Saturday, February 16, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day

Peace Corps is not always romantic.  Let's be honest.  When the nearest toilet is just a bucket away and you think nothing of vomiting into a plastic bag, then your standards of privacy and decency have certainly dropped.  When you shave once a month and poop into a hole, there isn't really too much left to the imagination.  Add a little sickness, a few rashes, and a dash of diarrhea, and you have a recipe for a rather unflattering Valentine's Day.

As you can tell from the picture above, Dan and I were both feeling a little under the weather on this particular Valentine's Day.  We didn't let that stop us, however, from enjoying an evening out on the town.  After five years together, at least we still have a sense of humor!

Here's to real love-- to grown-ups who support each other and treat each other with unfailing kindness and respect.  Here's to real love-- the bond that develops and strengthens even after the initial infatuation has passed.  Here's to the man who takes her temperature and runs to get the toilet paper.  Here's to the woman who washes his underwear.  

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!  It might not be picture-perfect, but it's love.

You know that he's a good match when he remembers to pack your toilet paper

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Around the World

To my readers, I pose the following questions:

Have you ever wanted to know more about a country but didn't know where to look?  Have you ever wondered what it's really like to live in the Amazon rainforest, for instance, or to bike to work in Kenya? Have you ever wondered what it's like to teach English in Mongolia or to weigh babies in Zambia?  

Have you ever wanted to experience a country from the inside out-- as a resident, and not as a tourist?

Here is the inside scoop on some of the world's most exotic countries, as told by the men and the women who live there.

This is the first annual
2013 Peace Corps Best Blog Awards!

Out of the nearly 10,000 blogs linked to the Peace Corps Journals website, I have selected a few of my own personal favorites to share on this site.

Each of these blogs is a wonderful example of the Peace Corps vision and spirit.  And while none of these "award winners" will actually win anything or benefit from these distinctions, I hope that they will stand a little taller knowing that they are noted, loved, and supported by their fellow volunteers around the world.  

Without further ado, I present to you:  The Best Peace Corps Blogs from 2013!
(disclaimer:   This post represents my opinion and my opinion only!  Furthermore, 
I apologize whole-heartedly to those dedicated bloggers who were forgotten 
or omitted from this playful list!  There are just so many of you!)

This is a fun blog about a fun girl in an unusual Peace Corps country.  Follow Brenna as she works in the field of tourism development in Eastern Europe!

A great blog from a very thorough, successful, and "put-together" volunteer.

An adorable married couple who served in Peace Corps Cambodia.  They have been home now for a few months, but all of their pictures and stories are still available online.

Peace Corps in Fiji!  Enough said.

Not updated very often, but look for the January’s post “Being Cold.”  Fantastic!  Interesting to remember that the Peace Corps experience is not always hot and sticky.

Retiree writing!  A funny woman writes from the original Peace Corps country.

Check out “The Mind of a Kenyan Child.”  A very, very, very funny article that holds true for Mozambique, as well.  From another married couple in the Peace Corps!

Good blog, good pictures.  It’s not very often that I say this- but here’s a volunteer of whom I am VERY jealous!  Environmental Education!?  In Madagascar!?  

Mongolia:  My second-most-desired Peace Corps posting.  It’s fascinating to read about this country from a Peace Corps perspective.  

Another married couple in the Peace Corps!  And the girl is a photographer, too! 
Beautiful pictures of Morocco.  

Single girl in Namibia.  Check out the “About Namibia” and “My Assignment” pages.  
This girl is really succinct and informative.

A fantastic travel blog from a young American woman who has been
to more than 30 countries. This is a fun blog to read to read.

A nice blog with nice pictures.  Peru is my number-one-dream Peace Corps country,
so I will admit that I read this entire blog, from start to finish.

A promising blog from a new(ish) volunteer in the Phillipines

Cute musings on West African life from a lovely girl named Lisa.
Like reading a letter from a friend.

South Africa
A blog from some of our South African neighbors!  
A simple blog, but one that updates daily (with pictures!)

Amazing blog from a Peace Corps volunteer living in the Amazon rainforest.  
Anacondas?  Tapirs?  Morning commute by canoe?  Check, check, check!

Lots of words and few pictures.  This is a blog from an older volunteer who served in
Togo from 2010 – 2012.  She’s recently returned home to the United States,
but it’s nice to read about her service from beginning to end. 

