Friday, December 27, 2013

"I Touch It" says the Italian

The travel bug. Something that seems more like a disease in the sense that you are born with it and it never really goes away versus something temporary that you catch. I have been infected with this disease, if you will, sine I can remember. Moving every few years, visiting family that were spread across the United States and continuing traveling though my studies and now through my work has allowed me to visit and live in some of the most interesting, at the very least, places in the world. At this stage of the game I want to believe that when I find myself back in the states in four months or so that I will be content with where I am geographically and not have the innermost feeling of needing to get away. With that being said there are things that only seeing the world can add to someone’s life and finding those cultural difference remind me why I am always trying to immerse myself in a new culture.
While I technically live abroad, my day-to-day life is such a routine at this point that Senegal has almost lost its shiny new toy effect. I forget that the things that seem so normal to me were once seen as new and exciting. It becomes more apparent once I leave the comfort of my village and venture to the more touristy sites of Senegal where I get to watch all these firsts in the eyes of other people that treat Senegal as a tourist destination; it is the Mexico of France.
The first night at Blue Africa, a hotel on the beach in Mbour where Rachel and I found ourselves for Christmas, we met an Italian man who was touring West Africa on his motorbike. Granted he had seen much more of West Africa than I have he was new to Senegal and seemed to be checking his first impressions for accurateness with Rachel and myself. It was not only funny to hear his impressions but it was also exciting to see some of his mannerisms that he had brought from Italy. A prime example of this, which we ended up Googling later to figure out the details of what we witnessed, was the act of him grabbing himself, you know, down there, and saying “I touch it” after I asked him if he had been in an accident yet. Rachel and I both just laughed it off and continued on with conversation because we both knew it was a cultural ism that we were clearly unaware of and didn’t feel the need to go into detail incase we were getting into something that we would eventually regret. Apparently the act of a man grabbing his crotch or a woman grabbing her left boob in Italy was the equivalent to our knock on wood; t is interesting how the simple act of knocking on wood differs so greatly amongst cultures. I also noticed how seemingly passionate he was with everything. The food was great as he took in every bite, the view breathtaking and the homeless dog that was never too far away was even greeted with a “ciao bella” or hello beautiful in English; usually the homeless animals get an “acha” or “shoo,” as we would say in America, since they are at the bottom of the bottom of the totem poll in Senegal.
In a not so smooth segue; dogs, cats and pigs are treated as though they don’t exist in Senegal. Cows, goats and sheep are slightly higher up considering that they at least provide food once someone determines that their life should come to an end, with the human life, as similarly in most cultures, usually being the reigning class. Not too long ago a few volunteers and myself were riding in a car coming back from Kolda when we came across a troop of monkeys. While we were all taken back by how magnificent they looked in their natural environment and the natural way they acted towards each other we could not help but notice the behavior of our driver. He repeatedly brought his fingertips up to his forehead and out in the space between him and the windshield with an open palm almost like he was telling them to stop. We had our assumptions of what exactly he was doing but once asked he told us that he was showing them respect because we were once exactly like them and even today we are not much different. This sign of respect was interesting since it was coming from a cultural that normally does not show much, if any, respect for animals.

How do you make Christmas on the beach better? Add
some wine and cheese!
While rituals, little behaviors and the simple beauty that a country can offer us are all searchable on your favorite search engines it will never be the same as seeing it first hand.  We tend to speed through life and forget to take in all the little things that we take advantage of once we get used to something. Whether you are one of 14 squeezed in a car, waking up to the mosque speakers announcing prayer at 5:30am or tasting that once exciting dish for the fifth time that week for dinner, life is exciting, life is a gift and it is the little things that reminds me why I like to travel. If you are ever missing home or family just blink a couple of times because it will be over before you know it.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

