lives, I believe everyone should have to take a bucket bath. I think we should have to experience washing our clothes by hand. Furthermore, we should have to walk down the street or possibly to the next town over to wait in line and then pull water from a well in order to take care of ourselves and our families. As a society we are so incredibly wasteful with our resources. We leave the water running while we shave, take incredibly long showers and use a washing machine to clean 3 or 4 articles of clothing. I feel like I had other examples that were related to issues besides water consumption but I will have to save those for another day (as I can’t remember them and I REALLY want to get a post out today).

Wrapping things up I’d like to say that my posts are never trying to get political or drastically change anyone’s views in life but if I can caution you to simply think twice about things then I would say it’s worth it.

I will try and make my next post sooner rather than later but in the meantime thank you for reading and trying to be the best person you can be!


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Always talk to strangers

It’s been a while since my last post and not a lot has really changed. I’m still doing my best each day to integrate into my village. This means fumbling through the language and just trying to find my place here in Senegal. Along the way I’m learning more and more, not only about the Senegalese way of life but also about myself. Some of the things I am learning go against those fundamental rules that we are taught growing up. For example, the title of this particular post goes against one of the first things we are told as children which is to never talk to strangers. Here, not talking to strangers is definitely a major faux pas. It’s considered impolite if you are walking down the street and you don’t greet each person that you pass by. This rule stands whether you know the person or not. You might think this would apply only in your village or town that you live but it’s also when you travel. When traveling it’s important to make friends with the other passengers in case you need them to have your back for one reason or another. I could and probably will one day devote an entire blog just to transportation in this country so that’s all I’ll say on that for now. Along the lines of behavior towards strangers; we were also taught to never take candy from a stranger. When eating here in Senegal it’s thought of as rude to not offer some to those around you. This can even include those complete strangers you happen to be traveling with. Although, if you followed rule one, they won’t be strangers anymore!

Another piece of advice (and common sense) given to us as children is to always look both ways before crossing the street. This is good but here it’s also important that you look behind you, in front and sometimes even above. You never know where the next stray animal or horse-drawn buggy is going to come from. Aside from those basic do’s and don’ts we are also usually told how to behave when eating or drinking. You know, things such as always chew with your mouth closed, don’t slurp when drinking, and don’t eat with your hands. Those forms of food etiquette are definitely not important here. In fact, here slurping your tea is the way it’s done so, slurp away!  Basically, if there’s not at least one person sitting next to you at the communal bowl (yeah, you all eat around the same bowl, sometimes up to 10 people) eating with their hands and spitting fish bones on the ground next to you; then you just aren’t in Senegal!

Those first rules are mostly fun parts of this culture that I have adapted more or less easily to. Then there are the things that are harder to tackle. I’ll tell you one thing; it’s not easy living in Senegal. It’s even less easy to be a young, foreign female living in Senegal. I’ve been having a hard time lately figuring out my place here in Senegal. I am here to work, this is true. But, the work women are typically expected to do here is very different from what I am trying to accomplish. Women in Senegal work very, very hard. They spend hours cleaning, preparing meals, taking care of the children, and taking care of the men. I’m not saying women in the states don’t do this as well but there’s something different about it here. They have no other choice. If a woman here was ever to ask a man to maybe help with the dishes after she just spent 3 hours preparing the midday meal bent over a hot coal fire; that wouldn’t go over well. I’m also not saying that the men don’t work hard. They work very hard. It just seems so much less balanced here. Men here legitimately don’t believe me when I tell them that men in America often help prepare meals, clean and spend time taking care of the kids. I try to explain that men and women are seen more as equals in America and help each other out. This is just not a concept they are comfortable with although that is slowly changing. With a new generation of Senegalese women chasing after jobs that were traditionally male dominated and going to college, things are becoming more equal. In the meantime though here I am; trying to find a balance between being taken seriously as an educated woman who knows what she’s talking about (hopefully) and also just simply being a woman in Senegal. I think I’ll get there, after all part of my job is to assimilate into this culture as well as share my own.

Until next time then,


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

I really do want world peace...

