Tuesday, November 12, 2013

We Made It!

It seems only fitting to title my last blog in country the same as my first: “We made it”. I initially wrote those words to indicate that we had safely landed in Mozambique. At the time, just getting on the plane instead of running in the opposite direction with arms flailing, was a huge accomplishment in itself. Now this title has a new meaning as I can proudly say we’ve made it through 27 months of service as Peace Corps Volunteers. And so comes the time for a reflective end-of-service blog which I’m finding is not so easy to do. How can I sum up everything I’m feeling as I start the process of looking back on this experience as a whole? To be honest, I don’t think I’ll be able to put all of the sadness, excitement, confusion, optimism, worry, and anticipation into words. But perhaps a good way to talk about the end is to start at the beginning. I don’t believe I’ve given much of an explanation as to how we ended up here in the first place.  

Back in 2010 when we applied to Peace Corps, we were at a crossroads. Well really, it started a couple of years even before that. We could feel we were settling into the rest of our lives with steady jobs and a rented place in the suburbs.  The time to cement ourselves down that route seemed to be upon us. All we needed to do was buy a house and start our family, both things we knew we wanted but had a nagging feeling there was something more we needed to do first.  So we looked for jobs in different states and daydreamed about ways of changing course. Ideas and possible opportunities came and went, but nothing seemed to stick. Then Chris took a 2 week trip to Cameroon with Engineers Without Borders, his first visit to Africa since living there as a baby almost 30 years prior. He and a team of engineers went to a small village to construct wells.  He brought up the discussion of applying to Peace Corps within the first week of returning home. The funny thing was, I had this feeling while he was in Cameroon that the trip would spark something for us. Like those years of searching for a different direction would culminate into this. Maybe even lead to Peace Corps.  But fear of jumping into a decision so large wouldn’t let that idea bubble past my subconscious. For as long as I can remember, I admired people who lived in far off places for long periods of time or really anyone who found a way to live successfully off the beaten path most take. I just thought I wasn't adventurous enough to do it myself. I was intrigued by the idea of Peace Corps specifically for several years. Before meeting Chris, I had heard of the organization but didn’t look further into what it was until learning about his family history, but again figured it wasn’t something I could hack. Then a friend returned home from PC service in Swaziland, and talking about her experience prompted us to entertain the idea of going together for the first time.  We looked at the PC website to learn more about it when we discovered that it required a 2 year commitment.  Being only a couple of years out of college and finally feeling comfortable in our first “real” jobs, it wasn’t something we wanted to do at the time. The lure of finding our success in corporate America weighed out.  Then a few years later, we could not shake the feeling that there was an adventure we were missing and no promotion or salary increase could replace it. So Chris brought up Peace Corps again when calling from his cubicle to mine. Actually, I was driving back to work from lunch break and it was a good thing I was alone.  I screamed and I cried and said no way, “we can’t go. WE HAVE CATS FOR GOD’S SAKE!”. Chris calmly explained that if I felt that strongly about not going, then we shouldn’t go because to do something like this, you have to be fully committed and really want to do it. I hung up the phone and asked myself, why did I have such a strong reaction to this proposal? What is it, really, that made me freak out? Looking back now, I think in the instant Chris brought it up, I knew my answer was yes, we should apply to Peace Corps. But the fear of knowing our lives would change completely once we committed, well that’s why my head started to spin. Instead of admitting I wanted to do it too but had some understandable worries about making such a big decision, I masked my worries in defense and anger. Over the next week we talked, and talked and talked some more to each other and to his parents who had already gone through the experience as a married couple.  Finally I said, “well it can’t hurt to talk to a recruiter”. That day we had a 3-hour drive back from visiting Chris’ family in Pittsburgh to our home in Columbus, where we plotted out every detail of our Peace Corps plan from quitting our jobs, to packing up the house, what we’d do when we returned, and of course the cats (shout out to my Mom for adopting them while we’ve been gone!). That same evening in August 2010, we sat down with a latte in Barnes & Noble and started the arduous Peace Corps application process and never looked back. The “submit” button was hit that September and exactly a year later, we were on a plane to Mozambique. And now it's November 2013 and we're coming to the end of our journey.

