Friday, May 9, 2014

Saying Goodbye

Welp, this is it I guess. I am not sure if I can call it the end because, while it sounds cliché, this experience will be with me forever. Whether you want it to or not, it is not something that you can’t just shake off and forget about, though I did have plenty of days that I wished that I could have!
My last week at site was about as perfect as you could imagine. I had a lot of quality family time, I was able to say goodbye to countnerparts throughout Velingara and everything actually fit in my suitcase. It was horrible saying goodbye to the people that I called family for the past two years; heartbreaking saying goodbye to the kids, especially since the younger ones didn't understand why I was leaving and nearly impossible saying goodbye to my host mother. She took me in quicker than I would have thought and was by my side the entire two years. I will always have a place for her in my heart and will be forever grateful for the experiences that she has given me! 
The last week that I had in Dakar was comprised of paperwork and downtime. We had to be at the office Monday thru Wednesday to make sure that we didn’t have any loose ends with admin- about 10 signatures from various administrative officials were needed and three informal interviews with senior staff. My boss (APCD in PC lingo) said that he was more than happy with all the work that I did and asked if I was sure that I didn’t want to stay one more year. Honestly a part of me thought about it but remembered all the reasons why I am leaving (such as the I should probably get a job someday thing). While the last week was flattering and it was nice to have lunch with staff to say our goodbyes, it felt good to have everything taken care of so we could just enjoy our last day and a half in Senegal, which is where the tattoos came in. I am still sticking to the story that had the only tattoo shop in Dakar not been directly in front of the house that I was staying at then I probably would have never gotten one but with convenience and pure boredom comes spontaneity! Alexx, Karen and myself got the ever so popular “Peace Only” greeting in our respective languages, mine being Pular. They are really cute and we all got them same font, just in different spots. It will forever remind me of Senegal.
So what is the first thing that I bought once getting off the continent you may ask? Well, a tomato, mozzarella and basil sandwich with an Arizona Ice Tea I would tell you! Sitting here, blogging, eating my snack, it almost feels like I was never in Senegal. It is strange, and scary, how quickly I can already feel myself bouncing back to “old life,” something so simple that I had wanted for so long and now that it is here it feels just normal.
My grandmother wearing my sunglasses!
Random thought:  I enjoy blasting music and zoning out while I write and while pondering what I should talk about without completely boring you the song “Perfectly Lonely” by John Mayer came on and it could not be more accurate than how I am feeling now, and not just now as in sitting by myself in an expensive café at an airport but, in life. Finishing Peace Corps, not really having a destination and nobody holding me back from where I am supposed to end up is almost too thrilling! Hopefully someday soon I will either get sick of the thrill that I get from traveling or I will have to actually find a job to support this habit.

I am currently sitting in the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Sad, free and relieved are just a few of the feelings that I have at the moment. It was about as sad as you could imagine saying goodbye to all of the wonderful people that I had just built a life with the last couple of years, though I was lucky enough to have Marsha and Alexx on my first flight. Free comes to mind because while I have an loose itinerary for the next couple of months it is inevitably up to me as far as where I end up and what I end up doing. Relieved that my time in Senegal was a success and I am now able to move on to the next step. 
I still have two flights remaining and honestly it is going to be a little difficult; now is the time I am trying to tell myself that if I was able to ride squished in the back of a car for 12 hours without air conditioning or personal space that this plane that they refer to as a minibus, which holds at least 81 rows, refreshments and tv will be a piece of cake. Plus the detail worth mentioning that at the end of this I have my parents, friends and family waiting.
I guess with random mixed thoughts comes a random mixed blog post so this is fitting. Thank you again Senegal for everything and America, get ready for the new me!