Last night as I was tucked nicely into my mosquito net, drifting off to sleep, I thought of some of the criticism that I have heard about the Peace Corps. This includes from people I know and also just criticism in general. “Why don’t you help people of your own country” is probably one of the top questions I heard after, “Wow, so you’re going to be living in a mud hut and stuff, right?” On the latter point, I actually live in a cement room in a house so I have it slightly nicer than the hut volunteers but I assure you, they do exist. As far as the first question, it’s definitely a valid point. I know that there are plenty of people in America that are impoverished and need help. I have volunteered at various organizations and plan on continuing that trend when I get back to the States. For the most part though, Americans tend to like other Americans. This is not always the case with people from other countries.

The media alone reflects very poorly on Americans. People from other countries unfortunately catch a lot of our trash TV (aka reality TV) and assume that all Americans have…we’ll just say “loose morals.” An issue on top of the trash TV is that the media tends to highlight fanatical maniacs. One of these people highlighted was a pastor (who shall remain nameless, he has received enough publicity) who was organizing International Burn a Qur’an Day. The Qur’an is the holy book of Islam so this was an incredibly offensive movement. I don’t care if you’re religious or not, that’s just something you don’t do. It has shocked me to my core how many Senegalese people (who are 90% Muslim) thought that this man was an accurate representation of Americans. I had to explain that there were far more Americans that were outraged at this man than who supported him but that’s not what the media likes to portray. To avoid this post becoming too political or heavy I’ll end the rant by simply saying; some of us Americans have to do something to change our worldview. After all, the second goal of Peace Corps is to promote better understanding of the American people on the part of the people served. In a world that is becoming increasingly more global, this notion of world peace becomes even more essential. It doesn’t hurt that I am hopefully teaching the people I’m working with sustainable skills to help pull them out of poverty.

Phew, on to other news! You may be wondering what it is I’m doing over here to make us Americans look good. I have now officially been a volunteer for about a month now. As far as what I’m doing to shed a positive light on Americans, I hope that I’m doing at least something. Each day is spent with me trying my hardest to learn a language I’ve never heard. I’m eating, traveling, dressing, bathing and simply living how the Senegalese are. I am also sneaking in mini-America lessons wherever I can. I show videos and pictures of my family and friends back home in order to make Americans more relatable. I show maps of the US and talk about different states and how many times Senegal could fit inside America. I have conversations with Senegalese people about strong American women and the impressive roles women can achieve. I get reactions constantly about how peculiar I am that I don’t really enjoy household duties and that I desire education and a career. They might think I’m strange but at least it has them thinking. Amidst all of this, there are days where I experience what I like to call the high highs and the low lows.

Some of the high highs are when I finally nail every greeting a particular villager happens to throw at me. They are when I spend the long afternoons learning how to prepare Senegalese meals (which is especially entertaining as I mentioned previously, I’m no chef). I enjoy the time at the beach I have with my family. One day a local artisan profusely thanked me for coming to Senegal to help his people. I love the days I am able to fit a run in (this makes it sound like I’m so busy; by fit in I mainly mean work around the rain and /or my own laziness). It’s nice to have conversations with people about the work I may be doing here. Then there are the afternoons when my adorable 3-year old host sister is teaching me Serer (my local language).

But there are also some low lows. Some days I nail the greetings but most of the time I feel unable to properly communicate what I want to say. There are creepy, crawly creatures everywhere. Certain days I feel unbearably lonely and isolated. Other times people often assume I’m a tourist and simply hound me to buy things or make me feel like an ATM. Through it all though, I am ultimately happy. As a lover of culture, I feel incredibly privileged to be completely immersed in such a colorful one. Yes, the low lows aren’t great but the high highs make it all worthwhile.

I know I’ve jumped around a lot but I hope it somewhat made sense where I’m coming from here.

Until next time,


Thursday, August 16, 2012

It's probably not going to kill me but..