Peace Corps is hard. Development work is harder. There are things that we do to ourselves to make our lives more complicated, drinking too much and having a hangover when it is already 100°F, and there are things that the world does to us and make us wonder why, such as people stabbing your already overworked donkey, but I will elaborate more on that later. With all these things being said when work is going well or, more or less, your way, it is something to celebrate and appreciate. When you find yourself in this rare ideal you tend to see, not just look at, the sunrises on your morning run, savor the lunch that you eat probably five times a week or play with the kids in your compound a little more; everyone benefits!
While work has been about as busy as ever and though it still does not compare to a busy schedule in my previous life it feels good to be on the move again. My trash project has all of a sudden stumbled upon financing from a few sources which seems typical as far as timing because I have been working my entire service to get funding without writing another grant and I finally find it once my service is in the last stretch; 1) the city contributed 100,000CFA (about $200), 2) we were fortunate enough to add one of the local pharmacies to our list of clients which also just so happens to be owned by the richest person in Velingara and insists to pay more than 3x the service fee, 3) Sodefitex, an international cotton company with a local bureau, promised funding if we write an official request for donations and 4) we may have found financing from the US Embassy to install public dumpsters throughout Velingara.
With the good things come the bad and like a famous rapper once said, “mo money, mo problems.” We are now faced with the ever so daunting question of what to do with our new found wealth. Buying a new donkey is top of the list at the moment ever since someone decided to slice into her back leg with who knows what when she was eating the other day forcing her to visit the vet to get the wound cleaned out which I think she is less than thrilled about. We already considered her over-worked but since we were always financially unable to buy another donkey we just sort of
Donkey getting the best medical care Velingara has to offer!
hoped for the best I guess. Donkeys apparently run for about 50,000CFA (about $100), which cuts a large piece of the already small pie given to us by the community but we will consider it as an investment in the business. The rest of the money will be put in the bank so that we have money to fall back on as it’s needed, like during dry season and donkey food is so expensive that she is eating most of our profits. Amadou has expressed a few things that we can buy but I am keeping him grounded, I think.
The meeting with Sodefitex to ask for donations, materials, or pretty much anything they could contribute, went great. We initially spoke with someone but he ended up being in charge of manufacturing but kindly showed us who the correct person was to speak with and, while he was a little less inviting, he said that he would accept our request if we had a proper written request. We have to state the brief origin of the project, our current dilemmas and what we plan on doing/how we will benefit from the donation, in whichever form we are requesting. This was expected, and he wanting a formal request did not surprise me, but I was surprised when he started explaining that he probably wouldn’t be able to give funds or materials 100% and that in fact projects are more successful and people are more invested when they are required to also contribute to the end goal. With that being said they usually would, as an example for our request, give us a well-built cart containing the Sodefitex logo and we would have to pay for a percentage of it, which could be paid in full or monthly installments. What? I was speechless. This is great! This is exactly what I wanted when I was declining to write another grant for the project in the first place, the community and the project needed to be more invested and here I was listening to a Senegalese man preach about the importance of the project leaders having a sense of ownership in the “donated” materials and this is why Africa is how it is today because they receive too much free stuff and aren’t involved in the development process. I am not paraphrasing or summing up the point of what he was getting at, this is what he said and I wanted to jump out of my chair, throw my arms around him while I cried. He gets it. People can get it. This is what I am doing here. Not to write grants, though I did do that a couple times, or to solely teach people about Americans but to show people that there are resources here which are available and it is up to them to take advantage of them and with a little hard work, and if we are being honest, education, they are more than capable of doing this.
Concerning my project in Tambacounda producing poultry feed I think we were approved, well I received a text from the Peace Corps grants manager asking if I had received the funds yet and while I informed him that I was unaware that we were approved I was encouraged to look into my account. This is great timing since not only has it been a while since we submitted our application but my counterpart Cissé had called me the other day to tell me that the project had already started because “if he were to wait funding he might be waiting forever and he doesn’t have time for that.” This does not mean that he has funding to do the project on his own it merely means that he is financially capable, and determined enough, to start the preliminary crucial steps in the project so once funding is received we can more easily hit the ground running! He has great determination and has not let me down thus far and I am excited for the week when we get to set up shop and start a truly wonderful business; it will also be kind of nice that I will get to live at the regional house with Wi-Fi and access to a kitchen since it is approximately two hours from my actual site and the thought of commuting sounds horrible.
In summary, life is good. I have more work than most volunteers, which is something to be excited about and I love, for the most part, the people that I get to work with. My service is going to be coming to an end before I know it so now is the time that I get to, pardon my language, start kickin’ ass and takin’ names!


Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Best Game

I tend to get in the habit of writing about my experiences and I skim over the work that I am actually doing. I talk about how things make me feel, or I write about things in an attempt to better understand my surroundings or for the chance for those you of actually reading my blogs to better understand Senegal, even if it is just a little bit or through only my eyes. Well this post is different my friends. I want to tell you a little bit about a training that myself and my PTA (Program Training Assistant) Talla Diop held in Velingara, and by that I mean Talla did almost everything, all I did was find a bunch of people that wanted to attend, which doesn’t take a rocket scientist.
Talla explaining the rules of the game
I decided to have two trainings, one for the more educated or entrepreneurial types and one for the less educated. Almost immediately by creating these two groups we are separating the women from the men, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on what you are trying to accomplish. Since everyone that we wanted to attend the training were not educated, and since men have a complex in this society, we wanted to keep them separate to give the women a chance to actually learn and take something from the training and not just watch the men participate.
So what was the training? It is called The Best Game and it is adapted from a game that was created by the UN and played throughout many developing countries throughout the world. There are four stages to the game but Senegal for the most part is still in the first stage of the game, learning and understanding basic principals that most of us in the US learned in primary school. The game focuses on financial management and budgeting principals and puts it in a context that is very relatable to the Senegalese culture. The best part of the game is it can be adaptable for literate or illiterate groups and since most of the women in the afternoon training were illiterate this game worked perfectly.
Babies apparently always go to the market, when it
is real and just for fun 
The game starts out separating people into even teams. Each team is then explained the rules; 1) You are paid 200CFA the beginning of the month which is a Wednesday, 2) Thursdays are used to plan and budget your money for the next week, 3) Saturdays is market day, 4) Sunday is a day of rest and no work can be done, 5) you are a hat maker and each Monday you can buy materials to make your hats which cost 400CFA/hat, 6) Tuesdays you make your hats, 7) Wednesdays you sell your hats in the market for 800CFA/hat, 8) the 27th of the month you have to pay rent which is 250 CFA, 9) a new day happens only when the hour glass is flipped over and those days activities must finish before the sand runs out of the hourglass, about a minute, and 10) money can be deposited into the bank whenever you would like.
Rules are explained in detail and since there are four weeks in a month there are four
Quality control on "hats"
rounds to the game. The game starts out in the beginning of the month and everyone is handed money and, in a typical fashion, feels richer than they are in reality. This first round is great to watch once you know how the game works because you pick up on the more fiscally responsible decisions that some groups are making while understanding the less responsible ones from other groups. For example, when Jordan and I played with the more educated group in the morning training there was one other women who attended, so of course the men put her in our group. We sent her to the market the first Saturday where you can choose from food, cloths, candy, sunglasses, radios, watches and soccer balls for all varying prices. She had 50CFA to spend and she bought 20CFA of food, which was good, but the only thing that was 30CFA on the market board were sunglasses, so she bought them. Now I am not sure how sunglasses are going to better improve our “family” situation but she did not even think to not spend that money and save it for next week. Interesting train of thought and needless to say she was never sent back to the market. Also in the first round my counterpart Amadou, who was in a different group, was holding his pen when the hourglass was flipped over to Sunday, resulting in a financial penalty for working. Not exactly sure the intentions behind this rule but I think it just enforces that there are rules and we follow them, which I like! The first Monday everyone was unsure as to how many pieces of paper to buy to make our hats since we were unsure how long it would take to make a hat and all hats had to be completed by the end of the hourglass timer. I think we bought three but we should have used the first Thursday to better plan our expenses to determine how many hats we needed to make in order to support our lifestyle and profit to pay our rent at the end of the month. That is what the first round is I suppose, to make mistakes and learn from them. Once at the market on Wednesday we tried to sell our hats to Talla where they had to endure tests to ensure their quality (him bouncing them in his palm to make sure they didn’t become unfolded) and if they were not well-built he would then dramatically crumple them up and throw them in a trash can or over his shoulder in attempts to prove a point. It was great and everyone got a good laugh out of it and everyone quickly learned not to invest too much money in raw material if you were unable to create a quality product in a timely fashion.