Saturday, April 19, 2014

No Regrets

Setting your mind to something and actually doing it. Traveling, writing a book, jumping out of a plane or landing a dream job, these are all things that we dream of everyday and only hope to accomplish someday. For me it is traveling. Not just sightseeing or that two-week break from work but actually seeing other cultures for what they are, learning from the people and understanding their way of life.
Peace Corps was not something that I had always dreamed of doing, it was not that I was against it but just never considered it something to get me where I wanted to go. Circumstances or plans change and people get antsy in their routine lives and sign up for the unimaginable. This is what makes up a majority of the Peace Corps population; people that enjoy helping people, able to learn another language and are free of major commitments that would hold them back.
My head is not in its normal place right now so I would like to pre-apologize if it seems more like I am ranting or putting together random thoughts versus telling a story or giving my unsolicited opinion. Days are being marked off the calendar and plans are being made in America as I am have less than a couple of weeks left at site. Of course there is that part of me that’s excited to be reunited with family and friends that I have not seen in two years. Before all of that happens though there is the reality of withdrawing from Senegal; my home for the past two years, the family that took me in when I only knew a handful of words, my counterparts that proved to me that with a little hard work anything can be done and all the kids that made it their mission in life to remind me to play and laugh.
Sure am going to miss these guys!
The only coping mechanism that I have come up with thus far for dealing with saying “see you later” to everyone here, because we all know I am horrible with goodbyes, is to pretend like I have a lot of time left and to go on with my days per usual. Not necessarily the most healthy way of dealing with it but I could think of worse. I mean, how do you express the amount of love and appreciation that you have for someone or an entire family unit when language is limited and the understanding of why we have to return back to the states is simply not there? Sure it seems like an easy fix to just stay, as many people recommend, but our lives are back home, our family, jobs, everything we have known. We have to go back, right? Well while that is a debate that I still have with myself everyday it may be a discussion that we have later. But really quick, am I going to get sick of the states again in a couple months? A year? Two years? I am going to go on the record that it is inevitable that I will feel this way, probably sooner than later, but that is what my dream job working for an international NGO is for.
Back on the original topic that I expected to talk about, accomplishing things that you once thought were unachievable or didn’t know you wanted until you did it. I was watching the miniseries Long Way Round featuring Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman traveling from the UK to New York via, well, the long way and not only has it inspired me to actually trek around the world since I have always dreamed of it but watching them reflect on the experience has encouraged me to take more initiative in actually doing things that I dream about and to work on actually being in the moment more with no regrets. A famous quote that I once heard, I actually want to get a tattoo of it, it is just a matter of how and where, goes something like “never look back and regret the past, at some point it was exactly what you wanted.” I can’t think of a phrase that is more true in my life, be it jobs, tattoos or even boyfriends and you just have to appreciate your past for what it was because it made you who you are today.
So how does all this babble circle around and relate to Peace Corps and me leaving Velingara in a matter less than a few weeks? On the hot days when it is reaching 112°F, when kids can’t seem to get the hint to get lost, when ants bite me when I lay on my floor because the heat radiating from my foam mattress is unbearable or when I simply just want to crawl into a hole and have just one day to myself but my surroundings seem to refuse, I have to remember that not only did I sign up to be here but I will someday, while it may be later than sooner, miss these exact moments. I will miss the kids yelling, I will miss the hot weather when it is freezing for months on end in Minnesota and I will miss the feeling of never feeling alone and always having someone to talk to.
Compared to other services that people have had in Peace Corps, though you shouldn’t really compare because everyone makes their service their own and since all circumstances are different there is really no level playing field to compare them on, I must say that I have had a successful one. I have never been short of work, my counterparts have been amazing (though we have had our tough times as we should considering the amount of time we spent together), my family makes me speechless with the amount of love and comfort they have given me and Senegal in general has been very understanding and kind. It was a good ride, no regrets and now on to the next unknown chapter in my life. With that being said, Velingara we have only a little bit of time together so lets make the most of it.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Youth Empowerment: not just a camp but also a lifestyle