To start this entry off I thought I’d talk about some of the weird stuff that I do and that happens to me. Most of it probably won’t kill me but probably isn’t great either. I also know that most of this stuff may happen in the States but here it’s on an almost daily basis.
These wonderful things include:
  • Inhaling (yes, directly up my nose) all sorts of insects.
  • Accidentally consuming more fish bones than I could count.
  • Trudging unknowingly through what may or may not be sewage wearing flip-flops.
  •  Bathing in water that is tinted brown or has dead things floating in it.
  • Eating food dripping with oil (quite delicious, might I add).
  • Squatting precariously over questionable holes doing mother nature’s business.
  • Getting all sorts of interesting insect bites (good thing I’m vaccinated for everything under the sun!)
  • Going for hours without saying or understanding a word of what’s going on (can’t be great for my mental health, right?)
That’s a pretty good start. I’m sure as the days go on I’ll have plenty to add to this list but that should give you a good idea for now.

Lately I’ve been feeling a little down. I’m finally at site, no longer a trainee. This means I’m feeling isolated and scared. Also I feel quite bored. I am not supposed to start working yet as I’ve previously mentioned so I have A LOT of down time. I’m trying my best to learn the language and be present in my village but sometimes I just need to escape to my room and read or watch movies. One of these times that I was feeling overwhelmed (this morning), I re-read some of my entries in my diary from years ago. I’m pretty good at keeping a diary and have entries dating back to when I was about 7 years old. Those ones are quite boring as my life really wasn’t that exciting then. They consist largely of, “Today I went outside and played, it was fun!” Seriously though, encourage kids to keep diaries, they are eye opening years later.

Over the past few years, however, I talked a lot about my hopes and dreams and what I hope to get out of life. I would like to share some of those hopes and dreams as I’m proud to say a lot have come true. I feel like it’s necessary right now to share some of these because my day to day lately has been less than ideal and writing about that would just bore everyone to tears! Hopefully you enjoy reading a little more about who I am and what I hope to achieve in this life (at least some of what I hope to achieve).

  • I hope to get into the Peace Corps (yup this was a goal for quite some time people)
  • I hope to fall in love (yes…that happened J)
  • I hope to make my parents proud
  • I hope to set a good example for others
  • I hope to make others happy
  • I hope to own my own car/home
  • I hope to see Germany with my dad (he’s German…I want to see my roots)
  • I hope to have children
  • I hope to help others, to make a difference
  • I hope to see the world
  • I hope to speak more languages
  • I hope to get married (at Bear Lake, one of my favorite places in the world)
  • I hope to have my dad walk me down the aisle
  • I hope that I always continue to learn and to better myself
  • I hope to let the little things slide
  • I hope to ride an elephant
  • I hope to climb one of the world’s tallest mountains (did it, Kilimanjaro, woo!)
  • I hope to work for Disney (what Disney freak hasn't hoped for that at least once?)
  • I hope to work for myself
  • I hope to be happy

All in all, I have been incredibly fortunate thus far in my life to achieve many of my hopes. Each day I just need to keep pushing through the hard stuff to get to my ultimate goals. To do that here in Senegal I've realized setting small (I mean, minuscule) goals for myself will get me through the days. Today my plan is to visit the post office and greet some villagers. Maybe I’ll even stop by my office, don’t want to overwhelm myself though. There’s always tomorrow and the next day and the next day….

Until the next day then,


Sunday, August 12, 2012

It's official!

After two long months of training sessions, language/cultural classes, and a whole bunch of ups and downs; I am officially a Peace Corps volunteer! My training group was rare in that we were fortunate enough to have Hillary Clinton swear us in a little over a week ago. This past Friday, however, we had the "real" ceremony. I personally feel that having the Secretary of State swear us in was as real as it could get but we had the official ceremony nonetheless. The big event took place at the ambassador's house in Dakar. There were speeches given by our training manager, fellow volunteers, government officials, our Country Director, and our associate Country Director. I was incredibly moved by several of the speeches and found myself tearing up more than I care to admit. I'm not sure what was more moving, what was being said or the fact that I have FINALLY made it to this point in my life. That being said, I can't believe that in all of my previous posts I have failed to mention one of the main people who got me through this training process, my language and culture facilitator (LCF, Peace Corps LOVES their acronyms), Assane.
This is a picture of me, Assane and Clintandra (the other volunteer in my language class). I can honestly say that I don't know what I'd do without him. He always knows exactly what I need to hear in order to reassure me. I started out in this country brushing up on my French, the official language, but recently tested out into Serer (the local language most spoken where I will be living). Serer, as I've been told by many people native to Senegal, is one of the most difficult languages to learn. At the same time I'm trying to improve my French and learn some Wolof, the most spoken local language in most of Senegal. Needless to say, it's a lot and can definitely get overwhelming. It makes me even more wary of the American education system. Why can most people in EVERY other country speak at least 2, sometimes 3 languages and we can barely speak English?