Talla crumpling hats that were in the
production phase before the start of the day
As the weeks went on we grew stronger in the game since we knew what was expected of us and how serious Talla was about the rules of the game. People stopped spending their entire weeks budget on food, they invested more in the business and they were sure to build quality products over quantity. It was like everything that I was taught in school and it was refreshing seeing these somewhat foreign principals being used so casually and without trying to shove it down their throat; if only everyone could play this game, understand the concepts and apply them to real life we could wrap this Peace Corps thing up next week. Unlikely.
A couple of times throughout the game a card is drawn where a life event happens and, depending on your situation, you are either prepared for it or not. Of course the card that was drawn in both trainings, I think Talla planned it now that I think back on it, was that a thief was coming around and stole all the money that was not in the bank. The bank?! I forgot about that thing and so did every other group apparently. We had a savings, we were feeding our family, we were creating quality products but we were not putting money in the bank so three-quarters through the game we lost everything. Amadou’s group was already in the hole at this point, they had to borrow money from another group with an interest rate of 30% determined by the group and they chose them over our group, which was charging 100%.  This being said, they were a little less affected by the event but it was detrimental to those of us who actually had a plan. Another card was drawn during the women’s afternoon training where the kids in the family were sick if you did not buy enough food the previous week at the market. All the groups passed this test and I must say, the women were much better at listening and following directions compared to the morning session where the men were constantly being penalized for not following rules.
The Bank
If it came down to having to pay for something and you had no money you could sometimes borrow money from the bank, when Talla allowed it or he wanted to prove a point. The end of the month was approaching for both trainings and Talla required that each group pay back the loans that they had barrowed from the bank. Most of the groups were able to pay, without a problem, and life seemed to go on. But there was one thing, no receipts. The next day Talla requested that each group repay their loans that they held with the bank and when each group, screaming more or less, explained that they already paid it back he simply said, “oh ok no problem, can I see your receipt.” No receipts were shown, of course because he did not write any, and everyone had to pay their loans back for a second time. I could not help but sit back and laugh at how passionate everyone was getting and how they refused to pay again, but Talla stood his ground and demanded money from each group.
Out of both the morning and the afternoon session Jordan and I were the only group that actually had money at the end of the game. Not  only money left over but we were the only group that did not have an outstanding loan with the bank. This may have something to do with us being the most educated out of everyone at the trainings or that I had played the game before but I still forgot key lessons like keeping money in the bank. Damn, that one will stick with me forever, how could I forget that? Now comes my favorite part of the game- Talla had a little talk with the groups at the end of the game telling them the importance of being aware of your financial situation, budgeting and not spending half your salary on a weeks worth of food, investing in your business since that is how you earn money and keeping money in the bank. He was able to apply all of these important principals with examples directly from the game and everyone understood.
Talla (in the hat) and most of the women
from the afternoon training
It is amazing how people can got more out of this training that any amount of lectures that I could have given. It was prepackaged, easy to understand and conducted by someone knowledgeable and passionate in the topic. A truly great training for anyone working in development or honestly with any group that needs to improve his or her financial knowledge and responsibility. If you would like details on the game or would like to duplicate it feel free to message me and we can tailor it to your culture or individual situation. Thanks for reading, take care and until next time.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Transit Card? Yes Please!

I have just finished a series of Ted Talks all based on the idea of the workplace; where are employees the most productive? How can businesses be good at solving social problems? What makes you feel good about your work? With the inevitable and seemingly prolonged return back to the States I can’t help but, as any good OCD job-seeker may be, start thinking about how the workplace has changed since I left it over a year ago and what I can do to be better prepared to reenter it. Though the following topics may seem obvious to some of you it is important that we take time to remember what makes our employees happy since they are the ones that make a successful business.

The office is changing. This is something that you read in those articles that feature the top employers of the year that just leaves you wishing you worked for that company and in turn only points out how your employer is in fact nothing like any on the featured list. Like former Apple mogul taught us, if you need to have a meeting go for a walk. Nothing quite like a walk stimulates blood flow resulting in more creative thinking leading to innovative ideas and you can’t help but think you couldn’t come up with these same ideas in a more typical office setting. Are you more productive in the early morning before the office is full of all those people who bounce from cubicle to cubicle set out to ruin your train of thought? Great! Come in at six and you can leave by 3pm.  These are just simple, conceivable, examples of the changing office setting into less micro-managed spaces having more faith in the employee.

Businesses are working for social change; not merely a kindhearted task anymore but sort of an expected responsibility. More and more conversations are being geared towards nonprofits alone not having enough resources to make a large impact on social matters and these responsibilities shifting to be shared with the for-profit community. Non-profits are tied down by donors with restrictions on what they can use funds for, often excluding administrative costs, when in fact administration costs are inevitable and necessary with any successful business be it for-profit or not. So not only do we see these 501(c)(3) organizations adapting but also we are seeing the private sector stepping up and making a big difference in big social problems.