I hope you enjoyed some of my favorite blogs from around the world.  Reading Peace Corps blogs is a wonderful way to gain valuable insight into other cultures from well-informed sources around the globe.  To stay updated or to view more blogs, visit Peace Corps Journals.  Stay tuned, and thanks for reading! 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Bwino, All Grown Up

Dan and Bwino:  January 1, 2012; April 1, 2012; February 1, 2013

So Dan and I don't have any kids.  As a couple in our mid-twenties, this is pretty normal by American standards.  It's a little strange here, though.  Most people seem to think that there is something wrong with me.  And if the problem isn't with me, they assume, there must be something wrong with Dan.  Why else would an otherwise healthy 25-year-old woman not have a house full of babies?

I've given up trying to explain my point of view to everyone that I come across.  Lately, I've just been smiling and saying, "Not yet.  We'll see."  Sometimes, though, I take it in another direction.

"Sure," I say.  "I have a child."

"Really?"  They ask.

"I sure do!"

"Where?"  They ask.  "Did you leave him in America?"

"No," I say.  "He's right here."  And I pat Bwino on the top of the head.  "Look how much he looks like his father."

That joke might be a bit old in the United States, but boy, is it considered funny here!

As it is, Dan and I are a couple of very proud parents.  Bwino is now more than a year old and weighs somewhere between 45-50 pounds.  He's a bone-crunching, foot-snuggling menace who hates drunkards and adolescents.  And we couldn't ask for more!

Pumpkin Stew

Now is pumpkin season in Mozambique!

While our pumpkins might not be very big (or very orange), they are still plentiful and nutritious, which means that they are a staple part of the Mozambican diet.  Starting in late December and continuing until mid-March, pumpkins are available in most markets, nation-wide.  And while these pumpkins aren't really much to look at (read:  small, brown, and hard), the vegetable inside tastes familiar, orange, and comforting-- just like the pumpkins back at home.

I can't remember eating a lot of pumpkin when I lived in the United States.  I thought of pumpkin more as a "flavor" than as an actual vegetable.  Outside of the traditional Thanksgiving pumpkin pie and the occasional fancy pumpkin roll, I never really considered pumpkin to be realistic ingredient, much less the basis for an entire meal.  Here in Mozambique, however, the pumpkin is a rainy-season staple.  

So what do you do when your pumpkin doesn't come in a can?  What do you do when your neighbor hands  you a full-grown, uncooked pumpkin, rind, stem and all?  How can you possibly coax a dish out of that crusty-looking gourd?

You get cookin', that's what you do!  Start your oven, light your charcoal, or stoke your trusty mud-brick oven.  Let's all make a pumpkin stew!  This is a recipe your friends will be "vi-'ne" to borrow.  

100 Ways to Cook a Pumpkin:  For more realistic, American-style recipes, visit Endless Simmer

So let's say that you just returned home from the market.  You're carrying five large tomatoes, one onion, one green pepper, one hot pepper, and one giant, uncooked pumpkin.  

"Great," you think to yourself.  "I just spent 66 cents on this giant, uncooked pumpkin.  What on earth did I do that for?  What should I do now?"

Don't fear, young Peace Corps volunteer (or incredibly dedicated reader).  Have I got the recipe for you!  Follow the instructions below to create a simple, hearty basic pumpkin stew with just a few materials.  And for just 10 cents a serving, it won't even "squash" the bank!

Step 1:  Remove the pumpkin rind.  Toss into the yard.
Step 2:  Remove seeds and cut remaining pumpkin into cubes
Step 3:  Put cubes in a pot, fill with water, and set to boil

Step 4:  Cut onion. 
Step 5:  Add garlic
Step 6:  Cut piri-piri (hot pepper).  Just one will do.  
Step 7:  Sauté piri-piri with onion and garlic.
Depending on your level of integration, this can be done with 2 to 45 tablespoons of oil.
Step 8:  Cut tomatoes
Step 9:  And green peppers
Step 10:  Add to the onions, garlic, and piri-piri
Step 11:  Choose your spices.  Note:  The spice on the right is salt, not peanut butter.
Step 12:  Sauté.  (Remember, salt, not peanut butter)
Step 13:  Add cooked pumpkin
Step 14:  Stir until the stew is boiling and looks mushy!
 A teaspoon of pure MSG is optional at this point.
Step 15:  Serve with naan (above) or tortillas
(or rice or noodles or crackers or xima)
Step 16:  Eat!  Best enjoyed on cheap enamel serving-ware whilst all of the neighborhood kids look on
Step 17:  Dessert!  If you are lucky enough to have inherited a toaster oven, try making banana bread!
Every ingredient is available in Mozambique:  Bananas, flour, oil, milk, sugar, baking soda, and eggs.
 Bonus: you can substitute pumpkins for bananas to make a really delicious pumpkin bread!