I am unsure if this week will ever go as planned. It seems like forever that we have been working out the details, running around town finding trainers, securing financing and nominating children to participate, but the time is finally here. Kids hide behind their parents as they walk up to the welcome table with their little bag full of nothing more than a change of cloths and maybe a toothbrush. The first activity, a simple name game to get them familiar with each other, goes about as you would think considering it is the first activity of the first day of camp. Students are shy. Speaking softly. Referencing nametags. Unsure of how to act around the foreigners and what exactly they can get away with. The sounds of laughter slowly start to become more apparent as clicks are being made and our walls start to come down as we feel more comfortable laughing and joking along side them.
There are certain projects that you do because it is a part of curriculum of your specific sector, there are the ones that you do to help a friend out with and then there are those that you do for yourself. At the end of the day when kids are harassing you, the sun seems unbearable or you just miss home it’s the projects that you do for yourself that keep your attitude positive and the future bearable. The Velingara Work Zone held a Youth Empowerment Camp for 24 students (12 girls and 12 boys) during Easter vacation over a period of four days and three nights at a hotel two kilometers outside of town at the Campement Lew Lewal. While planning of the camp took more time and energy than I think any of us had planned it was well worth it considering how well it turned out. Camps in Senegal tend to focus on English or girls so we wanted to be sure to include the boys (gender equality!). This allows the kids to work and play together, which doesn’t seem to happen all too often considering the gender gaps that still have a large role in the Senegalese culture.
The 13 volunteers that participated in the camp each planned at least one session in various areas including: a career panel (my session!), personal financial management, yoga, tae kwon do, gender equality, first aid, reproductive health, theater and leadership. Sessions were put on by the volunteer in some circumstances but for the most part they were led my local counterparts, or host country nationals in PC lingo. At the end of the camp it was obvious to see, and made perfect sense, that the sessions that was led or assisted by a local counterpart were more successful. The kids don’t have to worry about trying to understand us and they got the exact message not the one that we knew how to say.

One thing that I took out of the camp that I didn’t think I would was an attachment to the students. The first day was a little awkward as far as how we all interacted with each other but with the passing of each meal or session the kids quickly became a little bit more comfortable with us and were soon enough dancing, laughing, mouthing off (there were a few sassy kids) or hanging on us as if they have known us forever. There was one moment specifically where one of the male students Suleman had to try and pickup one of the girls during the Gender Equality session. He had kids rolling around on the floor laughing and covering their mouths trying to prevent whatever that may come out; I don’t think the kids could have had a moment like this together if it would have been a session on the first day. There were just not there yet.
Our work zone plans on replicating the camp next year and future years to come; unfortunately, I will be basking in the luxuries of America and will be unable to attend the camp but I have full faith in the volunteers in our little corner of Senegal. Our hard work paid off and we proved not only to ourselves but also to the students in our area that while sometimes our mission and objectives may get lost in our work we can produce projects that will influence for a lifetime.
When asked what some of the kids wanted to be once they grew up we found ourselves in the presence of future lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers and government ministers. While I have no doubt that they are able to accomplish these great dreams I just hope that their surroundings don’t get in the way. Girls get pulled out of schools to get married, boys work in their father’s shops and everyone finds themselves in the fields if the season is right. Let your youth grow and get an education Senegal, because whether you like it or not they are the future and will run this country someday.


Friday, February 21, 2014

So What Am I Supposed To Do Now? And Am I Qualified To Make That Decision?