As expected, employers are requiring new skills from its employees resulting with the millennial generation being more tech savvy and adaptable than any of its previous generations. You are no longer considered a notable candidate for a position if you merely have Microsoft Office listed as a skill on a resume. HTML is being taught as early as middle school and writing code will be the new skill requested among employers to any given employee. As technology increases so must our knowledge of technology.

Typical day at the office! (After an agriculture training in village)
An interesting topic that I ran into was the idea of benefits. People are no longer, and I am not even sure they ever were, motivated purely by salary. People like to feel appreciated, acknowledged and respected. There was as study that had various people building works of art with Lego’s and after something was built they were asked if they wanted to build another work. Individuals were more willing to build again after their first piece of work was acknowledged versus just torn down immediately. Would you want to build another dinosaur if the one you just built was torn apart before you were even acknowledged for what you had done? The same goes for work. I am not saying that managers need to praise us every step of the way but gratitude and appreciation can go further than financial rewards. This idea also stretches into the form of benefits where employers are compensating employees in more ways than just financial compensation; in the form of flexible working hours, daycare vouchers, cell phone plans, transportation vouchers or gym memberships.

So what is the new employee look like to fit this new working environment? They share the passion of the company they work for. They want to feel like they are making a difference and feel appreciated even if they are working for a for-profit giant. They are motivated by more than mere salary since, after all, money doesn’t buy happiness. They are forever seeking higher education be it with a formal education or weekend Ted Talks. They are evolving for the better, just like businesses today.

And remember employee of the future, it is not a mutually exclusive choice to do good for yourself or do good for the world. Both are possible.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

It's Like Herding Cats

Hello there digital world. I must say it has been a little while since I had written last and, depending on why you read this blog, I am both sorry and you are welcome for the lack of entries. After returning from Thailand I had about two weeks to prepare for mom’s visit to Senegal. It is amazing how, when you actually have work, quickly time passes here which turns out to be more of a good thing than bad; nine months and counting but that sure does sound like a long time writing it out.
Before mom’s arrival I was excited though I was trying to compose myself because I knew that the sooner she arrived the sooner she would have to head back the land of wonderful things. And while I don’t want to do a day-by-day account of her trip I can tell you that she saw more of the country than a lot of volunteers that live here
have. We were up north in St. Louis along the coast to enjoy a more European way of life, we rode camels in Lompoul, visited my family and home in Velingara, back up north along the coast to do a liquor tasting in Warang made from local fruits, had a few days by the pool and beach in Saly and back to Dakar to truly rest and enjoy time together which usually always included wine and cheese. YUM.  Along with way she got to meet some of my closest friends in country, got to know the ins and outs of a truly local way of transportation (sorry mom but you were a trooper!), taste a few local dishes and even learned a few words of the local language Pulaar which by the end of our stay in Velingara she had the greetings down. All in all it was great having some mom time, I am so lucky that she was able to come and not only see a little bit of my life here but to explore a true passion of mine, the international community.
On one of the last nights of mom’s stay, while in Saly with Alexx, I had a little too much wine and liquor from Warang and I agreed to help out with an English camp that was in Dakar to be held the day after mom’s flight. They were short a volunteer and since I was already in Dakar it seemed like the perfect fit; I really wanted to get back to site and return to “normal” life since I had been traveling so much lately between Thailand and mom’s visit but honestly it was nice getting to hang out with people I rarely see in Dakar for a week. The camp was a part of the Access English program put on by the US Embassy promoting and educating people in the English language. I was a teacher in the camp in the Parcells neighborhood in Dakar, only about a 15-minute cab ride from the regional house, with students ranging from ages 15-18. Some students had attended the camp before, or were in higher-level English classes in school, making them stronger English speakers while others seemed to struggle during the camp. While the camp was fun, it was exhausting. And I think exhausting is an understatement. You could tell some students were there because they either had to be or they had nothing better to do. In sync with the Senegalese schooling system people often wanted breaks of a half an hour and more which was exactly opposite of what us volunteers are used to which caused tension and conflict at times. Also, it was like pulling teeth to get people to answer questions and I don’t know if it was because of their age, their inability to speak the language or their general lack of confidence. There is also just a general lack of respect that I thinks also comes with their age. At one point I asked a group of girls probably five times to join the rest of the group in the courtyard and they all just looked at me with a look on their face questioning why I was even talking to them. After a few seconds of that lovely face I literally started herding the girls to the courtyard. I really did feel like I was herding cats, which if you could imagine would be difficult. In summary I am glad it is over and am also glad that I will not be here for the next camp. I heard nothing but good things from others at other camps so it also could have been the group of students but I commend those teachers all over the world who work with difficult students day in and day out, stick with it, and are actually capable of making a difference without walking out and not looking back!
Back at site now that I am done dealing with children I get to work with adults who merely act like children. Not only did I not sign up for this I don’t have the patience to deal with it alone so thank Allah I have capable counterparts. Just today, one of a million examples, I met three of my counterparts with the waste management project at the Mayor’s office to try and get him to use the money in the budget for waste removal on actual waste removal. Now this is not the first time that we have met there to have these impromptu meetings but the last one I attended was in June resulting in the Mayor promising money by the end of July. It is October now. Continuing on, he was not at his office and his assistant informed us that he was at his house. We walked to his house, to so surprise of our own, he was not there. We walk back to his office thinking we may have just missed him and he was not there either. It is 11am on Wednesday I don’t think it is unreasonable for him to be at his office, easily accessible to the public, since he does not take appointments. My counterpart, the wonderful Amadou, took my phone to call the Mayor to ask him where he in fact was while requesting a meeting and he told us that he was in Gambia and he could see us later in the afternoon. This is interesting since that is not at all what we had heard from anyone along the way. Once hanging up the phone Amadou punches a code on my phone to determine the amount of phone credit he had used up calling the Mayor who apparently was in Gambia, which should have resulted in international rates. 59cfa. Interesting. It should have cost at least 500cfa. He is in fact in Senegal and not only is lying to us but we found his car at the local hotel where he was probably just escaping his daily fight to do actual Mayor-like tasks. This is where my internal struggle comes in. Why am I busting my butt everyday to try and help Velingara when the own Mayor is smuggling money and wants nothing to do with the development of his community. If he does not want to help his own community, where he has lived his whole life and will probably reside the rest of his life, what is my incentive? I thought Amadou was acting mildly radically when he used to tell me that he was going to expose the Mayor on the radio about how he is doing nothing for our project, and those like ours, but now I am quickly becoming on the same page. Lets exercise our right to strike I tell him. He laughs and though I think he is seeing the downside of a strike financially, I can’t help but think what will happen if we don’t collect trash for a few weeks or a month; the people will start talking and becoming infuriated with the lack of support and corruption from the Mayor’s office. I have an appointment tomorrow to speak with Mr. Mballo at the radio station who is an educated well-respected man in the community in which I will hopefully get some advice from on the entire situation. Stay tuned.
It is a similar situation with my youth project. Though the project is getting executed it is no longer because of any help from my counterpart with that project. Not only has left to go north to Thies (I have actually not heard from him in at least three weeks) but I am pretty sure he is pocketing leftover money from the project. Yay. I need to come up with the energy to confront him about this and I can’t wait to hear what excuse he is going to come up with. I am counting down the days until the project is done and I don’t have to communicate with him any longer.
On much more exciting and productive news, my grant for the chicken feed project in Tambacounda is all turned into my APCD (boss) Mr. Sall and I am waiting on his confirmation or request of changes to turn it into the grants person with the Peace Corps. Hopefully he reads it sooner than later and I can get it turned in. After I submitted the grant my counterpart, Mr. Cissé, wanted to have a copy for his own records and when I emailed a copy to him, including translations into French, he called me soon after telling me that he read it three times and it is ingenious! It is nice to get some positive feedback for once. I really like working with him on this project because not only do I get to get out of Velingara for a little bit but I get to work with someone who has a business mindset and understands profits, loss, bookkeeping and all those other important things that make a successful business. Finally! I love Amadou and he is a great counterpart but he has never ran a business before so it makes things complicated at times, but that is why I am here, and teach I must.
Well America, and the rest of the world, that is all I have for now. I would love to hear some comments from you about my entries thus far. Is there something you would like to know more about or do you have a solution for any of the above problem areas? Also, I am unofficially looking for high school age students who want to pen pal with students here in Velingara. I think a few of my contacts might fall through and I would really love to set up a connection with a school locally with one abroad before I leave. It can be from any school in the world as long as the class can write in English. Let me know! Thanks again, take care!