Speaking of the people in this country... I had my last night with my first host family the other night and it was incredibly tough. I remember how hard my first few weeks here were with that family and how much I didn't want to be there; that last night, I didn't want to leave. I had a point while I was sitting out on the ground with my host mother and brother just talking for about 3 hours and I felt completely content. Life is so fast-paced and rushed in America, it's different in Africa. There are days here that are beyond difficult but then there are days like I had the other night. These times I feel at peace with where I am in my life and with myself. This gives me so much hope for the future that I will, in time, adjust to my new host family and feel at home here.

Tomorrow we head off to our respective sites. I am feeling terrified, anxious, excited, and apprehensive (among a million other things). I am not near to any other volunteers so it will be the first time that I am completely on my own in this country. I'll still be living with a new (different) host family but alone in the sense that I won't be near anyone who speaks English. We are also supposed to spend the first few months at our site just getting used to being there. This makes sense but I'm worried people will think, "What is this lazy American doing here, she never works or anything, just tries and fails miserably at speaking our language?!" Peace Corps is supposed to sensitize the communities against this and tell them the first few months are purely for integration but whether or not people listen to that is a different story.

I know I'm going to have tough times but yesterday, coming home from Dakar, I don't think I'd ever laughed so hard. Looking at my friends there next to me, crammed into this rickety old car, dripping sweat, it was too funny not to laugh. Now I understand why I was asked several times throughout the interview process if I have a good sense of humor. To be a Peace Corps volunteer, you need it.

I think I'll wrap things up here though. Time is a ticking and the amenities in my village are pretty basic so I need to get some stuff here in the big city.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, July 29, 2012

The cockroach game

The cockroach game is not only a catchy title (I'm sure it at least made you stop whatever you were doing, eh?) but also one of the many daily adventures that I have here in Senegal! Yes, I am afraid of nearly all insects but cockroaches instill a special level of fear in my heart. I'm pretty sure that they are immortal; this is where the game part comes in. If you stomp on one and then lift your foot, it miraculously runs away! They also tend to sneak up on you when you are most vulnerable. This is typically when you're squatting to use the Turkish toilet, getting ready to bucket bathe or really anytime when you are indisposed. If you wash one down the drain or toilet, oh, it will crawl right back up. And did I mention that they aren't afraid of humans whatsoever? One jumped (yes, jumped, or maybe flew, whatever those creatures do) right down my shirt the other day which resulted in me squealing hysterically before flinging it out of there. The cockroach game is by no means any fun, but it is one of many we get to play here in Africa.

In other news, my last few weeks at my first Senegalese home are winding down and I definitely have mixed emotions. One part of me can't wait to move onto my permanent village, begin to get settled in, and start working on projects. Another part of me, though, is going to really miss my first family. From my little 3-year old nephew just straight up vomiting on me mid-sentence to my brother attempting to teach me chess in French (a game I don't even understand in English); everyday is an adventure for me here. I've developed a strong bond with my mother here. The other day she knew, without me saying a word, that I was feeling a little down. She proceeded to come and sit by me and just held my hand. She didn't need to say anything, that small display of affection was enough to comfort and calm me. It's weird how much I miss human contact but I come from a family that is very affectionate so to not have that daily reassurance is slightly disconcerting. When this human contact doesn't work, I've found that I can escape to the roof of my little home. Up there I can "do my exercises" (aka dance around like a maniac to alleviate my stress a bit) without any interruptions; other than my nephews sneaking up to laugh at me from time to time. Moral of the story is that I've finally found my routine here, only to be uprooted again, such is the life of a Peace Corps volunteer.

