Monday, December 25, 2006

Happy Holidays from across the Globe!

Well, Merry Christmas! Happy Chanukah! Merry Kwaanza! Happy Tabaski! And, finally, Happy New Year!! The holiday season is upon us, and I have to say that it feels like it snuck out of nowhere. It feels anything but like a holiday. It isn’t that people here don’t celebrate Christmas, or other holidays…but without family it just isn’t the same. So, I have decided that I am putting Christmas on hold…a rain check if you will…that’s right ladies in gentleman. When I come visit next September we are going to have to celebrate Christmas 2006 and New Years. So, don’t throw away your tree quite yet, and keep those goofy 2007 glasses and crowns that I know you are going to wear on New Years in your drunken/partying stupor…if it goes poorly the first time, don’t worry, because when I return to the states for a visit in 9 months you will get to do it all over again. Sound like fun?!?! I think so…

It hasn’t actually been that long since I last posted. Thanks to the holidays I was able to come up with a good excuse to come back into Bobo, and bask in the glow of lights and the sound of television. I know many of you enjoyed my transport story from the last time, and I didn’t want to bore you with another one, but it was just so interesting I can’t help myself. With the onslaught of all the Christian/Muslim holidays, most people have decided to take a break…including all of bus drivers in my village. Which left me with no options to getting into the city from my village…well, no options that my mother would approve of anyway. So did I walk the 65K (roughly 35 miles) into Bobo, ride my bike, crawl? No sir, I did not! I stood out on the side of the road, stuck my thumb out, and hitched a ride on a Brakina Beer truck that was picking up empty bottle along the way to drop off in the capital. How very convenient for me!! I got to sit up front in the VERY small cab of the truck with 3 other friendly Burkinabe men, while we bumpily made our way into town. To be honest, it was the fastest and smoothest ride I have experienced thus far…and the best part was that it was free. I must have charmed their pants off. AND, what transport story would be complete without a chicken story??? I know Erica’s dad, Bubba Baker, likes them!! Hehehe! Halfway on our journey we stopped and picked up a woman holding 4 chickens and a pintard (a bird that resembles/tastes like a chicken). Luckily for me, but unfortunately for your entertainment, my travel this time included no bites or run away birds…

Life in village is slowly settling into my bones, and I am getting my house more and more set up everyday. I have to say, I am pretty pleased with the way it is turning out. My biggest thing was that I didn’t want it to look like a “hut”…it had to look as close to a “home” as possible. I needed to feel as settled as possible in it, and I think I have accomplished that…I will try and post a few pictures of it now, but all my pictures are currently in the mail on their way to the United States where my lovely brother will post all the pictures that I have taken thus far.

Since I last spoke to you not much has been going on. I started running in the mornings, and I am really glad that I finally got on this wagon. First, all I eat are carbs, carbs, and more carbs…and although being “gross” (or “fat” in French) is attractive to people here, I have no intention of coming back looking like a beached whale or a in my community, a “hippo.” Not only that, but I find that it relieves a lot of stress that builds up throughout the day. Stress you say? How could I be stressed, you’ve seen my daily activities schedule…it isn’t all the reading that does it. You would be very surprised just how stressful and draining it is to live in a village with no other French speakers, and to have to constantly be “on” when you walk out the door. Every time I want to go to the marchÈ I have to greet EVERY person that I pass on my bike, I have to smile, I have to turn down 4 marriage proposals, I have to laugh, and shake hands…and it gets tiring. All I want is a tomato or a cucumber, and I get mobbed everytime. Now I know what a celebrity feels like…and you know what…I don’t particularly like it. I know in time the attention will wane as they realize that I live amongst them, and they can see me everyday…but for the first few months I have heard it’s hard…and I am experiencing it now. I try to be as gracious and inviting as I possibly can…but come on folks…everyone has their limits…even selfless and helpful Peace Corps Volunteers…hahaha! I can see how people become hermits…I would prefer to sit and read or do a puzzle then go outside and fumble through my French/Joula to have a conversation with someone. It is a challenge. I never realized how therapeutic running was until I started and now I think I am addicted. I step out of my house every day at 7 a.m. to go on my jog (and at this time of the season I can see my breath in the air…it is about 55-60 degrees in the mornings), and there dutifully waiting for me is my homologue’s son, Ali. He trails behind me in his flip-flops with a glowing grin on his face. I went to all the fuss (and money) picking out the perfect running shoes for my gait and my feet, the perfect running shorts and dry-fit top…and there he is trailing behind me in his jeans and t-shirt with his foam flip-flops…and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t keep up with me for most of the way, and he NEVER stops to walk. I am really impressed! It is the one time in the day where my mind clears and I can just take in the scenery…I run past the hippo lake, and so far I have been lucky enough not to run into one (they may look like lovely creatures from afar, but from what I hear they are pretty vicious). I figure if I ever run into one then it’s just motivation to move faster right? Everyone needs some motivation every now and then. I hope this is a habit I can continue…for my sanity, my health, and my growing derriere!