My head bangs against the metal as we swerve to miss the potholes in the road to only hit smaller ones. It is a feeling that I am all too familiar with. The sun is hitting my arm like the feeling of laying on asphalt on a warm summer day; a sad reminder of what is to come in hot season. When we stop to let a passenger out, the windows quickly fill with women and children selling water, juice, peanuts, cashews, the fruit of the season or phone credit. 12 hours. In my brain it is a long time to stare outside a window but in reality it goes by relatively fast. It is amazing how the human brain is able to drift away from everything that is real once those ear buds are put in place or a book is opened. 12 hours, this is the amount of time that it takes to get from my site to Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, and I know this trip all too well. I only take it if need be, I don’t go up to Dakar just to hang out because of the adventure that I know awaits me.
I was up north for a few different reasons including Close Of Service Conference, the annual All Volunteer Conference, or AllVol as it is commonly referred to, and the West African Intramural Softball Tournament. AllVol always has sessions detailing volunteer projects, career panels or talks with some of the more influential administrators. One of my more favorite sessions that I attended was a session about how to document your service through writing and photography. While I already do both of these things I never studied it in school, I am a mere enthusiast, and I figured I could pick up a few tips and tricks. Describing the scene is something that was pointed out that I don’t think I do enough. How did things smell? What was the reaction of someone’s face after telling the story? What were some of the background noises that we going on at the time? All of these things set the scene for the reader and can put the reader in the shoes of the writer. I though this was great advice, something simple that could be done to make an account of something into a story.
Kolda Region! Our theme was Where's Waldo?
In the beginning of February the Health group along with my group, the CEDers (Community Economic Development), had their Close of Service Conference, which is designed to help with life after Peace Corps. Now lets set the stage, we are surrounded by the people we have known the longest, talking to staff who at least pretends like they are going to miss us and we are talking about the future which for the most part does not include each other. It was sad. Don’t get me wrong, there were happy moments where we all told our favorite stories of each other, first impressions or embarrassing moments but then reality would hit and someone would tear up which only caused a chain reaction. Alexx and I prepared a slide show of our group and while I thought it would be tearjerker it was actually really funny! It is amazing how much we all change over the course of two years, even small things like how long/short someone’s hair is and without looking back on some of those initial memories you don’t even realize it. I will try to get a final slideshow together and post it for you all to see!
As for my second, and last, AllVol/WAIST combo it was everything that I imagined; exciting to see people you never get to see, exhausting always being on the go and sad to be saying goodbye to people that I will probably never see again. Peace Corps had to play in our own league for the softball tournament, again, as we should, and I can actually say there was way more drinking and horse playing than actual softball, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think four official softball games actually happened but the next day it quickly stopped once we were asked to come back at 9am, the morning after the Marine’s Masquerade Ball. We all knew this was not going to happen but we tried to stay positive but when walking back at 4am in a vampire-like cloak that my homestay Megan and I took from a Marine we realized the 9am thing was not going to be happening. 11am rolls around and we finally turn up to the fields and the number of people that were there, already drinking and attempting a game of softball was impressive. There were not enough people to form any team really so it quickly became a game of the north versus the south. Those of us that were not into playing softball after a night of festivities were able to lie in the grass, listen to music and try to take down that first beer, which is always the hardest. We ended up getting kicked off the field resulting in us finding another one and starting a game of kickball. Once everyone was too tired of kickball we just did some more grass laying and beer drinking. Really it was a perfect afternoon. Other than softball and the masquerade ball, as far as Peace Corps sponsored events, there was bowling, pub trivia, and a talent show- Lily, Karen, Alexx and myself had a dance routine again this year along with the Kolda Region performing a K-Pop routine and I am proud to say they were both a hit!
With less than three months left in country I am left thinking, what next? We were told during our Close of Service Conference to do the next thing that interests us. This is where there is a bump in the road. What does interest me? Do I want to teach English abroad for a little bit? Do I want to push papers to try to move up in an organization? Do I want to try and find that perfect dream job that allows me to live abroad with a base somewhere in the states? And if I am going to live in the states there is always the question of where? While I have no idea what I am going to be doing in three months it leaves me with a freeing feeling. I can do whatever I want and I can live wherever I want. Now is the time to actually do whatever interests me. On the other hand after doing what I have been doing for the past two years, and pretty much being away from anything that I consider normal life back in America, am I really equipped mentally to make these hard life changing decisions? As a Peace Corps volunteer, and I am sure most, if not all can relate, you lose all sense of decency in those two years! We eat with our hands, when we shower it is out of a bucket, we are always late to meetings and we narrate every detail of our lives since nobody really understands us. Well, as one may say when talking about guys, I just need Mr. Right Now, not Mr. Forever!