I think I'll end this here by just saying that I officially swear in as a Volunteer in less than 2 weeks! I'm excited, nervous, scared, relieved and a whole bunch of other things. I'll be sure to keep you updated as it gets closer.

In the meantime, as always, thanks for reading!


Thursday, July 12, 2012

1 month down, 25 to go!

The title of this entry is mostly a joke because I'm not really counting down the days (that would be toxic and pointless as I truly want to be here) but it just hit me that I have already been in Africa for a month now! That is crazy! So much of this adventure truly resembles the most wild rollercoaster ride that I have ever been on. I have already experienced many ups and downs and I've only been here for a month (as you may know by now).

I'll start with one of my latest downs and what I truly think has been the root of a lot of my initial discomforts here. As most of my friends and family know, I have been to Africa before. I was fortunate enough to get to experience the east coast of Africa when I visited Tanzania. I went with a bunch of other students from my college to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and work with a few local orphanages. Climbing Kilimanjaro was incredible and I was very proud of myself but I was even more proud and at peace sitting in the dirt and playing with the orphaned children. I always had the idea of applying for the Peace Corps in the back of my mind but it was then that I realized this idea had to become a reality. The people of Tanzania were incredibly friendly. Everywhere we went they wanted to talk to us and be our friends. I felt immediately welcomed and almost as if I belonged there. Senegal has been a little bit different. It's not that I haven't felt welcome (Senegalese people are nothing but hospitable) but I also never remembered feeling this much like a tourist or an outsider while I was in Tanzania. Peace Corps is invited to the countries and communities that it serves in. Volunteers are here to help and to be integrated into the culture. Obviously that will come in time but it has just been something I've had a little bit of a hard time with.
Now, some of the good stuff. These are in no specific order, I just like to write down things as they come to me that have made me smile over the past few weeks. This is also all stuff that has happened at my Senegalese home (funny, culturally awkward things typically don't happen at the Training Center when I'm surrounded by other Americans).
My family is extremely kind to me. They always remember when I like something and try to give me as much of it as they can. This means lots of mangoes, chocolate, candies and more. I have two nephews that are 7 and 3 with whom the bonding has been interesting. The 7 year old and I get along great and he loves to tell me in explicit detail (in French) whatever may be happening right at the moment it's happening - "Alexx, I am whistling, do you know how to whistle? Oh look, that frog is jumping towards us, etc." The bonding with my 3 year old nephew though has been slightly different. He's really not used to being around strangers (white people) and has had a hard time warming up to me. That is, until I spent one evening teaching them how to do push-ups (real ones, man style). They thought me getting down on the floor was just about the funniest thing they had ever seen and proceeded to make me do push-up after push-up (about the most action my arms have seen in months). It was great fun.
Those of you that know me well know that I'm not the most fashion saavy person in America, let alone when living in Africa. Therefore, whenever I wear something that is even remotely good looking (aka skinny jeans instead of my typical loose north face pants) my family hoots and hollers and their favorite English way of telling me I look halfway decent is "You are fashion!" Cracks me up every time.
My mom has taught me the Senegalese way of cutting onions. This entails no cutting board and holding them in my hand. I proceeded to cut about 12 onions by hand and only nicked myself once which I consider a raging success.
The final funny thought I'll leave you with tonight has to do with the name of one of my brothers. This particular brother resides mainly in Dakar (the capital of Senegal) so I rarely see him and only met him recently. I didn't know his name originally so I would hear my family talking about someone they referred to as Peace Co (at least this was how my American English brain heard and spelled what they were saying). For the longest time, I assumed this person that they were adamantly talking about was me. I thought they had nicknamed me Peace Co (short for Peace Corps) and were CONSTANTLY mocking me right in front of me because I couldn't understand the local language they were speaking. Only when I finally confronted the situation in my broken French did I come to learn that Pisco is definitely not me but my little brother! This situation still provides a good laugh for me and my family from time to time.
I'm sure there's tons more but I'm about spent on blog time plus, word around the center is that we get pizza for dinner so I'm definitely going to go check that out.
As always, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Wait, where's Utah?