Bom apetit!

There's never been a better time to "gourdge" on pumpkins.


Monday, February 4, 2013


This past week was a particularly exciting one in the scope of the Peace Corps experience.  This week we spent six long-awaited days in Maputo with the rest of our Peace Corps training group, participating in our Moz 17 Mid-Service Conference.

Peace Corps conferences are HUGE events for Peace Corps Volunteers.  They mean several things, including: 

1.  Paid Public Transportation 
Rather than take ground transportation to Maputo (which can take between 25 and 30 hours), we are flown to the capital (for a total of 2 hours in the air)

2.  Hotels 
For a full week, we have running water, comfortable beds, and air conditioning

3.  Per Diem
We receive cash in hand to make our own decisions when it comes to taking meals.  Usually, we have breakfast and lunch at the hotel and eat dinner on the town

4.  Social Hour
We have lots of free time to spend with other volunteers.  This is especially important, since most volunteers spend the majority of their service living alone or in isolated pairs

There is a difference, of course, between the reasons why we like the conference and the reasons why Peace Corps deems such conferences necessary.  In reality, such luxuries are simply perks.  The Mid-Service Conference is a very purpose-driven event.  The true goals of Mid-Service are as follows:

1.  Medical
Every volunteer is required to take part in their annual medical exam

2.  Dental
And dental exam

3.  Project Ideas, Design, and Implementation
Volunteer have an opportunity to find inspiration and advice from staff members and other volunteers

4.  Brush-Up
Volunteers receive reminders about health and safety, discuss community integration, etc.  Basically, Peace Corps takes this time to ensure that we are still on track and that we are comfortable, safe, and happy at site 

There was also a special component to this year’s Mid-Service Conference, and that was the 1-year anniversary memorial service for Alden Landis and Lena Jenison.  It was a touching way to begin our week-long conference, and reminded all of us (now just 39 volunteers, from an original 51) of our common goals and heartaches. 

The service was tastefully done.  This time, there were no speeches.  Instead, all of the volunteers worked together as a group to plant trees, plant flowers, paint stones, and personalize a mural on the wall at the Peace Corps Maputo Headquarters.  It was the nicest way of remembering.

Jamie and Chris add finishing touches to the mural dedicated to Lena and Alden.
The quote reads, "The love they gave will forever endure."
Mireya paints her square on Lena and Alden's memorial mural
Sara paints a heart in Lena and Alden's memory
Steph decorates her square on the mural
Painting my own square
Laying painted stepping stones in the memorial garden at the PC Maputo office
Dedicating the garden in the memory of Lena and Alden
Our Country Director, Carl, dedicates a plaque in the memorial garden
(picture on right courtesy of Stephanie Newton)

The conference lasted from Monday until Friday.  Mornings were spent in the conference room, discussing projects and goals and challenges.  Afternoons were spent in the dental or medical offices, getting check-ups.  Evenings and nights were free to spend roaming around the capital, getting pizzas and drinks and ice cream cones. 

The best part was the social interaction.  Because Dan and I are so isolated (our nearest Moz 17 volunteers are 6-8 hours away), it felt nice to just be in the presence of some of our very best friends.  Jamie and I giggled and traded secrets.  Steph and I cuddled and watched movies.  Dylan and I made plans to start a band.  I saw friends that I hadn’t seen for more than a year and won’t see for another 8 months in the future.

On our last night together, most of us stayed up late.  Jamie and Dan fell asleep before midnight, but Steph, Hoang, Dylan, and I lay side-by-side on two pushed-together twin beds in the boys’ hotel room. 

“Peace Corps creates a weird social dynamic,” said Dylan, “Doesn’t it?”

“I guess,” I said.  “Clarify.” 

“”Well,” he said, “You spend most of your time in an isolated environment, doing your work.  Then, every month or so, you get together with other volunteers and it feels like a frat party.  Then, very rarely, you get to spend time with everybody all at once.  You have these really intense social interactions,” he swept his eyes over me, Hoang, and Steph, all snuggled together, “and then you go back to being alone.”

