January 29, 2014

Most of the world doesn’t understand “9-5”

 I love reading blogs written by other Peace Corps Volunteers. I like to learn how others handle life as a volunteer, and what they learn from their service. I recently came across a really well written blog by a volunteer serving in Kyrgyzstan. Even though much of his experience is completely different from my my own, I found I could relate to a lot of his thoughts. Below is one of his posts:

I recently saw an article floating around my facebook newsfeed disparaging America for refrigerating eggs. People were like, “What the hell, America?! You are so stupid!” And I was like, if we have resorted to criticizing America for refrigerating eggs, that is actually proof of how great America is. “Oh, no civil war? No mass starvation? People aren’t fleeing the country by the millions? Ok, well I guess everything is going pretty—REFRIGERATED EGGS!! OH MY GOD! ALERT THE PRESSES!”

Just imagine: a country so incredible its affluence permits people to spend hours arguing in weblog comment feeds about the proper temperatures for eggs. Few places on this globe allow for such luxury.

                                                  What about turkey eggs?

It’s now after fall break at my village school, and our recently settled schedule has been messed up again. An outbreak of hep A has obliged our director to ban unnecessary movement throughout the school and keep classes in students’ own homerooms. I suspect at least a few of the absentees are cases of great acting rather than a crippling month long illness. “I can’t go to school, mom. I’ve got that thing, I think, that people are talking about, you know, the one where people get to—I mean—have to stay home from school…”

In one particularly bad day of student attendance last spring, I talked my counterpart into taking a little visit together to the “troubled” students’ houses to talk with the parents. While several of them were supportive and said they would do a better job encouraging, what one mother said caught me off-guard. I asked if school was important and she said yes, but that her son was needed to do the farm work so the family could have food.

I know not everyone in America has it altogether easier, and most people work very hard. But if I had to put a number on the average work schedule here, 5am-9pm would be a little more accurate. People work really, really hard, and especially the women since the lack of running water and consistent electricity tends to hit the domestic chores the hardest.

It’s not always the same kind of work we’re used to in the states, assisted by all our time-savers. But people are doing what they need to do in the moment to secure a future. That means when the coal truck comes to town, you stop what you’re doing, go home, negotiate a price, and then spend the next couple hours shoveling it into your shed. Staying warm is kind of a priority in Kyrgyzstan. Yet this disrupts my neat little 9-5 schedule I have all written out for myself, like I thought I was still in the states or something.

We get up, we brush our teeth, we hit the office, take an hour off for lunch, put in a few more hours and then go home to an evening full of whatever we want to do. We press a button and the dishes are magically polished. We flip a switch and are kissed by warm air. Our biggest complaints are re-matching socks from the dryer or that minute rice actually takes five. Now I scrub my clothes with a bar of soap and that’s after hauling the water from a pump down the street. I never realized what a precious gift I was being handed – that precious gift called time.

Time gives us so many opportunities. We can get a second job, help our kids with their homework, volunteer at a food bank, or even surf the web for articles on eggs. Let’s just not forget what grace a 9-5 affords.

January 24, 2014

My Daily Commute

I have always walked to school and now is no different. In total I walk about 5 miles a day to the two schools I work at daily. For the most part I enjoy the walk, I get to say hello to neighbors and exercise at the same time. If I could change one thing, however, I would lessen the incline of some of the hills I am climbing daily. I start off in the morning with this hill on the left. Note that the sun isn't quite up yet, so I can get to the top without breaking a sweat.

Once I am there I get to see a beautiful view as a walk down hill (see below). The walk is not so beautiful on the way back up, under the heat of noon. I will be sweaty and slightly winded by the time I make it to the top.

I take a lunch break at home and then I am on my way again in the opposite direction to the other school. I have to climb another hill, but again I am greeted by a gorgeous view.