I felt this title was appropriate because it sums up a lot of what I am feeling over here lately. I'm feeling a little bit of identity loss. It's been happening so strongly that Utah seems as if it's slowly falling out of existence. Now, a loss of identity can definitely be good and necessary as well as terrifying. Most of my conversations here go as follows:

Bonjour! Ca va? Ah, ca va bien merci! D'ou venez vous? Je viens des Etats-Unis, l'Utah c'est mon etat.  This results in a blank gaze....followed by "Ohh Utah." Even though 90% of the time no one still knows where I'm talking about. Thank God we had the 2002 Winter Olympics there or we'd be completely off the grid! Oh and for those of you that couldn't pick up on that dialogue. I basically go through the hi, how are you/where are you from conversation resulting in the Utah dilemma. Everyone has pride associated with where they are from, whether or not they like to admit it. It can be incredibly disarming for no one to even have an accurate idea of the place you called home for 23 years. 

Speaking of that place I call home. The strangest things can set me off into thinking about home and they usually hit me out of nowhere like a ton of bricks. Sometimes I will catch a whiff of aftershave or different colognes that remind me of my dad. I will hear a song that reminds me of certain people or just America in general. Among other things, I miss the independence I had back home. It's difficult to just get up and go to the gym (by gym I mean go lift rocks up and down outside) or have the ability to fend for myself at meal times. Basically I miss being able to call the shots in my own life. Hopefully once I install at my site I will be able to cook for myself a little and develop a sort of routine in order to feel more at home. In America people typically  have a way of measuring if their day was successful. Maybe you got a lot done at work or you went to the gym and had a hard work out, etc. Here, I don't get that successful day to day feeling which can be difficult. 

Another frustration that I'm dealing with is the language immersion. I have been placed in a fairly large town because the language I am intensively learning is French. This can be good and bad. I'm excited because I get to really hone my French and truly become fluent but it's frustrating because most local people speak Wolof or another language among each other. This can result in hours of sitting around knowing people are talking about me (because they glance my way and giggle) and not knowing what's being said. Back home you guys might just be having a lazy summer day but here there just is no such thing at this point. Even on the days that I don't have anything scheduled, my brain is constantly working. 

Enough of the negative stuff though! Yesterday my language teacher took us to meet with a local painter. This man told me about a Peace Corps volunteer that he worked with a few years ago. He told me about how much she helped him in his work. She helped him reach larger markets and improve his business skills immensely. A Peace Corps saying we heard recently is, "In your Peace Corps service, you will help plant trees whose shade you will not get to sit under." I think this is completely accurate in the case of this other volunteer. She may not know how much of an impact she had on this artisans life but now I know. The people of Senegal know. Most importantly, he knows the success that he is capable of. A common frustration among current volunteers is that they feel like they aren't making any sort of progress. Instances such as this make me realize that we may never know the impact of our service but it is there and is incredibly powerful. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Je m'appelle Aisha

So, my Senegalese family decided to name me, Aicha (Aisha?), after one of the wives of the prophet Mohammed. I am quite honored because it's a name that comes with a lot of dignity and respect. My family here consists of Mama Oumi, 5 brothers, 1 sister, 1 cousin, and 2 nephews...I think. I'm not sure because, in Senegal, people are constantly coming in and out of our house. I think it's partly because the little white girl from Utah has become quite a spectacle here. My nephews will literally just sit and stare at me for hours. In other family news, communication has been fairly easy. I got lucky (or unlucky, depends how you look at it really) and have a brother who speaks fluent English, French and the local language Wolof. He mainly tries to speak to me in French though but is definitely a good translator for when the whole family is speaking Wolof and I just stare with a dumbfounded expression on my face. My family has been incredibly hospitable and literally try to do everything for me. It's been a challenge to tell them that I can handle getting a bucket of water for my bucket bath by myself. Oh yes, bucket baths. Give me a bucket, little bit of water and some soap and I'm good for weeks! Truthfully though, I really don't mind taking them. I am here to see and experience how this culture lives and that means participating in every detail that I can.