Monday, August 26, 2013

Pad Thai in Thailand... OK!

In a complete attempt not to bore you I decided that it might be better to write a kind of long post, sorry, about my trip to Thailand instead of just posting my itinerary, as I originally was going to do out of pure laziness.
One of my best friends from the states that I have known since high school has been living the exciting life of traveling around Southeast Asia and I had the opportunity to join her, her boyfriend and his friend for a mini vacation/break from Senegal. I have not seen her in entirely too long, she had moved to South America after college, so of course I jumped on the chance to not only catch up with her while were both capable of being in the same place at the same time but also to explore the beautiful, and exhilarating, country of Thailand. 
My first impressions of Thailand were great, everyone was very welcoming and it was great to be in a civilized country again, as politically incorrect as that may sound. We spent the first three days of my part of the trip in the capitol city of Bangkok where we ate street food, visited some of the most famous and beautiful
Shopping street near hotel
Temples around and did some shopping in the infamous street of Khao San Road where you could do, find and eat just about anything. Of course the first meal that I ate in Thailand, dinner with Kari in a little café just outside of our hotel was Mexican food. I figured that I needed to not only get in as much Thai food as possible but this was my chance to get all those other ethic foods that I crave while in Senegal including Mexican, Indian and Italian.
After our time in Bangkok we all decided that we wanted to get out of the city and head up north to the mountains of Chiang Mai. We took the night train from Bangkok, which arrived in Chiang Mai only two hours late which the delay I was accustomed to at this point and was honestly a better form of any sort of transportation in Senegal. We were aware that monsoon season was welcoming us and, being in the mountains the rains were particularly worse than any other part of the country during our trip. With that being said it was hard to just walk around town and get lost since we relied on public transportation to get to specific sites; though there was one day where we put on our ponchos and walked to the Women’s Correctional Facility to set up appointments for massages and got to see a few more sites along the way. And yes, I did say massages at a correctional facility; the women
The rice fields we passed on our way north
to Chiang Mai
are trained so that they have a skill once they are out of the institution. They were more than friendly, very professional and gave great Thai massages which I found out are not meant to be relaxing but was more of an hour of stretching, twisting and kneading our bodies. One of our day trips was quite memorable and that was to the
Elephant Nature Park just north though still in Chiang Mai. We had a van pick us up at our guest house which not only brought us to the park but showed a video that was from some travel channel describing the problems that elephants in Thailand face today (forced begging, physical and emotional abuse and demanding physical labor). For a country that truly respects and worships elephants they are horribly mistreated, solely as a source of income, and Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert has created a sanctuary for the gentle giants that she is able to buy or rescue within Thailand; along with the elephants in the park there are hundreds of dogs that are also abandoned or rescued. We spent the day feeding, bathing, more feeding and watching the elephants in a
more natural habitat. You could tell they were all happy and treated well. It was a great experience and would recommend anyone either visit the park or support them financially with a donation if feasible.
After the mountains we were ready for some fun in the sun and headed down south. We could not find a direct mode of transportation, within our budget, so we took the overnight bus from Chiang Mia to Bangkok and from there the bus to Phuket Island. Phuket was a great little island and since it is not Thailand’s high season for tourists it was more tranquil than a raging party, which was really nice. We were only in Phuket for three days or so but we managed to devote this time to the beach. The beach near our hotel was nice but the second day in Phuket we went to Kata Beach, which was so beautiful. We spent the day laying out, and by that I mean on a beach chair under an umbrella since we are past our days of tanning and ruining our skin, swimming in the water with the tubes that we bought and drinking Maté, which is an Argentinean tea that Pablo and Vera were obsessed with. It was a
great day at the beach but I was getting restless and needed some excitement, I can only lay on the beach for so long. We met one of Kari’s friends from her time teaching with Berlitz in South America for a beer, she now lives in Phuket, and she recommended Krabi. We were off.
Krabi was beautiful. It was not like any other part of the world that I had ever been to with the hundreds of cliff style islands off the coast. You can’t help but be taken away by the landscape, and I quickly realized, the culture of Thailand and Krabi specifically. We were technically in a town maybe ten mintutes south called Ao Nang and it was the perfect spot to settle down in for about four days. Our hotel was much nicer than anything we had been staying at, we somehow got a deal online, and was nestled next to the mountains with a less than five minute drive down to the beach, which the hotel offered a free shuttle to every hour. We had Indian food for Pablo’s birthday the first night followed somehow by tequila shots at a bar called The Crazy Gringo. It was a fun night out with everyone but I had a great trip planned for the next day all for myself and could not wait to get to bed and awake to my adventure.