And he’s right.  That’s exactly what it is.  Up and down, fast and slow, together and alone.  For two years, anywhere in the world.  It’s a Peace Corps rollercoaster. 

I feel that the Mid-Service Conference is a true benchmark in the Peace Corps experience.  It signals the start of the second year of service (in the words of a fellow volunteer, it should be called the Five-Eighths-of-the-Way-Through Service) and, in many ways, marks the beginning of the end.  We are now starting the first of our “lasts”—our last January, for instance, and our last rainy season.  We are doing our work with ease and self-confidence while viewing our communities with a strange sense of anticipated nostalgia.  Most of us are still counting down toward the end of service (how can you not?  Home is an ocean away), but also appreciating the “lasts” as they come and go.  

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Back to School

It's back to school for the 2013 school year!

Officially, the first day of school was on Monday, January 14.  According to the schedule, the mayor and a few other dignitaries would start the opening ceremony on Monday morning, classes would begin on Tuesday morning, and the school year would be in full swing by Tuesday afternoon.  As per usual, however, we had some trouble gaining momentum.

First day of classes...

On Monday, January 14, Dan and I arrived at the school at 8:30.  The opening ceremony was scheduled to begin at 7:30, but we knew better than to arrive on time.  As it was, the ceremony didn't start until after 10AM.

The day started with a visit from an unknown district councilman.  He yelled for about twenty minutes, then submitted the floor to another district councilman, who yelled for another twenty minutes.  They submitted the floor to a political party leader, who led us all in a rousing rendition of slogans and political statements.  Then the mayor arrived and drowned a baby tree*, delivered another two hour lecture, and marched away to the sound scattered applause.  It was, all in all, a very successful start to our second and final school year in Mozambique.

*  "For every student, a tree; for every school, a forest."  According to a mandatory country-wide initiative, every secondary school student must plant a tree for their school for each year of high school.  While this is a nice initiative in theory, nobody really seems to know how to plant (or care for) trees in Mozambique.  Most trees die in less than one month.  You'd think that, as a Forestry major, I would have the tools to combat this problem.  The truth is, I simply do not care.

How many Mozambique-isms can you find in this photo?  1.  Chefe yelling at the crowd
for no apparent reason  2.  Chefe outfit  3.  Chefe table with tablecloth and fake flowers
4.  100 people crammed into one single classroom  5.  Children staring in the windows

Our second day of school was decidedly less successful.  Dan and I arrived at the school, lab coats and notebooks in hand, only to find that the school was completely empty.  This wasn't a complete surprise.  We went home, then, and took a walk, instead.

On Wednesday, we decided to try again.  I didn't really expect to teach, but I thought that I would take a look inside my classrooms.  To my surprise, I gained a small following of students.

"Are you going to teach us, Teacher?"  They asked.  They seemed so hopeful and earnest that I didn't have the heart to walk away.

"Okay," I said.  "Classroom 7, then."

Upon entering my classroom, though, I found desks and chairs in a muddled state of disrepair.  Luckily, I have learned how to handle such unexpected contingencies.  I put on my chefe hat.*

"First," I said, "You need to clean up this classroom."  I pointed towards some trembling 12-year-old girl.    You... go to that bush and make a broom."  I pointed towards another.  "You... clean the floors."  And another.  "You... move the desks into four rows.  I'm coming back in fifteen minutes."

With that, I turned on my heel and swept away.  When I returned, there were 21 students seated at their desks in a tidy, well-swept, and organized classroom.  Thank goodness.  I don't know what I would have done if there weren't.

*  Not a real hat.  In order to be respected in Mozambique, one must learn to act confident and collected, as one who is accustomed to being in control.  Such behavior is indicative of a true boss, or chefe.  The boss who demands respect, earns respect.

The first day of classes, as seen from the Teacher's Desk

During the first week, I managed to teach one short lesson to each of my four English classes. By the end of the second week, we were running on an (almost) regular schedule. Unfortunately, however, there was a hiccup in my plan for the third week, as Dan and I left our school for Maputo.  Rather than leave a vague assignment for some other teacher to write on the board, I printed two worksheets for each student and packed them neatly in four separate folders.  

"These are my assignments for week three," I told the Director, plucking my imaginary hat out of my pocket and yanking it down over my ears.  "See that each of my students receive their work.  I will be back on February 5th."   

It was, I decided, sauntering out of the office, going to be a very successful year, indeed.

Work left behind for  my eighth-grade English students