I am trying to diversify my diet a bit, and I have started to venture out to the various meat sellers in my village. I will admit it, I am a carnivore, and I love it. Chicken is my favorite, but with all of the killing and feather-plucking it seems like too much work. So, I have moved on to easier “viande”…the meat of “mutton” (sheep) and “bouef” (beef). Men set up little grills all around town, hang a few sheep legs from a hook, and all you have to do is pay them some money and they will give you some hunks of already dead meat…no killing involved thank you very much. I like this much better. So, the other day I was dead set on having some beef for dinner. I stopped by the meat sellers shack and sitting there on disply was the ENTIRE head of a sheep! I know this is gross, so if you don’t like this kind of stuff stop reading here (Morgan, I know you love this crap and can’t wait to continue reading…hehehe). Blood was still seeping out of the thing and I immediately turned around…I was seriously re-thinking my desire for meat at this point. But, my stomach won over and said…”you want meat…this is where meat comes from…deal with it!” So, I pleasantly asked them to remove the rotting “tete” (head) from the table…which they did promptly. I could continue. Sitting on the table was a gigantic hunk of meat that was entirely covered in flies…and once again I started to rethink my decision to buy meat…but I forged ahead, Hey, a girls gotta eat! I asked them for a “filet” of beef and he pointed at the rotting cut of meat on the table. I quickly told him that “homey don’t play that”…and I pointed to the gigantic beef leg hanging from a hook under the hangar. This at least had less flies on it, and it looked like a “leg”…I don’t know why that helped me, but whatever. So, with the quick slash of his machete I had a bug chunk of beef leg handed to me in a paper bag…TASTY! I got home and realized that the skin was still attached so worked with my knife to get that off. They tell us that the meat should be red and elastic in texture…and this was definitely neither of those, but the hunger in my stomach overrode my fears of e.coli or bacteria poisoning. I then proceeded to attempt to tenderize the meat, because if you don’t, then it will be as hard as a brick. Without a mallet or a hammer I had to turn to my broomstick handle. Now, as a white person I am already an oddity, but as I stood outside beating a black bag with a broomstick handle, I became the CRAZY ASS white girl. About 4 people lined up to watch me. It wasn’t until I revealed to them what was in the black bag that they finally all laughed, said “toubabou feu” (white girl crazy) and walked away. Oh well…I had soft and chewy meat that night…so whatever. After 30 minutes of cooking (because of my fear or worms and disease) my meat, that started out about the size of a dinner plate, was about the size of my palm…it was still good. Man did I feel accomplished at the end of that meal!

My kitten, Gateau (here is a cute picture of him enjoying some lounge time on my hangar), is doing very well. He is definitely my companion and my family here, and I don’t know what I would do without him. I do fear, however, that he has narcolepsy. Now, I know you think I am crazy, and maybe it is the heat of the day…but I swear…that cat runs around my house like a wild banshee and literally two seconds later he is passed out asleep on the floor. I can’t understand it. Is it the fish I am feeding him? Is there some disease? It’s pretty funny to see him one minute playing in my backpack, and the next minute his head is half hung out, mouth open, sleeping like a baby. It provides me with entertainment I guess, and a reprieve from him wanting to get into everything.