Sitting in Barnes & Noble that day, I could never have imagined how I’d feel at this moment or the person I’d become over 3 years later. Peace Corps allowed me to do so many things that I wanted to do my whole life, even some far-reaching goals I wasn’t sure I’d ever really attain. From living abroad and learning a new language to becoming a reader and living near a beach. I’m not saying you should do Peace Corps if you’re trying to fulfill life goals or scratch items off a bucket list. Investing in Rosetta Stone or moving closer to the pacific ocean would be a much easier way to go. No, do Peace Corps because you want to be inspired, you want to be tested and during your service you just might find you’ve attained some personal objectives too. But you will miss major life events of loved ones; Engagements and weddings, births and funerals. You will get sick, you will be dirty for days on end even after your bucket bath, you will have to lower your standards on things, and you will ask yourself what the hell you are doing here. But you will find strength and patience you never knew you had and an immense satisfaction and personal growth you never knew was possible. You’ll get to fulfill that desire of stepping off the beaten path and writing a new chapter in your life. And I can tell you all of it, the good and bad, will be worth it or as they say here “Valeu, pah!”.

So here we are at the end. We landed in Maputo on Sunday to start the official COS (close of service) process which involves lots of medical checks and admin paperwork, and gives us one more chance to enjoy the capital with other volunteers. We said goodbye to Mapinhane on Friday after attempting to wrap up our life there in only a couple of weeks. We spent quality time with the students and teachers who meant the most to us, said goodbye to community members, packed up the house, and hosted a PCV goodbye party.  The exiting process here doesn’t feel nearly as dramatic as it did when we left the U.S.  Maybe because we always knew it wasn’t permanent and that we’d be familiar with what we were going back to while when coming to Moz, we had to jump into the complete unknown. Even with this though, the day of departure was still a bit emotional for me as I looked through our house one last time, thinking of memories made and how far we had come. The house seemed like an uncomfortable, unfamiliar basement when we first arrived but was transformed into our cozy little home. So my heart and tear ducts swelled a bit when we locked the door for the last time. I even got choked up when giving a final hug to our school director before getting in the car to leave.  But the transition was soothed by spending one last weekend in our favorite beach town, Vilankulo, our faithful source over the past 2 years for choice food items and a stellar beach. It was a relaxing weekend with dips in the Indian Ocean and time spent with friends before getting on a plane and waving goodbye to Inhambane province. We have only a few more things to do before getting our official “R” status, making us RPCVs (RETURNED Peace Corps Volunteers) from here on out.  From there, we are going on a final celebratory trip to Greece and touching down in the U.S. of A. on November 25th. Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities await us and after that, well…we’re not sure. We’re looking into job possibilities and maybe grad school options too (for Chris) and think we want to make a move towards Washington D.C. but nothing is certain yet. What we are certain of is that although we leave Mozambique this week, it won’t be forever. We talk about returning some day and what it will be like to remember the people and places that made the mosaic of this time. And we talk about taking our children here to show them a country we’ve grown to love and one that became our home. So here’s to seeing you all on the other side of this experience. We may not know exactly what that other side looks like for us yet, but we do know that Mozambique and our time here will be carried along with us. Always.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Miss List

While I have this blog to share my thoughts publicly, I wanted to record some things down just for me. This past weekend I took a walk down memory lane by flipping through the pages of my journal. I’ve kept random journals here and there throughout my life but never for an extended period of time. Knowing these would be a pivotal two years, I’ve faithfully scribed in it since waiting for the plane to take off in NYC over 2 years ago. The pages display a range of emotions, describing times when I felt on top of the world and moments where I go off on a rant in frustration. It’s really a testament to the highs and lows of Peace Corps service, changing hourly when you first arrive in country then leveling off as time goes on.  I could type out a few excerpts from entries, but what I thought would be most fun is to share my running list on the back pages of my flowery notebook. It’s titled “things that seem normal now but won’t be in the U.S. (I suspect)”. I started it shortly after getting to site and was eating fresh coconut with a pocket knife as a daily snack.  One day in my coconut bliss, I thought, ok, this is not normal. I won’t be able to do this when I get home. So it began that way but it quickly morphed into a “things I will miss when I get back to the U.S.” list. It’s easy to get excited about the obvious luxuries I’m going back to very soon (living with electricity and running water, owning a car, a plethora of food options, customer service etc., etc.) and the things I won’t miss here (crappy transportation, zero privacy, sharing a house with an army of ants etc., etc.). But since I’m spending only a few more weeks in this Moz life, I’m focusing on the things I’ll be sad to say goodbye to.  Here’s what I think they’ll be:

-Using my porch as a bathroom. I brush my teeth and wash my face there, and take my mirror outside to use the natural sunlight. No sink, no light bulbs, no problem.