A view of the Samaná Bay

So far, all the walking hasn't caused me to be sore, granted we still have yet to have a full week of school. However, I painfully discovered that squatting next to first graders tiny little chairs and table for an entire morning will lead to sore legs. Next week I am going to be pulling up a chair next to my students more often.
Some of the 1st graders

In other news:
  • The grocery store had bacon this week! It was turkey bacon but still delicious.
  • I had my first PCV visitor. It was so nice to have the company of another volunteer, and she taught me some great recipes.
  • I now have a guest bed - just one more reason why you'll should come and visit.

January 10, 2014

Family Withdrawal

"Susan, if you start comparing the Peace Corps to prison, you are going to have a long two years." That's how my friend Sara confirmed my fear that my thoughts were not humorous but depressing. I was going through family withdrawal.

My family visited my in the DR for the holidays, and we had a fantastic time. My dad loved my doña's cooking, my mom overcame her fears and went snorkeling, my brother learned to dance (a little), and my sister became miss popular with the kids in my community after she showed them how to make friendship bracelets. My parents and my brother could only stay a week, and when they left we all cried. My sister stayed a week longer, which helped to ease my family withdrawal but on the eve of her departure I lost my appetite.

The next few days I continued not to eat much, and I spent a large portion of my time sleeping. I knew I was missing my family so I decided to read a book to get my mind off of them. I chose to read Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, which is a memoir about one women's year in prison. I thought it would be the perfect book to read, and I was very wrong. Almost immediately I began to make parallels between prison and Peace Corps.* By the time I finished the book I had thought of over a dozen commonalities. Here are the highlights:

 1. Separation from family and friends This is what started my trip down the rabbit hole. Kerman's description of her need to communicate with her family to keep her sane was relatable. In prison there are visiting hours, monitored phone calls, and letters. In Peace Corps there are weekly phone calls and emails, sporadic skype dates, and maybe once or twice a year a visit with family.

I also related to her sense of guilt because she was the cause of the separation. Many volunteers battle with doubt - Was it the right choice to join Peace Corps?, Is it worth it?, Is it fair to our loved ones back home?  Ultimately the majority of us push away the doubt and keep on working, in part thanks to the support our families and friends give us. Thanks for the reassurance!

2. Holidays are a big deal Holidays just are not the same without the family so in both prison and Peace Corps an effort is made to make these annual events fun and keep our minds off our loved ones.

3. Feeling disconnected from the outside world In her memoir Kerman writes about her desire to get a transistor radio so she can keep up with the latest music she keeps reading about in magazines. I too have thought about getting a radio for the same purpose. Most of my current pop music knowledge comes from listening to the music reviews on Fresh Air with Terri Gross. What a sad statement.

4. Care packages In both prison and Peace Corps care packages can make a person's day. They are a sign that someone out in the real world hasn't forgotten us. In both places one is also expected to share the love with others and pass any candy found inside.

5. Making unexpected friends In prison you don't get to choose your cellmates and likewise in Peace Corps you typically don't know any other volunteers until the night before you arrive in country. My Peace Corps friends and I often joke that the chances of us being friends in America would have been slim-to-none. This is in my opinion, one of the best things about Peace Corps. It is great to make connections with host country nationals but it is just as important to form bonds with other Americans.

The friends I have made in Peace Corps have made life in the DR easier. They have been there for the good and the bad, and are always ready to give me a reality check when I start comparing service to incarceration. If you meet a Peace Corps volunteer you should become friends with them - they make great friends - although we do tend to be a little crazy, but then again, you have to be a little crazy to join the Peace Corps.


Once Sara helped bring me back to reality my withdrawal symptoms began to recede. By the first day of school I was ready to get back into the swing of things. The students, however, had a different idea. In the morning there were 10 (out of 80+) students at school. In the afternoon not a single kid showed up. Apparently they had not had their fill of Christmas Break. I was told not to bother coming back to school until next week, when apparently school will truly start. I'll keep you posted on how the first real week of school goes.

*Of course there are many, many differences between prison and the Peace Corps places such as the obvious difference that people willing choose to join Peace Corps vs being taken to prison by the police. Also my experience in Peace Corps are completley different from those of other volunteers, even those within the DR.