I rented a motorbike to tour around on for 200Baht for 24 hours, around $6.50. Kari would not get on the bike for the fear of her life, I understand that, but I had to get out and see some sights without relying on public transportation and figured as long as I wore a helmet and drove aware of my surroundings nothing too bad could happen, well nothing that could not already happen traveling as much as I do or living in Senegal; you forget, until you don’t have a car anymore, how liberating it can be. I started the morning talking to an absolutely useless woman at the community travel center to help tourists and after getting absolutely nowhere with her I decided to grab a map, hope for signs and get lost. I had all day and only a couple of things that I absolutely wanted to do so I figured I had plenty of time. Fairly easily I found what is known as Tiger Cave, which is a hike comparable to
Me at the beginning of my road trip,
Kari snagged a photo from the bus
Stairway To Heaven in Hawaii but not as long or scary; stairs heading up the side of a mountain leading to a temple at the top with breathtaking views of the region where apparently tigers used to occupy. I assumed that I was just in horrible shape considering how tired I was once I reached the top but heading back down there was more traffic than when I started and I quickly noticed it was everyone who was getting their butts kicked on the way up, which I felt a little better about. Since I had a swimsuit on and brought a towel I took the opportunity to dry my cloths over the railing while I rested drinking Gatorade (THAILAND HAS GATORADE! WHAT?) now that I think back on this situation, it was very Senegalese of me but I was the only one up there so I feel a little less guilty. After properly dressed I headed to the temple where there was a 360
˚ view of the mountains, the coast and the city. There was a very loud buzzing noise that was heard from the top and after asking some Japanese tourists, and them translating it on their phone, it was coming from an insect called a cicada. While I had never heard of them I found their sound very peaceful but persistent at the same time. After the hike I was back on the bike to try and find the Shell Cemetary where slabs of mollusk fossils are found along the coast. Along the way I ran into a Fisheries Research and Development Center where tanks and ponds used to house and test marine species could be found. I specifically fell in love with a stingray that loved attention and was not afraid of people. The shell cemetery was great because it was home to fossil slabs that are over 75 million years old and were remains of snail shells that piled up on top of each other and cemented together by silicic matter. It was cool to see a little part of history. I stopped at a local market the way home to buy some snacks and since it as almost dark I decided to eat my lychee and mystery tea drink that was recommended by a vendor on Krabi beach while watching the sunset. The perfect day. The next morning I had a couple hours left with my motorbike so I could not think of any better thing than getting expensive, but worth it, McDonalds breakfast to eat on the beach before the tourists started to come out for the day. I still had some gas left so I drove up and down the coast for a couple hours until I had to return the bike at 10am. At one point I remember seeing a sign saying that Krabi was in 22 kilometers and I remember not feeling quite as calm or relaxed as I was in that moment than I have had in a long time, especially not since moving to Senegal which can be a very anxious place.
The next day we took a Hong Island day trip which actually consisted of multiple islands off the coast of Ao Nang which had proved to be even more beautiful than any other coastal parts of Thailand that we had been to thus far. Islands with steep cliffs, turquoise coves and blue waters were the sights of the day and with a local
On the boat during the islands tour
packed lunch on one of the islands we could not have asked for more beautiful surroundings for the day, though beautiful does not even begin subscribe it.
My last night Kari accompanied me to a sort of last minute tattoo expedition where I got a, planned just unknown as to where I wanted it, Black Capped Chickadee tattoo just under my collar bone in memory of my grandfather who had died while I was in Senegal. I got the tattoo using the traditional Thai bamboo method, which consisted of a needle tied and waxed onto a bamboo stick and then speared into my chest. Sounds more painful than it was and it is beautiful. The best part about it is that it catches the corner of my eye and reminds me of my grandfather and back home in general.
The crew headed to another part of Thailand while I took a van back to Bangkok to catch my flight back to Senegal; well to Ethiopia where my flight was delayed 12 hours and we got put up in a hotel with breakfast, lunch and dinner and then off to Senegal, but that was fine with me.
Thailand will have a special place in my heart and it is a country, and a part of a wonderful mysterious region of the world that I will be back to visit and explore. I have always had an attraction to Asia and I don’t know if it was because there is such an influence in Hawaii, my love for many Asian dishes or just the mere fact that I had never been but it was a great experience and I can’t wait to return. Thanks Kari for a great trip, take care and see you soon!

