Peace Corps Part Deux!

Dear Guinea,

Is it too soon to say, “I love you?”  Because I kind of think I …might.  How’s that for commitment? 

But can you really blame me?  Don’t play the fool, Guinea, you know you’ve been doing your letter best this whole time to persuade me of your affection.  Strutting your bright colors and vivid smiles; greeting me on the streets with genuine affection shining in your eyes.  Don’t tell me you do that for all the new guests, it just might break my heart, but that’s just your kind nature.  All the more to admire.  Tell me you really mean it -that your languages will soon be gliding off my tongue and your people will accept me as Sister.  I sort of liked you from the moment I awoke.  The night I arrived I was pummeled by your humid, dripping, heat; the two days of intermittent sleep made me wobbily and dizzy, but perhaps I really was swooning.  Yours is a rough and rugged beauty of someone who knows how to work and who’s nature shines through.  No, but that morning, that morning when I was greeted with a bean sandwich–a delicacy I knew, but somehow you made it your own.  Well, I kind of felt at home.

So here’s to us!  Here’s to you and me and nine beautiful months of projects, accomplishments, and friendship.

Yours,

Elizabeth

You know when you plan something for the future, part of you kind of thinks it won’t actually happen?  I do.  Every time.  I somehow convince myself that time will sort of bend and keep me perpetually preparing.  When I was 12, I heard of the Peace Corps.  I told myself I was going to do Peace Corps.  I told everyone I knew I was going to do Peace Corps.  And then last year…I did Peace Corps.  Not only did the time come, but, more surprisingly, it went!

I never really figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up.  When I was really little, I was going to be a singer.  Like, a really famous singer.  I was going to do duets with Eric Clapton–that kind of singer, okay?  Well, one problem with that:  My biggest fear of all is singing in front of other people.  My throat closes up, and the throat plays a pretty big role in singing, for all of you non-singers.  So, okay, not so much a professional singer, but a doctor.  Yes, a doctor.  The problem?  I faint.  I faint a lot.  The sight of something that belongs in the body outside of the body; or the sight of anything that should never be in a body, in a body, well, I collapse on the ground.  As far as I know, doctors need to be conscious to be truly effective.  So that’s out.  Lawyer?  There we go!  Non-profit lawyer.  But, man, the bureaucracy!  The burn out.  The student debt!  Yeah, that’s out.

I always just assumed, took for granted really, that the next step would reveal itself to me “in the Peace Corps.”  Like it was some kind of magical realm where I would discover myself, or to be honest, I would be transformed into the person I wish I was.  And that didn’t really happen.  Not in Cameroon.  Don’t get me wrong, I grew so much.  I’m so much more the person I want to be because of my life in Cameroon, but I still felt rather directionless, as if so many possibilities felt so tangible, so desirable.  If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may remember my Tell All post right before my Close of Service, Liz: Full Frontal.  It was a very honest self-evaluation of my service.  I admitted to not measuring up to my ideal, of making mistakes, of not risking enough, while at the same time being everything I could at that time.  Well, on Friday, this Friday, I’m moving to Guinea.   I’m doing Peace Corps, again, as a Response Volunteer for 9 months.  I know that this experience is completely different from my first two years with Peace Corps; my expectations are realistic, and yet, my hopes, well, they’re limitless.

Perhaps part of me is seeing this as my second chance.  My second chance to be and do something amazing, but older, wiser, learned, to hit the ground running and fully allow myself to integrate.  I commit, this time, to hand over myself to my new culture completely.  I feel so ready this time in a way that I couldn’t have been before to let down the walls that I have cemented around myself for so long.

I’m also sort of freaking out.  But that’s okay.

I have a friend who is moving to China today.  I’m reading her blog posts and her Facebook statuses and I’m so happy to know I’m not really alone in these feelings.  Our experiences are different, but I bet our anxieties are rather similar.  It’s nice to have a sense of companionship, even if it’s just in your head, to get you on that plane.

I met a new friend last week.  I really opened up to him, and he said, “You know, Liz, seeing you online with your adventures and the things you’ve done gives you an image of fearlessness, but talking with you in person shows a more vulnerable side.”  I was really opening myself up and showing my fears, my anxieties, that are constant, believe me.  Pretty much anyone who has spent time with me in person knows that I have really bad vertigo, but like to hike–even if it means having three panic attacks on my way down a mountain and yet will jump out of an airplane with hardly a second thought.  You can ask my friends, I was cool as a cucumber.  It’s very paradoxical, or maybe I’m just crazy.