Well, anyway, I am probably boring you to death with the mundane details of my village life…the cat fell asleep reading this…so that can’t be a good sign (or it is just proof of his narcolepsy…I don’t know of which). I hope that everyone is enjoying the holiday season…because for the most part I am trying to push it from my mind. I would rather ignore it than think about what I am missing. I hope that everyone enjoys the holidays, and think of me as you dig into your turkey, roast beef, leg of lamb, wonderful side dishes…because my mouth is watering already.

I am heading out to my village tomorrow, and I actually don’t know the next time I will be back in town. I am going to try to stay out there for 2-3 weeks or longer without escaping to the city. I feel I need to have a constant presence in village so that people get used to seeing me, and realize that I DO actually live there. It makes a difference on how I am perceived…trust me. My phone always works so feel free to give me a call or pop a letter in the mail…I will respond to EVERY letter, and that is a promise. Take care. A plus. A la procieme.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Toh, Toh, and more Toh....oh yeah and fish...

HELLO!! Wow, it seems like a long time since I last wrote you, and it’s only been a week and a half. It is interesting how time moves here…so SLOW, yet so fast at the same time. I am officially “en brousse” in my village, and I can’t possibly think where to begin to describe what has been going on here.

I had a lot of time to think about it on my 2 ½ hour “bush taxi” ride into the BIG city of Bobo-Dioulasso, my new home base. And, I am still not sure how I sum up 10 very interesting days. Firstly, I must describe to you my voyage to get here…that in and of itself was an experience. I don’t know if you have heard about transport in Africa, although I know you can use your imagination. What classifies as a vehicle and what they put on it are very loosely defined. Honestly, it makes my Chinatown to Chinatown bus to Boston look like a limo ride…yeah, I will never complain again about public transport back in the United States. So, the car goes by my house at 7:30 in the morning, which is very convenient. So I sit outside waiting for it to pull up…and in the distance it appears. It looks like an oversized VW Bus, except with a lot more holes…and I certainly have never seen a VW bus with goats tied to the roof and people riding on the top. I literally started laughing out loud when I saw this “vehicle” approach. There were people hanging out of the windows, goats strapped to the roof standing up, people strapped to the roof, rice, bikes, luggage, chickens, you name it and it was on there. We were a land-faring Noah’s Ark…but not as sea worthy. I hop on, and what do you know…they had saved me the one seat that was left—it’s good to be a foreigner sometimes…hehehe. So, I sit down and prepare for my bumpy 60 km journey into Bobo. I had taken the road to get here in a cush Landcruiser Peace Corps vehicle, and it had been hard then…I had no idea how this car was going to make it. I pop on my headphones look out the window and eventually semi-doze off. That is until the attack of the chickens. Now look, I know what you’re thinking, another chicken story?!?! I don’t know how I attract them, I don’t know what I have done to deserve it…but as long as I don’t have bird flu I am totally fine with that. So, I am sitting there listening to a little Toto, “Rains Down in Africa” (very appropriate right?) when I feel a little nip on my foot. I look down and I am so shocked at what I see that I literally jump onto my seat. The poor elderly woman next to me thinks that I am absolutely nuts. It wasn’t the chickens that scared me…but the surprise that (a) I was being bitten by a chicken…do they even have teeth? And (b) what the hell are chickens doing by my feet?!?! That little bugger bit me about 4 times the entire ride. What the hell! The funny thing about all of it is, by the time we got to Bobo all I could think about was…”mmm…I bet he would be really good for dinner.” Oh goodness, that is what Toh and fish sauce everyday will do to you. Alas, I arrived safely…we all did. We didn’t break down, the car didn’t flip, and I didn’t get to eat the chickens for lunch…an interesting ride that I am sure to experience many more a time. I am now in Bobo enjoying electricity, decent food—SCHWARMA!!, and the company of my fellow volunteers…I never thought I would be so happy to see English-speaking people.