Until next time.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

My New Pet Chicken

It seems like just yesterday that I was on a flight from Minneapolis to Honolulu writing a blog entry on my computer as I listened to a mix of airline provided music and the hustle and bustle of surrounding passengers. I was on my way to visit friends and family before heading off to Senegal to serve as a volunteer in the Peace Corps.  This year has proved to be quite different than what I had been expecting, though honestly I had no idea what I signed myself up for. I am left now, freezing on a plane with Ethiopian Airlines, flying to Bangkok, Thailand to take a break from my underdeveloped life, scratch this itch to travel, and catch up with, an oldie but goodie, friend.
The last few weeks at site had been sort of crazy as I prepared for vacation. Days were filled with tying up loose ends of projects to be as independent as possible
Nene (my mother) and I doing laundry before my
big trip to Thailand!!!
while I am gone and my nights entailed things such as either helping house stranded volunteers who could not make it back to site because of the seemingly never ending rain that the rainy season has brought or watching and attempting to name constellations and planets on the roof of Rachel and Kim’s (my new site mates- we have four Americans roaming around Velingara these days!) house concluding that we don’t know nearly enough about our solar system and reverted to an iPhone app to pinpoint stars of interest.
My last day at site before my trip to Dakar was spent in the usual pre-trip manner of cleaning, laundry and dishes and those not so usual, debating about the difference between China and Japan with my host brother and a visit to a village where my business training session was being duplicated. Speaking of that, my thank you present for holding the training was a chicken, alive and well which is how I plan on keeping him though my family looks at him as their next meal. I asked the village what his name was and they said Gertogal, which means chicken in Pulaar and when
Gorko and I on our bike ride home 
I explained that I knew how to say chicken in local language and wanted to know what they call him they told me Gorko, which means man. Wasn’t quite sure how to respond to his name but I went with it and biked home the 3k to my house with his legs tied together to my handlebars. My mother and grandmother, who is in her 90’s I would like to remind you, were speechless when they saw me ride up to the house, muddy of course because it is rainy season, with a chicken tied to my bike. They just laughed while I told my grandmother “si o falla namude okarah makko mbotugol” (if he is hungry give him lunch (I could’t think of the general term for food and lunch got my point across) and “si a lappi makko, mi lappi ma” (if you hit him, I will hit you). She used her hand to cover her mouth in her usual way while laughing and my mom continued on preparing the break fast meal of coffee and bread.
I told myself that I would finish the grant for my chicken feed project before I left for Thailand but with predictably unpredictable events things got a little delayed and I am left trying to email grant questions to my counterpart, Cissé, in hopes that he can make it to an internet café to check his email and respond. A prime example of things not going as expected and causing delay in the project timeline came this last week when my counterpart traveled from Tambacounda to my town of Velingara (about two hours by public transportation not counting waiting times to fill up a car) to see some machinery that will grind and mix ingredients into feed. Cissé called the owner of the machine the night prior in hopes to have the trip go as smoothly as possible, which just proved that no matter what you do you can never truly be prepared. We met the man in town and went out to the abandoned house where the machinery rests to find out that the man did not have the key and in fact it was locked inside the building. There were two problems that I had with these statements, one being how is a key locked inside of a building where you would need the key to lock in the first place and two, why didn’t you mention this minor detail last night when Cissé called you? Not only did he waste my time but he also wasted Cissé’s time and money, paying for a trip out of his own pocket only to look at one of the two machines from 15 feet away through a metal fence. Now at this point I have been in Africa long enough that even though I find myself frustrated or feeling awkward in certain situations it is in fact because I am American and nine out of ten times the Africans that I am usually in the situation with don’t even seemed concerned or phased (I say Africans instead of Senegalese because these characteristics stretch further than the borders of Senegal). This being said I was just approached the situation as ‘oh you don’t have a key, ok, we will come back later’ thinking that is what Cissé was thinking when in fact he is a little more western that I had originally given him credit for. As we walked away from the situation Cissé literally said to me “ugh, Africans”, though being an African himself, while later explaining to the guy that he had called him prior for a reason and next time he comes he wants the key in his hand when he confirms a date. Peace Corps volunteers love those characteristics in a counterpart. We are used to working and interacting with people on a professional level in a certain way in The United States, which is very different than how most things are done here in Africa. If we land upon a counterpart that respects meeting times and does their fare share of project tasks we are beaming and, if they do most of the project work like Cissé has been doing, we are enthusiastic and that much more excited about the project. Hopefully the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has Wi-Fi so I can hold up my end of the bargain to get the grant sent out as soon as possible. And I say hopefully they have internet because, as a small side story, last night while staying at Trevon’s house I told him that I was going to try and get some work done before my flight on the internet because I assumed the airport had internet and he started laughing so hard saying that he would be surprised if the airport had internet at all and that I forgot where we live. He had a very valid point but since a handful of people in the security line felt like cutting because their business was apparently more important than anyone else’s it took forever to get to the “gate” and I didn’t have much spare time. An interesting observation on that is that the most unsurprising part of that situation was nobody seemed annoyed at the fact that people were cutting in line! I know I sound like I am five but cutting in line! Seriously? Are we in middle school? Between that and the fact that there is no sense of personal space I was more than happy to get on the plane with my seat and its predetermined area of space with my book and headphones.
This leaves me to where I am now; on a 23-hour adventure to Bangkok, to a completely different world from where I live, where I am from and the area in between where I find myself now, surrounded by people who either really don’t get international airline/airport etiquette or have never been on the plane before and it is just about anyone’s guess as to which one, but life is good.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