-The unbelievable starry sky. It looks just like the dome of a planetarium I’d go to on a field trip as a kid; Stars twinkling and shooting, galaxies swirling. It makes for good entertainment while brushing my teeth on the porch.

-Having the time and motivation to cook from scratch. I liked cooking before, but having the time to hone my cooking skills here made me realize I actually love it. You’ve gotta get creative when there aren’t a lot of food options and all your cravings need to be made from scratch. I really want to keep this up when I get home, but worry the convenience of pre-packaging and a faster-paced lifestyle may throw a wrench in my plans.

-Speaking of, the slow pace of life here will be missed. It can certainly cause annoyance sometimes but overall, it’s a pretty awesome way to be. Much less stress, I sleep well, you have the time to just chill and reflect. A lot.

-An amazing assortment of tropical fruits. Mangoes and coconuts are cheap and easy to come by and I love ‘em! I’m guessing I can buy them fresh at Whole Foods for a billion times more than I can get them here and nowhere near as fresh (i.e. the mangoes come from the tree in my front yard!)

-Having almost no work stress. I actually really love teaching so that helps. But for the few bad days I do have, I’m able to let it go once I get home. This was definitely not the case in my past job. I’m also a volunteer so I’m only getting paid for my living expenses but not my work. It changes the game when you’re working solely because of your motivation, not dollar signs. And the stakes just aren’t as high when money isn’t a factor so that means the stress just isn’t as high. And I haven’t even mentioned that I’m off every Friday, I work about 24 hours a week, and I get to wear casual clothes to work. Uh, yeah, it’s gonna be tough to go back to the grind…

-A cozy, quite sleep. I sleep better here than ever before. I think it’s the quiet of no electricity and that less stress thing.

-My arm hair is white all year round (as opposed to only in the summer) from the African sun! A small perk but one I’ll miss.

-Finding time every day to get to truly relax.

-The backdrop of an African landscape. Barefoot children, baobab tress and reed huts are the norm on my hikes and runs.  It’s no longer a foreign scene, but something I’ve grown very accustomed to.

-Using sand and a stick as pen and paper. If you’re having a casual convo outside, it’s common practice to pick up a stick and draw or write in the sand to help outline your point. I love the simplicity of it.

-Time and patience to read. A goal I aspired to when coming here was to become a reader and now at
21 books read in 2 years, I consider myself to be one! I always desperately wanted to read but just couldn’t find the self-discipline to finish more than one or two books a year. But when you’ve got lots of time, no TV and minimal distractions, it’s easier to get through a book. There’s a wide range of literature floating around the PCV network. I’ve read quite a variety from Catcher in the Rye and the Huger Games trilogy, to Breakfast of Champions and The Help.

-Avocados. Oh man how I love avocados. When the season arrives, I incorporate them into dinner on a daily basis (much to Chris’ chagrin by the end of the season). They grossed me out back home, but I wonder if it’ll be different when I return. I’m thinking avos here are far superior.

-Forcing myself to be adventurous. All the time. I’m someone who generally plays it safe, but there is just no other option when living with limited means in a developing country.  When I applied to PC, I noted in my application essay that I wanted to “step out of my comfort zone”. Uh yeah, that happened repeatedly.

-The quiet.  Being away from the city life and electricity is peaceful. 

-Speaking Portuguese. As difficult as it was at times, I think it’s pretty cool that I can speak another language if I do say so myself!  Unfortunately, not practicing regularly as I’m forced to do here means my Port skills will probably go downhill. But hey, at least Chris and I can talk about you and you won’t know what we’re saying :)

-The people, of course. Not just Mozambicans and their positive vibes in general, but many of my wonderful students, colleagues, and PCV friends who have become like family.