I get so scared of doing things.  It’s not as bad as it was when I was younger and felt nauseated about going to school every morning, afraid of making a fool of myself, afraid of getting in trouble, afraid of…being noticed.  But inside there’s this really intense need to see what else is out there.  Need to know what I don’t know.  Need to feel, touch, smell, taste it, live it.  I’m not entirely sure if it’s a healthy need, but it’s my need, and it’s stronger than any amount of fear or any Vagus nerve reaction, so this is my life.  Right now.

I listened to a really great story this morning from The Moth called “A Crushing Connection”.  In it, the guy, this adventurous guy who hikes and climbs mountains and roughs it in the woods all over the world to fulfill this need to connect with life, gets trapped beneath a gigantic boulder.  His legs are crushed and he can’t move.  His hiking partner goes for a search party, leaving him alone for over 24 hours to contemplate his lot.  He describes feeling angry at himself, asking himself why?  Why isn’t life at home enough?  Sitting at home and playing Xbox, watching the game with his mates, why isn’t that enough for him?  Oh yeah, that connection, the need to connect.  And, trapped under a rock in a river bed, he found himself pretty connected.  He didn’t lose his conviction and goes on to be very adventurous.  I loved listening to this story because I ask myself those questions all the time.  When I’m about to leave my home and family and friends to move to a country I’ve never been, with people I’ve never met, over and over again, I ask myself, why?  When I’m having a panic attack at the top of a mountain in Cameroon because the fog has set in and we’re not exactly following the path we came up, and my guy friend has to hold my shaking hand the entire way down, I ask myself, why?  When I’m face to face with hippos, wondering if this is how it ends, I ask myself, why, Liz, why?  Why did you put yourself in this situation, why isn’t the option of not doing these things enough?  Can’t you just get a job and sit still for awhile?  Well, it’s that need.  Seems like after a few months, that little, tiny whisper of a new adventure tickles my mind, then becomes more concrete, more colorful, with time, becomes real, becomes a plan, becomes a plane ticket to leave on Friday.

I’m going back into the Peace Corps on Friday.  My 12 year-old self is ecstatic, again.  I’m going back to Africa.  I’m one step closer to my future, my life.  And that woman I always wanted to be?  I’m already her.

Liz Gets Schooled

Hello, my lovelies.  How I’ve missed you!

I come with, what seems on the surface to be “bad”news.  A couple weeks ago I sealed my beloved Peace Corps Passport, a long with two copies of an application for a visa to Guinea, and four passport photos of yours truly into a UPS 2nd day air mail envelope and shipped off to DC in good faith.  On August 24, I did a routine search through my Spam folder just to see if anything important got sucked into there by mistake, and I see two emails from “UPS” with the headings “Your package cannot be delivered” and the like.  I panic, but when I open the email it becomes obvious to me that these emails are spam using my recent search history to bait me into opening them.  Still, worried, I went to the official UPS site and tracked my package and saw that all was well, and it would be delivered the next day.

I logged off and thought nothing more of it.  Until..

Last Thursday I was sitting in the waiting room of the travel clinic to get my Typhoid “booster” when I get a call from my Response Recruiter, Jill.  She is wondering if I’ve sent my Visa application.  My stomach drops.  Turns out my package was in fact lost.  Remember, my package was not lost when I received those bogus emails, but afterward, and yet here I was calling (harassing) UPS customer service centers all over kingdom-come.  I tracked it’s last known whereabouts in Davenport, Ia.  Kathy, the service rep, was simply heavenly.  I could hear her searching through their “overhead,” but for not.  She does assure me that she’ll do everything she can to find it.

I called Jill worrying that this was going to affect my chances of being a Response volunteer.  She assures me that I will still go, but may have to postpone my departure to the end of October.  I admit, I was very sad for two reasons.  I was so emotionally ready to be off again, and I loved that passport.  This was the passport that I backpacked across Africa.   All those lovely stamps!  I wanted to keep it as a souvenir.  I loved to proudly flip through those pages and look at all my visitor’s visas.  That was an accomplishment I hoped to share with my future children to plant that wanderlust seed in their hearts.  So please, if you are reading this, pray, wish on a star, think positive vibes, cast a spell, whatever that the passport is found and returned to me. Even if I don’t get it back in time to get the visa for Guinea to leave in September, I do hope to have it back.