My Day of Ramadan

I was called the other day by a good friend in country, Lisa, who was telling me how she was going to try and fast for a couple of days with her family. We are in the middle of Ramadan and while we were here last year for this event that millions around the world partake in, I usually don't think twice about it, for I relate it to something Muslims do and since I am not Muslim I didn’t see how I could get involved. Though I am pretty sure I could fast for the whole month if I really wanted to the fact remains that I don’t want to and, honestly, I don’t have to. I think there is something respectful to be said about someone who understands and shows empathy for those who have less, or nothing so I decided to partake in the challenge for the day and drag Alexx along with me because, why not? We set a day, I made sure to have a clear schedule and our minds were made up, lets fast.

July 17, 2013

4:45am My alarm is going off, kind of eager to start this challenge for the day that, thankfully being born into the family that I was, is so unknown to me.

5:00am My brother knocks on my door – I eat leftovers from dinner the night before, bread and coffee as the morning meal that Muslims are permitted before the sun rises. Nene, Abidina and Ouseman join in while Ablaye (the two year old) seemed wide awake and called for coffee while in bed, does he ever sleep?

5:24am I am eating two bananas and drinking a half-liter of water before heading back to bed to have somewhat of a healthy meal before the fast- this will be the last that my stomach will know for more than twelve hours.

5:29am Just got off the pone with Lisa and Alexx to make sure they were up and in this with me- they both were pleasantly awake and reassured me that they were too off to bed and would call later once they were needing some mental preoccupation.

5:34am Crawling into bed feeling and
Breaking fast with my family and site mates (left-right: Jordan,
Mari, Kim, Me, Nene)
pretty full. Not like Thanksgiving full but ate-and-drank-way-too-much-at-happy-hour full. Not complaining.

6:08am Going to try and get some sleep – since coffee was on the menu I was wide-awake entirely too early to actually start my day and had decided to watch an episode of Sex and the City.

6:45am Going to the bathroom, expected.

7:30am Going to the bathroom, not again!

9:35am Going to the bathroom, do I have a bladder infection?

10:50am Convincing myself to get out of bed to run some errands around town. Other than the expected fatigue, I am feeling fine at this point so I figured I should at least be productive.

12:13pm Home from errands, finally have a new gas tank, and I am thirsty. It is starting to hit though it is still more than manageable at this point. I better go read or something to keep my mind preoccupied from how hungry I assume I am going to start to become.

1:27pm Tired and a lack of energy, which is how I feel now. I want to keep reading so that I can be done with this American classic, Little Women, which everyone seems to love but I can’t seem to get into. I should have planned better to be reading a book I actually want to read while trying to preoccupy my mind.

2:06pm First stomach growl. That wasn’t too bad and later than I had expected.

5:26pm I have tried to occupy myself with a movie, talking on the phone, visiting Jordan at her house, though she was not home, and now I am left to watching Nene cook the break fast meal and dinner. Pure torture. I am not looking at the food as something to eat but more so looking at the water that they wash the dishes, rinse the vegetables, or boil to cook the rice in as some novelty item. I am beyond thirsty. The second it turns time to break fast I am dumping a bucket of water on my head!

6:12pm I would compare my level of thirst right now to the children that you see on tv drinking dirty pond water because they have no other option, I would drink pond water if given the chance.

7:02pm Jordan has done a great job of trying to keep my mind busy the last hour with her visit to my house, though it has not entirely worked. I am beyond thirsty. Mouth full of sand thirsty. Almost done.

7:34pm And it is time. Dates are being passed around but since I don’t like them, too artificial for me with all the stuff they add to them, mostly sugar, when they sell them here, I passed and went straight for my buttered bread, coffee and ice cold water. Water has just about never tasted so good, maybe after a long bike ride when you are dripping sweat, but it is still pretty nice right now. My brother looks over at me and says words like “cool” and “nice” which somehow made their way into the local language meaning “how is it going”. It was a pretty peaceful moment, I found my self dazing off being thankful for all I have, all that I have accomplished and being able to break fast with my family while actually knowing what it feels like to not eat or drink all day.

7:51pm Content, happy and satisfied with how I feel right now. Though people fast during Ramadan for religious purposes there is a population, especially among Peace Corps volunteers, that fast for the sake of solidarity, not just between us and our families but us and those around the world that go without food and water every day. Though it was only one day I now have a better understanding for what it is like to look at someone eating or drinking something, while they are not thinking much about it, and thinking how I would love to be in their shoes.

9:07pm Full. Just finished dinner and can’t imagine putting another bite in my stomach, this is what I had been waiting for all day but seem too full to be satisfied. Why can’t I seem to find a healthy balance?

In summary, Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, is celebrated during the entirety of the month each year throughout the Muslim population. Since the calendar is lunar the month of fasting results in varying dates each year. I don’t want to make blanket statements or spit facts about the population among us that go hungry and thirsty each day because I don’t know them. I do know that there is something that each of us can do to help those less fortunate have access to things such as clean drinking water, something we consider so basic and a right in America and take advantage of every day. So I would like to give you this challenge, friends and family, do good. Buy coffee for the person behind, bring fresh flowers to your neighbor, or send a note to a long lost friend. I know it is in you, I have faith.

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