-Living so close to nature. Sometimes we feel like we’re literally living outside, so we made up a little theme song that goes “we’re camping for 2 years!” Our house is kind of like a rustic cabin in the woods or living in a screened-in porch. It can have its downsides at times but we generally sing it with a smile.

-Doing something and being someone different than the norm. It’s why people here are interested in me and why you back home are interested in reading my blog. What am I going to talk about now???

-Living so close to the beach that it’s no longer a big deal. This Ohio girl always thought she’d live near the ocean someday, but definitely not the Indian Ocean.

-Letting go of vanity. Mirrors, good lighting and hairdryers are hard to come by, and how can you keep up appearances in 100 degree heat and no A/C anyway? I don’t think I’m a complete mess here, but there is certainly a lot loss primping. It’ll be nice to dress up at home, but I imagine I’ll miss the frequency of my natural days.

-Fresh cashews. Another cheap (by U.S. standards) and delicious produce item found in these parts.

-Evenings’ by lantern light. The fiery glow really has its charm and I won’t be needing it when I live with electricity.

-Seeing natural beauty everywhere from palm trees to vibrant flowers, brightly colored birds and stunning beaches.

-Traveling ain’t no thang. I’ll have been on 3 continents and seen 7 countries in a little over 2 years.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to travel so much in such a short period of time again.

-Feeling like I am growing and changing all the time. It’s almost palpable. There are challenges abound here, but I’ve found ways to overcome them or at least to sit comfortably with them. This type of constant character-building exercise isn’t easy to come by.

And there you have it, my miss list, at least for now. I have a feeling I’ll discover many more things to pine over once I’m in the swing of a normal life, even while sipping Starbucks with flat-ironed hair.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Rounding the Corner

It’s so bizarre to now find myself telling people that I’m leaving next month. Next month. What??? How did that happen? But here I am, rounding the corner of my Peace Corps service. Only a few weeks left to wrap up the school year and enjoy my time in Mapinhane, then I head to Maputo to complete the COS (Close Of Service) requirements. We’ll say our final goodbyes before stepping onto a plane bound for Greece, our last exotic vacay, than make it back to America in time for Thanksgiving. I’m asking myself a lot lately how to make the most of the little time I have left, and I keep coming back to the same thing: Just keep on doing what you’re doing. There’s no need to dramatize every little action, just try to be conscious of the things that still astound me here, even 2 years later. An unexpected birthday party is the perfect example. My birthday seemed to be a pretty standard school day plus lots of lovely well wishes from near and far. Chris and I decided to get fancy and go to our village’s one and only restaurant for a celebratory dinner. We planned to make a Bday cake before heading out, but Chris kept delaying the process (which I later found out was on purpose). When we were just about to finish baking, our school director called and said she needed to talk to me. I was very annoyed, thinking I was about to get some extra work right before a birthday dinner. I walked over to her office all in a huff and she says, “There’s something I want to show you”. She unlocks the door to a meeting room and to my COMPLETE surprise, 10 of my students/English club attendees are lining the doorway and signing Happy Birthday. I was in shock, having no idea that this was about to go down. Initially I thought it was just going to be a surprise serenade, a gesture that would have been sweet on its own. But no, as the minutes went on, the layers of generosity piled higher and higher (along with my effort to hold it together and not cry tears of gratitude).  After the birthday song, the guitars came out to sing a couple of original tunes they wrote just for me. I was then led to a nicely decorated table with a ginormous homemade birthday cake, given a pair of brand new sandals as a gift, and shown to my favorite part of the festivities, a poster expressing how much they appreciated me. I was not only completely overwhelmed by their generosity but by the effort they put into making the day so special. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a surprise party thrown for me and I am positive this is one I will never forget. These kids, who certainly have a hell of a lot less than I do, used their own time and money to have a party for me just because they wanted to. The event showed a culmination of things I’ve learned about Mozambicans over the last couple of years. Despite being a country that’s still rebuilding itself after a recent civil war, a country with so much poverty and so many difficulties, the people here remain unshakably kind and generous. And it reminded me how much I’ve grown to care about some of these students and the strength of the relationships I’ve formed. I recently watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”, which took place in Mozambique. He visited a few cities and talked about the life and food in Moz. As I watched the women dance in their brightly colored capulanas and the children waving and running barefoot in the dirt, I felt my heart sink and I became a little misty-eyed.  Not so long ago Mozambique, let alone Africa, seemed like a distant planet for all I knew. But now this place and these people have become irrevocably a part of my life. Seeing this country through the eyes of an American TV show reminded me of my inevitable departure and that soon, I won’t be living it, I’ll be remembering it.  But even with the looming separation anxiety and the slight worry about what’s next, I surprisingly feel like I’m in a good place. I definitely thought I’d be freaking out by now, worrying about the future. While we have some idea of what we want to do and where we want to be, I’m actually ok with the fact that it’s not yet set in ston. This experience shows you that you’re capable of stretching yourself far beyond what you thought was possible and yet through all the difficulties, you are still standing. So although it’s unclear of exactly what lies ahead, I know we’ll make it work. I do have moments where I feel overwhelmed with trying to close out this life, and anticipating what it’ll be like to be thrown back into a world I’ve been away from for so long. But those only come in waves rather than being a constant looming cloud. I’m also surprised by my lack of disgruntled-ness. It’s natural to feel a sense of “get me the heck outta here” when you know something new is about to happen. I’ve felt it many times before when on the cusp of a life change, but not this time. While I’m excited for a new chapter to begin, I’m not dying to turn the page right now. I’m excited to have one more month in this crazy life, and equally excited to start my new one. The balance seems weird and unexpected for my obsessive-planner self. But I think it’s a testament to how I’ve already begun to change.