Now I have begun to make peace with staying State-side for another month, however reluctantly.  I’m trying very hard to change my perspective on this, to be more positive and hopeful that this is all for the best.

Remember in my last post how I was trying to figure out how much to spill in this blog?  (If not, then scroll down).  Basically, I’ve begun to realize that as a writer, you have to make a conscious decision on how much you are willing to give away.  Personally, I would write my entire story, all thoughts, sins, and snarky comments for you to judge, but when your life includes other people you have to be discrete.  My words can hurt them.  That being said, I’m going to try to write simply from my perspective, without crossing any boundaries or embarrassing anybody I care about.  Here goes.

This summer shall forever remain ingrained in my memory as “the Ex Files 2012.”  No, we’re not talking about science fiction, as much as I love the genre.  All I will say that any guy from my past with whom I have held any sort of residual feeling came back into my life and then very promptly became completely unavailable to me.  I tried to maintain active friendships with them, but lines were blurred and feelings were confused.  And now geographically as well as emotionally, they are completely out, for the time being.  It literally happened in such a methodical way that it cannot be a coincidence.  While emotionally exhausting for me to have to say my final goodbyes, it has also been very cleansing.  It is like Life/the Universe/Whom-or-What-Ever has been cleaning house in my heart, making room for something (or someone) truly wonderful so that I can dedicate my whole self, free of baggage.  When I look on this transition in this way, I feel hopeful and…excited.  Possibilities.  Freedom.

Being in Cameroon on my own (which included replacing my shower and the pipes in my bathroom sink, taking care of rodents the cat brought in, and burying beloved kittens) showed me how strong I was.  I could live in a gigantic four-bedroom house in the middle of a foreign country alone, and thrive, even when I would wake up at 3am because of scary noises.  I could do it.  I also survived a dangerous encounter with three hippopotami, went sky diving, and continued to accomplish what I set out to do.  I can look back on these past few years with so much pride, and truly begin to believe in myself, as a person–not someone’s girlfriend or daughter or student, but as an adult.  This is huge.

I am determined to continue to work on myself.  I would love to try to eliminate jealousy, to love freely, to fight and argue in a loving way–without drudging up old resentments.  I’m not sure how, but I think Guinea is a part of this journey.  Also, as much as I was hoping to get out of Iowa and move on with this new, exciting adventure, I’m being given an opportunity to spend more time with my family (even if we’ve been getting on each other’s nerves), to work on my art, to prepare for applications that I am taking with me to Guinea for jobs/opportunities after this nine-month commitment.  The truth is, I don’t think I’ll “come home” again.  My parents are very welcoming when it comes to housing me during my “in between” times, but it’s time I find my own apartment in a new city and really start my life and shed these old dynamics.

So here I am given two gifts: the gift of a cleansed heart and the gift of time with my family.  I will not take these for granted.

People look for signs all the time.  My signs have been so obvious lately that even I can’t miss them.  Every single person I’ve talked to about my experiences have relished in my stories and insisted that I continue on this path.  I’ve been told by so many that I should put off settling down for having more adventures and that “all of that will come on its own time.”  I have to listen to them, these wise men and women.  Deep down inside, I have a slight gnawing fear that I am putting off settling down, have pushed away relationships to pursue a dream.  I’m scared that I will one day wake up and find myself alone, without family, too old to start one.  I think this fear comes from the conditioning we receive in this society to be coupled up.  While I am perfectly open to being in love and being a partner again, for now, at least, I’m content with what I have.  I just read a book called Singled Out by Bella DePaulo.  It was delightful and empowering, and really made me conscious to a lot of my own prejudices.  I highly recommend it.  I will think about doing a full review of it in another post.  But something I took away from it is that women have been taught to have this deep fear of “having it all,” and deep down believe it’s not possible.  It’s time we let go of that fear of future regret and just live as fully and lovely as possible.  I mean, how can you go wrong if you do this?  So, okay Universe, I trust you completely.