So, I arrived in village on Wednesday a week and a half ago, I would equate the whole affectation/move-in experience to college—except this time I didn’t cry (yeah, ask me about that later). You drive along this horrendous dirt road until you come up my village. It is a pretty large village that appears out of nowhere…one minute nothing and then BOOM…my village. So I pull in with furniture strapped to the roof, in a cushy Landcruiser brimming full of luggage, beds, stoves, etc. That doesn’t attract attention, right? Hah, I think the entire town came out to see what was in this car…I think they were disappointed it wasn’t gifts for them…oh well, I think I am a pretty good gift. So, the Peace Corps driver helps me unload my car, I get a tour of my house, we sit in awkward silence for a little bit—sometime that happens quite a lot—and then he hops in his little vehicle and is off to the big city. There I stand, surrounded by all my belongings, 20 Burkinabe people…all alone. Just like college, I sat down in the middle of my room and I said to myself, “what do I do now?” Luckily, I had my lovely kitten with me who could cuddle and make me forget that I just got dropped off at a house with people I don’t know, in a third world country, 2 ½ hours from a city, no electricity/running water/decent food/English speaking people, no family…I am surprised that I didn’t freak out, but I think really I have to hold it together, because if I don’t then nobody will…it is just me out there people!

I spent the first several days meeting important people, the mayor, the chef du village, the Majore (head nurse at the clinic), head of every agricultural organization. It was tiresome. I repeated the same introduction over and over again until I thought I would pass out. “Je suis Stephanie. Je suis un voluntaire avec le Corps de la Paix…” AAAAHHHH! The one thing that has kept me sane, besides my kitten, is the fact that the landscape is so beautiful. Truly, it reminds me of Africa out of history books. We have a river that flows through the village which is utterly amazing. There are mango groves, banana groves (I never want another banana again…), rice fields (my village is the rice capital of Burkina), corn fields…it really is beautiful. I spend a lot of my days just riding through them, or sitting and reading by the river.

After meeting all the necessary people I took it upon myself to do some small home improvements. I had a bookshelf and an armoire built at the carpenter’s, I had them cement my courtyard, I organized, I am going to paint. I have tried to keep myself busy…maybe I can keep myself distracted long enough before I realize what I have gotten myself into. For you readers at home though, how do I capture what my life is like? Well…one thing that might be helpful for you is a “Day in the Life”…that sounds like fun, right? Well, I am gonna write it anyway…here is a day in the work week of Stephanie…

Stephanie's Daily "Work" Schedule:

6:30 AM - Wake up and run to the bathroom (will my bowel movements ever be solid and controllable anymore?)

7:00 AM – Boil water for hot tea and instant grits (ooohhh, yummy)

7:15 AM – greet my counterpart before he leaves for the marche, get some hot water from his wife for my bucket bath (it is COLD here right now in the mornings…)

7:25 AM - Take my bucket bath…refreshing? No. Do I feel clean? No.

7:30 AM - Eat my breakfast--which consists of powdered milk and corn flakes, or instant grits...thanks Mom!--while simultaneously greeting people in Moore, Joula, and French. That’s right folks…three languages are spoken in my village, and everyone assumes that in the week that I have been there that I have become fluent in all three…WHAT?!?!

8:15 AM – Sweep the layers of dust that have caked up in my house

8:30 – 10:30 AM - Read whatever book of interest I have…anyone have any good suggestions?

10:30 AM – go outside and sit with 1 of the 2 wives of my counterpart while she talks to me in Joula, and I just nod my head like I understand. This is also the time when children and adults come over and laugh at me for a reason I still don’t know.

11:30 AM – Ride my bike to the marche where I sit at my counterparts boutique, talk about America—tell him no it isn’t possible to take a bus to America…at least I don’t think so, greet people as they ride by, walk through the market and buy some veggies for lunch. Realize that I am about to have an explosive diarrhea attack…run home and hopefully make it to the bathroom in time (it’s gross, but I promised I would be honest with you guys about the reality of my life here…so that’s the brutal truth…take it or leave it).