To further soften the transition, I spent the last 10 days with Moz 21, the new group of volunteers who will be replacing me and the Moz 17ers. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the COS conference didn’t provide the closure that I had expected. But meeting the trainees and helping them navigate their first week in Mozambique made it feel like I actually was ending my journey. I went to training last year and was blown away by how far I’d come since my days in Namaacha. I was not expecting to notice much of a difference when I went this time, but I discovered that I did in fact continue to grow and progress tremendously. The first time I helped the newbies I felt like a pro, but going back again this year, I felt like a veteran.  I loved being on the complete opposite side of the volunteer experience. I watched eyes light up with excitement at the new sights and sounds, and the bewilderment of being thrown into a culture and a language that is well, still very foreign to them. And here I was, repeatedly uttering the words “within two years, I promise you’ll get it”.  On the day they landed, we stayed at a super nice hotel with a super nice buffet where I was practically salivating over the abundance of options: “within two years, I promise you’ll get it”.  When doubts surfaced about their language skills or ability to handle spiders: “within two years, I promise you’ll get it”. When they winced over the amount of people crammed into a chapa: “within two years, I promise you’ll get it”.  And I really have no doubt that this fun, spunky, and very capable group will get it and thrive as PCVs in Mozambique. It was comforting to meet the people who many of us 17ers will be passing the torch to, Chris and I included. Although there are no married couples in the new group, they do plan to send 2 men or 2 women to our site. It’s a relief to know that I’ll personally know whomever is lucky enough to come to Mapinhane to replace us (and FYI, Chris will get to know them too as he was asked to attend their training in a couple of weeks :)). Ironically they’ll be given their site assignments the exact same day we’ll be leaving the country, but I’ll get the scoop on whose continuing the Mapinhane legacy once I get to Greece. For now though, they’ve got a ton of experiences to absorb before worrying about site placement. On Friday, we went to the center of town to witness their first Mozambican holiday celebration for Dia de Paz (Day of Peace).  As per usual, a group of local women provided a jovial soundtrack for the occasion as they danced and clapped to music sung in their native language.  A few of the trainees coyly stood by, unsure if it was appropriate to join in. “I want to dance”, one said to me very matter of fact-ly. So I grabbed her arm and led her into the middle of the action. I jumped in with the traditionally-dressed ladies, dancing and singing along to the limited Xangana I recognized. I turned around to see the trainee on the outskirts of the circle, bobbing her head and clapping while observing my gung-ho approach. I smiled, knowing that I probably did the exact same thing 2 years ago and that 2 years from now, she’ll be in the center.