All in all, lessons learned:  Trust that the decisions you carefully made were the right ones.  Learn to let go–of resentments, jealousies, people, and yes, sometimes love.  You have to make room for good things to come into your life, and while this is painful, it will be entirely worthwhile.  And, finally, the UPS has way too many passports sitting around in their overhead that they evidently do not return to their owners.

Much love.

Yours, Liz

Liz: Full Frontal

Isn’t it just like me to disappear from the Blog World and come back just to completely bare all for you?  Yes, it is.

Where have I been all this time?  Has nothing been happening?  Well, actually everything has been happening, and I can’t seem to process any of it.

My orphanage project is still in the fundraising phase.  Do you want to know the truth?  I’m terrified.  I’m terrified I will not be able to raise the money.  I’m afraid to get everybody’s hopes up for nothing.  I’m afraid that all the donations all you wonderful people have made will come to nothing.  That I will fail you.  Fail the kids.  And maybe worst of all, fail myself and the image I have of the volunteer I should have been.

You join the Peace Corps knowing that you’re in it for two years plus training.  You tell yourself you’ve got the stamina and perseverance to make it through those two long years.  To say goodbye to all you know and love for something new and unknown.  Family, friends, lovers, foods, even language are left behind so that you can “make a difference” in the world.

But what no one tells you is that two years isn’t too long; it’s too short.  At least, for me.  Not because I love it so much, but because it has taken me this long to define my experience and define myself as a volunteer.  It has taken me this long to become comfortable in this new skin, to grow into this new person.

What am I talking about?  Well, I came here with an idea of who I was supposed to be.  I came here with all these expectations.  But how could I?  How could I know who I needed to be and what I needed to do when I didn’t know anything about this place: how it works, how it doesn’t work, and how I would react?  I’m a different person than I was two years ago.  How could I not be?

Along with everything else, my definition of a Peace Corps volunteer has also changed.  I realize now that there are so many ways in which a volunteer can be successful and have an impact; that success doesn’t have a rigid definition either.  And, most importantly, I’ve learned what kind of volunteer I am.  And now, it’s time for me to close up my projects and get ready for my replacement.  And as reasonable as I can be with myself, I can’t help but feel like a failure, and see all the ways in which my replacement will see me as a failure.

There are a lot things that I did (and didn’t do) that do not make sense, unless you were here to witness every event and everyday.  Why didn’t I work with the agroforestry guy who lives up the road from me?  Because early in my service he made it clear he wanted to start a relationship with me (even though he’s married and even though he tried the same thing with my predecessor) and when I explained that I was not interested and was only here for the work and cultural experience, I never heard from him again.  (Except that day he ran into me in front of a group of men from the agricultural delegation and he continued to berate me for “abandoning” him and my responsibilities as a volunteer.  That was a great day.)  How can I explain that there were days (more than I will ever admit to) when I couldn’t leave my house and desperately hoped that no one would stop by because I just couldn’t face anybody?  That I could not take being called “The White” one more time; that I wanted some anonymity when walking to the market to buy my groceries.  You will never know how taxing it is to have every movement you make noticed, to walk down the street and have unwelcomed comments thrown at you, to be criticized (your body, your accent, your behavior) and scrutinized until you feel that hardly anybody actually can see you for who you are, and even less are interested in making the effort.

Everyday you are reduced to your image and whatever connotations that person has of that image.  You must strike the balance between generosity without letting people suck you dry; you must learn to greet everybody in the street (even though some will ignore you or insult you or tell you to go home) because you are not just you, but a representation of your heritage, your country; you must develop a thick skin because even your closest friends will insult you, and you them.  And you must learn to forgive yourself, because there will be days when you retreat into the safety of your home, the expatriate community, the Hilton for Happy Hour, you will lose your temper and flip people the bird or tell them to get stuffed, you will fall off the exercise wagon, you will cry, you will stumble, you will fall in front of everybody.  But that’s okay, because you’re human…and so am I.

So did I make a difference in the world?  I think I did, in some small way.  Writing my description of service has reminded me of all I have accomplished, and all the truly wonderful people I’ve met, fellow volunteers, Cameroonians, and Couch Surfers.  But one thing I can answer in all honesty is that the world made a difference in me.  And this new me will continue to affect the world and so on.  I guess that’s what growth and evolution is all about.

Orphanages, complaining, and honey

Rocking out to 80s Box Set.  Nice.

First off, some begging.  Please subscribe to my blog, send on to friends, save and read, read, read.  Thank you kindly.