Monday, January 20, 2014

Living The Dream: Job Searching and Cheese Plates!

As I am sitting here trying to write, and honestly picking peanuts out of my teeth since it is the only crop that you can pretty much rely on year around and, it is not rice, I can’t help but think about all the things that I make note to write about, which I can never remember when it actually comes time to write, versus the things that end up flowing from my fingertips more naturally onto this aged MacBook. 
We are COSing (close of service) the first week of May we were told, not sure on an exact date yet, and we all find ourselves reflecting on these past two years, what we are going to be doing after COS and how exactly to blend the two lives together. We are constantly being told how great the work that we are doing is and we are constantly scrutinized for being spies or foreigners who come in and don’t really do much. Whichever side you fall on as a volunteer you can’t help but feel just as lost about life towards the end of your service as you were pre service which is ironic because being lost is the reason most of us pack up and leave America in the first place.
Before I get too far ahead let me clarify a few things first. Usually, groups from a specific sector, be it Agriculture, Health or Community Economic Development (CED) in Senegal’s case, come the same time ever year creating an easy transition for communities with a volunteer leaving and another one arriving a month later creating a two-year cycle. The Community Economic Development sector, which is where my work lies in, has been separated into two groups now arriving twice a year in Senegal once with the Agriculture sector and again with the Health sector. We are the smallest sector within Senegal so it was decided that, since a lot of money goes into trainings, it would be better and easier for everyone if we were mixed in with the other sectors. That being said the CED group that is coming to replace us is now coming in March for training, instead of June. Long story short, we get to leave early. Now I don’t want to sound extreme on either end. There are people in my group that are excited that we get to leave two months earlier and there are those that signed up for two full years and plan on staying here until that time is up. I would say I fall somewhere in the middle. Honestly, I couldn’t be more excited to see friends and family that I haven’t seen in nearly two years. On the other hand I like being abroad, I always have and I probably always will. I am not saying that Senegal is a destination hot spot, I think my mom can attest to that, but it still fills something that I find missing when I find myself in a routine for too long. So I am not sure when we will be leaving but we have our COS conference, a conference every PC Volunteer goes through before COSing to help us transition into life after service (job searching, resume writing, final administrative responsibilities for PC), the first part of February and will hopefully have a better sense of everything afterward.
Sitemate Rachel and I at a local soccer match 
So where does this leave all of us now that are getting ready to do whatever is next? We find ourselves passing on our knowledge to the new volunteers that arrive in country, be it about where to find the best and possibly only cheese plate in the country or where to find cheap beers when you are at your regional house, we obsessively look at and change our resumes, we job search and hope that we get one that will actually let us start when we are able to start, we plan, change, and re-plan COS trips to some exotic far away land before we get tied to a desk in America, we start giving everything away including things that are meant for the trash but you know the kids at your house are just going to dig it out and play with it for an hour before they leave it on the ground and we, with a smile on our face, slowly let people down when we can’t commit to a new project idea because we are leaving but someone soon will replace us and we are sure they would love to help!
Two years may seem like a long time, and some days it is longer than you will ever know, but it seems that right when you get fully comfortable with where you live, with the transportation, food and cultural norms, you have to start packing and saying goodbye. It is true. Development work is hard. Living abroad with a host family and without a salary while you do it is even harder. People say that if we really wanted to make a change that volunteers should commit more time and while I agree with that to a point I am glad that I will not be one of those volunteers. I have loved my time here in Senegal but I also love my life back home. This is nowhere near a goodbye from me, I still have another three months, but that will come and go just as fast as this past year and a half.

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