I'd like to talk a little about the way family and my daily life works here in Senegal. We typically get up fairly early and have our baguette and coffee. I then ride my bike (if you don't hear from me for a few weeks it's because people here drive like maniacs and mowed me down) to my language teacher Assane's house. We typically have French for about 3 hours then I go home for lunch. Lunch is pretty much always rice, vegetables and fish. After lunch, more language which can eventually turn into a little American culture lesson for our teacher. He now knows how to say "what's up" to his homies. Dinner in Senegal is delicious. We usually have rice again, some random meat, and more vegetables. The sauce here is really spicy and fantastic and they put it on everything. In between meals I try to get to know my family and become comfortable in my new situation.

There are definitely good days and bad days just like anywhere else. I will be getting along great with my family, loving the food, speaking lots of French then have a dream about being home and come crashing on down. Overall though the people are very happy to have us here and respect the work that we are trying to do.

I know that I had more to say but my brain is on overload right now. I'll try to write more next time but for now, thanks for following me for the journey of a lifetime!


Friday, June 15, 2012

Bienvenue a Senegal!

After a 7-hour flight to Brussels, 2-hour layover, 6-hour flight to Nairobi, 2-hour layover, then a 2-hour flight to Dakar, I have finally made it to Senegal! We got here pretty late on Wednesday so the Peace Corps put us up in a hotel right on the coast of Dakar. It was gorgeous (at least for the 5 minutes I could look at it the next morning) but we all bee-lined for bed. I don't think I had ever been so tired. At least 30 hours of consisitent traveling will do that to you, along with a 5 AM wake-up call. But, alas, (after, I'm pretty sure, inhaling a mosquito in my sleep) we finally made it to our Training Center in Thies, Senegal.

We were welcomed very warmly by the staff and other volunteers. After a few brief introductions we went straight into training for the entire day. Who knows how to use a squat toilet? I sure do! With only 8 short weeks to learn everything you can about an entirely new culture including their language, they don't give you much downtime. The long day was followed by an even longer evening when I couldn't connect to the internet. This seems like a minute problem but when you've had a long day, even the smallest problems can feel catastrophic. On a positive note, the training day ended well when a drum circle was started and local kids came and danced with us. One small boy in particular came and stood next to me and just grabbed my hand out of nowhere. That small gesture refocused me and reminded me why I wanted to come back to Africa in the first place.

Fast-forward to the night of mosquito bites, intense heat, and a certain cat making it's way into our room (I'm now positive that the cats here are spider felines as my roommates and I were awoken by one literally climbing the screen INSIDE our room. Not entirely sure how it even got in there which was slightly disconcerting considering the size of the rats they have here). Anyway, today has been more training and placement interviews to determine where exactly we will be going and what language we need to focus on. Bonjour francais, so we meet again. The rest of the afternoon will be spent with more immunizations (no rabies for me!), cultural training, and crash courses in the local language.

I'm feeling a mix of emotions about this entire process. I go through intense thoughts of fear and doubts about my ability to handle this. I miss home, familiarity, and my loving network of people that surrounded me there. I truly have no room to talk, though. There are people that have been here 2 years or longer. They have loved ones back home, they don't like the heat or bugs and they certainly get lonely. Yet they are here, handling it, and loving it.

Above all, I'm going to push on. Whenever I'm discouraged I just have to remember that little boy who grabbed my hand. He really is what this is all about. Creating a better future for the people of Africa and letting them see how positive a relationship with Americans really can be.