That said, I have some good news.  Regarding my Orphanage/Center for children with Disabilities:  The prefet of Baham has agreed to hold a conference with the elites to give us the neighboring parcel of land.  Brilliant.  Not only this, we found an engineer who surveyed the land and sent his plans to an architect, for a much better price.  Zacharie (director) took out a loan to pay for it himself.  Sustainability.  By next week, could the proposal be sent to Peace Corps administration for approval?  Does this mean that in two weeks it will be posted on the website, open for all to send in what they will?  Let’s hope!  We have our work cut out for us to put these buildings up and children inside, but I have faith that we can do it.

Now for a little gentle bitching.  I work in a community of 50,000 people (at least) and this means that I cannot work with everyone all the time.   In my village it is normal to give someone a hard time if you haven’t seen them for a couple days.  For instance, you might say to someone, “You’ve abandoned me!  I never see you!”  Well, I’m getting sick of it, frankly.  I know they mean nothing by it, but how dare someone who hardly knows you to try to insinuate that you’ve abandoned your work, when you’ve been working on several projects like I have.  Well, I’m just going to start doing it to people myself.  Giving it out, instead of absorbing the negativity all the time.  Will I be a tougher, newer, improved Liz after this experience.  I certainly hope so!

And finally, I leave you with a photo taken this week during an apiculture class given to a group I work with by CIPCRE a pretty awesome organization in Bafoussam.  Go bees!

Alphonse and Jean Daniel demonstrate modern beekeeping with Kenyan Hives.

On Being Sick in the Peace Corps-Africa-style!

Someone once told me that Peace Corps volunteers who serve in Africa are often known as the “snobs” of the Peace Corps world.  Someone who served in Romania might recount what it was like to have the flu during service, but heaven forbid if this person tells this story in front of RPCV-African country because surely they will then hear, “Yeah, that reminds me of when I got MALARIA…”  Commence eye-rolling, please.  But it’s kind of true.  Currently there is a Cholera epidemic in Cameroon, and there have recently been cases here in the West Region.  Wednesday night I woke up with projectile vomiting and…well…other things as well…that lasted well into Thursday night.  I thought for sure, “Yep, it’s the Cholera.  I’ve got the Cholera.  Please don’t let me die.”  But it wasn’t.  I went to the hospital for some tests just in case, but nope must have been a virus.  You know the kind of sickness that comes around about once a year that you normally think nothing of….   No, here in tropical Africa, everything is Cholera; everything is Typhoid; everything is Malaria.

But sometimes it is those things.  Several of my friends have had malaria (even the ones who take their prophylaxis religiously).  Often, if you are taking your prophylaxis you will find that while painful, and all around sucky, you will survive especially if you get to the med center and commence treatment in a timely manner.  Other things, not necessarily as dangerous, but still quite unique to my situation are: chiggars (nasty insect which burrows into your skin, often feet, and then lays an egg sack and continues to swell 90% of her original size.  This sucker itches.  She doesn’t suck the blood.  Oh no.  She releases a toxin that basically dissolves your skin which she then eats up.  You must cut open and squeeze her and all her millions of babies out.  I have had 3.)  Mango flies (These babies like to lay their eggs in your wet clothes hanging outside.  You then take your dry clothes and put them on.  Several days later you notice a worm wriggling around just under your skin.  You then faint.  Only way to avoid these is to let your clothes dry for 4 days without touching them, or iron.)  Intestinal worms.  (Yeah we all know these, and yep I had them.  Best to regularly de-worm yourself as often as you do the family pet.)  Driver ants.  (Horrible beasts!  These wandering nomads will eat anything in their way, including elephants.  They burrow into your skin and eat you inside out.  I have had numerous attacks of my house which I won by constantly having a bottle of Raid near by.  One encounter happened at night at my friend Julie’s house.  I went out to use her latrine and noticed a few ants.  A few minutes later while chatting in her kitchen, my right leg suddenly felt on fire.  My pants flew off as I ran around the house shaking and smacking my leg.  She was amused.)

So there ya have it.  Some scary little buggars which will keep you up at night ;).  But all in all, it’s really not that bad in real life as it reads in print.  After all, just 12 hours ago I thought I had Cholera.  I just got back from a jog, and feel fantastic.  Let’s be vigilant, not dramatic.  😀