12:00 PM - Make lunch, eat, pretend to eat the Toh and fish that my counterpart’s wife makes for me, sweep the layers of dust that have accumulated out of my house, and take a midday nap.

3:00 PM – wake up from my lovely nap and go sit out front again with my counterpart’s wife while people laugh at me and talk about me (I have no idea what they are saying…but I hear “toubabou” (white person)…eat fried patates (like sweet potatoes)…get laughed at when I use my ketchup.

4:30 - Sweep the layers of dust that have once again accumulated in my house. Stand over the well in my courtyard and with rope and bucket and draw water from the well to fill my water container…this is another time where people like to stare and laugh as well.

5:00 PM – go to the marche to hang out at my counterpart’s boutique some more…walk around…talk to people…read. Run home with most likely another explosive bathroom attack…oh my poor poor bowels.

6:00 PM – it is dark at this time. Take my second bucket bath, brew some water for tea, make something (most likely Easy Mac or powdered mashed potatoes—which by the way have NEVER tasted so good—THANK YOU DAD and HONI!)

7:00 PM – eat dinner with my counterpart’s wife and his two kids (boys, 2 years old and 10 years old). Watch as they spill food everywhere which then attracts an entire colony of ants which I battle with for the next hour. Pretend to eat the Toh and fish sauce…

8:00 PM – Sweep the layers of dust that have accumulated in my house. Blow my nose and watch the Kleenex turn brown. Or, if I don’t have Kleenex, blow a snot rocket on the ground…yeah, who wants to waste precious toilet paper on their nose…not me, not when NO toilet paper is sold in my village. Lie in bed, read a book, listen to my satellite radio.

9:00 PM – ZZZZzzzz….and get up 1-2 times a night to run to the bathroom because whatever I ate has made my bowels saying, “HELL NO!”

That, with a little variation here and there, is what my days consist of right now. The Peace Corps tells us not to start any projects…just observe and get habituated into your community. So, that is my busy busy day…a little different than a work day in NYC huh? Aside from my occasional hippo hunting session (that’s right…there is a hippo lake literally 400 yards from my house). We tried to go see them, but once I realized that I was stuck in mud up to my knees, probably getting Schistomastiosis (an interesting disease that I will have to tell you about sometime), trying to find one of the most dangerous animals on the planet…I decided to turn around and go home. I will wait for another time to see them…when I am not stuck in mud and unable to move…a perfect target for a stampeding hippo.

All in all, I am very happy (I don’t know if I conveyed that in my daily activities schedule). The people in my village over all are very nice, my counterpart is nice, his wives (that’s right…plural) are nice, his kids are nice…I am just taking it all in. The organization I work for is very motivated, and I think there is a lot of good work to be done here. First, I have to acclimate to this new lifestyle…more shockingly different then I would have thought. My house is great; it is starting to look like a real home. I am going to plant flowers and a vegetable garden. HAHAHA, I sound like a 60 year-old retiree…and you know what, I will enjoy it while I can. I know what the working world is like…and I am in no hurry to return. This is like a vacation…that is if your idea of a vacation is torturing your body, living in a country where you don’t speak the language, not having electricity/running water, eating Toh every night, and being thousands of miles away from family/friends…so far that’s my idea of a pretty good vacation, and I get to live it everyday…are you ready to join me?

Well, it is back to the village and isolation I go. I get cell service so feel free to drop me a line…would love to hear from you. With the holidays coming up I will be coming to Bobo a couple of times…but after that it is village life with the occasional visit to the city. So, I hope to post another entry by Christmas.

Happy Holidays to everyone, and I am sad I am not there to share in the festivities. Mom, thank you more my sax-playing/dancing Santa Claus doll…they searched all my packages when I picked them up at the post and I was able to distract them with the dancing Santa Claus while I hid the DVD’s and electronics from their eyes (I don’t want to have to pay taxes for that). To see grown men in military uniform ooh and ahh over a dancing stuffed animal is a sight to see…truly.