Lots of love.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Waiting Game

Well. Here I am sitting in the airport. When this moment came I figured that I would be sitting here bawling, making a huge scene, pretty much horrifying small children around me. But, I'm oddly serene (well maybe not serene, but numb). Don't get me wrong saying goodbye to everyone was one of the hardest things that I've ever had to do. People say that all the time - Oh man, this test is the hardest thing, this task at work, this paper, blah blah. But you have your friends and family to get you through those things. I will tell you, leaving your entire family and friends behind and going to depart on a plane for a country that I've never been to that is an entirely new culture...THAT is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. The most difficult part is that I'm choosing to do this. I'm not being sent away, I'm going on my own free will and that almost makes it harder. Lucky for me I have an incredibly supportive network around me who constantly assure me that what I'm doing is the right thing for me and that they are SO proud. Yes, that helps. And in reality, if I wasn't going off into the Peace Corps and just sitting at my mundane jobs, not knowing what I wanted to do, I'd feel a hell of a lot worse.

So, here we go, begins the waiting game to actually get to Africa. I will be leaving for New York flying into JFK at 5:10 PM, get there around midnight, shuttle it to my hotel then pass out face down from all the crying I've been doing. Tomorrow we have an orientation which I am very excited for. I get to meet all of the wonderful people I'll be training with and forming relationships with over the next 2 years. Then, Tuesday it's off to Brussels, layover, then SENEGAL. Ahhh!! After arrival it's 3 months of intensive training (learning the language, culture, and technical skills). Then it's off to our individual sites (if I can handle everything to the levels I need to be sworn in as an actual volunteer).

Sometimes I'm not sure if this is really happening. It almost feels like I'm living the life of someone else. Watching this person pack up two 50 pound bags, not knowing if she'll really be prepared enough. But how does one get prepared for something like this? I'm going to embrace the unexpected and make the best out of each situation that I find myself in.

This has been incredibly scattered so basically I'm in the airport. Tomorrow I'll be in New York. Tuesday I will be in Brussels. Wednesday I will be in Senegal. I am terrified, thrilled, devastated and honored. I will try to write another post once I arrive in Senegal at the Training Center.

Thanks for coming along for the ride!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The happs (What's happening)

Well. It’s about 3 months (give or take) before I leave on the biggest adventure I’m sure I’ll ever have. I decided to start a blog in order to give my friends and family something to read and keep up with while I’m away. I guess I should probably start at the beginning, what brought me into this situation in the first place. Forewarning, this first entry will probably be bland, sterile and grammatically correct seeming as how I’ve never written anything people will be reading before (as I get more comfortable I’m sure I’ll spice it up so that you guys will actually want to keep up with what I’m doing.) 

I have been invited to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal (West Africa for those of you that don’t know where that is, yes, I had to Google it myself when I first got my letter). My departure date is June 12th, 2012. 12 is my lucky number so I’m thinking that must be a good sign. I’ve already been in contact with volunteers currently serving in Senegal and prospective volunteers that will be a part of my training group. The thought of getting on a plane and leaving behind my friends and family for 27 months physically makes me sick. Meeting these people ahead of time and knowing that they will be going through the same feelings of uneasiness makes things SO much better.

The application process was loooong and if there’s one thing I could say to anyone who would like to try to join the Peace Corps someday, they aren’t kidding when they say start applying at least a YEAR before you would theoretically leave. I mean, I get it, they want to make sure you are patient and that you realize what you’re getting yourself into. After a few minor mishaps, a follow-up phone call (about a year and a half after I had initially applied) that I assumed was just a courtesy call ended up with the woman on the other end telling me that I had been accepted and would receive my official letter in the mail. WOWZA. I remember running through the house screaming for my mom to tell her the news. We both cried and were in slight shock but I was also trembling with excitement. Finally. My life was headed on a more definitive path and it was something I was incredibly proud of.

In the next three months most of my posts will probably include me freaking out about leaving and what I’m doing to prepare for 27 months of my life living in Africa. I still can’t even write that without getting chills. Living in Africa!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Anyway, if you want to read this, that’s fine. If not, that’s fine too! I’m assuming there’s at least one person out there who will want an update of what I’m doing and that’s one enough for me.

Au revoir pour maintenant mon amis! (Oh yeah, I’ll be speaking French and Wolof (local African language) for the next 2 years so I’ve gotta start practicing somewhere haha).