Happy Chanukah…Merry Christmas…Happy Tabaski…or whatever holiday you are celebrating! Talk soon!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Gateau...a tasty cake? I think not...

Wow, I can't believe how much has happened in just the few short days since I have written. I am writing this from the cush offices of the Peace Corps in the Burkina capital, Ouagadougou, as I wait until tomorrow for my dentist appointment. Honestly, it couldn't have worked out better for me. I have been staying in the Peace Corps transit house (a hostel for PC Burkina volunteers), eating tons of junk food--ice cream, pizza, cheeseburgers, chocolate shakes--and just hanging out with some of the other volunteers who are in the capital. I am living it up!!! Thank you rotten teeth...that is all I have to say!

I am now OFFICIALLY a Peace Corps Volunteer, and no longer a Peace Corps Stagiare/Trainee. It is such a strange feeling. One minute I was stepping off the plane into the hot Burkina air wondering what the hell I got myself into, and the next minute I am finished with training and I am heading out on my own. How did this happen?!?! It seems to have gone so fast, yet so slow! I am ready to move to my village and start my two years of service, but I can't help but be frightened to death of being alone, lonely, bored, confused, scared, misunderstood, stared at...and a multitude of other emotions. Truly, I have to take everything one day at a time...if I think too far into the future I stress myself out. So, one day at a step at a time...or "baby steps..."

Luckily (and at the same time unforunately) I have my kitten Gateau (French for cake, Spanish for cat). Some volunteers think it is a poor choice for a name since people do eat cats here, and naming your cat a tasty treat doesn't help much...but I say bah humbug. That's right...I adopted a kitten. I couldn't help myself, and for those of you that know me, you know that I have a soft spot for things like that. He is SOOO cute! He is black and grey tiger-striped, and is just the most rambunctious needy little thing ever! He is so adorable, but traveling with him on transport while trying to drag my suitcase and bike, and then having him at the hostel with 10 other people makes it hard. Plus, he seems to like this brown couch on the screened-in porch, and likes to use it as a litter box...not exactly appreciated by the other lodgers in the hostel. I basically run around doing damage control. Hopefully, once I get to site he won't be so antsy. Truly though, I am glad to have him around. He likes to crawl up and sit on my shoulder like a parrot while I walk around doing errands, brushing my teeth, going to the bathroom!! That's right...I have to take him with me, because if I don't he screams bloddy murder outside my door. Oh god, someone help me...I didn't intend to adopt a child! It is endearing, for now anyway!

Before I sign off I want to leave you with a quick little story. I left Ouahigouya and my host family on Friday. I went over to my host family's house to have breakfast with them one last time before I left. So, as I came in to the house the grandmother approached me. This woman is missing most of her teeth, and doesn't speak French all that well (as far as I can tell) so mainly I NEVER understand what she is saying and I just nod my head and say "ya soma" (Moore for "it's good") or "Laafi" (Moore for "It goes well"). Anyway, she shook my hand and placed 200 F.CFA into my palm (equivalent of about .50 cents). I was so shocked, because I know she doesn't work, and I didn't understand why she was giving it to me. I told her thank you and walked into the house to ask my mom about this gift...why? What was the significance? For people that have so little, it makes me uncomfortable to accept monetary matter how small. So, my mom told me that it is customary when a grandchild goes o a long trip that the grandmother gives that child a little money to buy bread and some water. Honestly, I almost cried. It seems so insignificant, but at that moment I truly felt accepted by them. They have helped me so much by showing me around, telling me when I make faux pauxs, helping me navigate the marche, buy things, etc. Never once have they been frustrated or dissapointed. They have simply been there...and I can't imagine an America family showing that same hospitality.

It sounds so cliche, but it seems to me that it is the people that have the least that give the most...something I am learning a lot about here. I don't know...just a little food for thought.

So, tomorrow is my appointment with the Burkinabe dentist. Hopefully, all is well and I will ship off to my site on Tuesday. Stay tuned!

Thanks for continuing to read. I don't think I will get to post for a while as I transition into living in the middle of nowhere, a good 35 miles away from internet/electricity/etc. Stay tuned though!