Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Ho Ho Ho...Merry Christmas!

Hello all. Well, aside from my brief entry telling you that I wasn't going to post an entry--odd, right--I haven't written much lately. I guess my mind has been occupied with other things...or maybe I was having writer's block. The adjustment process to being back in Burkina has been a bit hard...but I feel like I am almost there.

Upon returning to Banzon I was pleasantly surprised to find that my house had not turned in to a mouse/rat kingdom, my cat was alive and still had working use of both eyes, and that for the most part things were in tact. My bike had a couple of dings on it that I don't remember inflicting...and it looked extraordinarily clean--I don't know if I cleaned it with my mind from America or if the small child in my courtyard decided to take it for a test-drive, wrecked it, and then cleaned it thinking I wouldn't notice. Either way, it still works and isn't much worse for the wear considering all the things I have done to it. Also, much to my delight, I encountered a gigantic spiderweb over the doorway to my room that spelled out, "Bienvenue!" and a pig named Wilbur sat cheerily underneath as a welcome home present...yeah dinner! Okay...if any of you are believing what I just typed...man you are gullible. Spiders can't speak French! Slowly people started trickling over to greet me, welcome me home, and demand for their gift from America. Oh gosh, really, you missed me that much...thanks! As it turns out, most people in the village, after my prolonged absence--2 months--thought that I was never coming back. I guess I am just lucky that they didn't loot my house. My house was cleaner than I could have hoped for, and luckily I was not kept awake by mice and roaches in the middle of the night....it's all a girl can ask for really.

The next morning, as the family gathers in the courtyard, I gave them their presents from America. My host dad, thanks to the oh so lovely department store of "Mom's Closet," received a lovely fleece jacket to keep him warm and toasty during those cold 70-degree nights of winter. I gave my host mom a lovely earring/necklace set and a Mercedes Marathon long-sleeve t-shirt. To the kids I gave each of them a pair of Adidas soccer shorts and some toys I found at the Dollar Store--love that place--including bubbles and stickers. I had intended, when gifting the Hot Wheels stickers to the eldest Ali, that he would use them. And us them he did...after he marveled at the sports car stickers, he ran away excitedly to decorate his bike with them. Oh, he has the sweetest ride in Banzon now! However, later that day as I was relaxing at my counterparts boutique, I noticed something. He had taken some of the stickers from his son--this is a grown man mind you--and decorated his entire scooter with Hot Wheels stickers. Can you imagine in American if a 45 year-old man decided to stick Hot Wheels stickers all over his car? Oh yes...so now both he and his 11 year-old son are sporting the coolest Hot Wheels stickers around.

After two-months away from village living--including exclusive access to a real toilet, a shower, and electricity--I found adjusting to be harder than I would have imagined. You would think most of the skills I acquired in village--mainly, my keen ability to pee/pooh into a hole the size of a softball and never get it on the floor or on myself--would come back to me quickly if not instantly. Well, let me tell you folks, that peeing in a small hole takes practice, and it isn't like riding a bike. For the entire week I can not even tell you how often I peed on the floor and on myself. Okay, I know you are making a grossed out face right now, or laughing, or both...but I am just being upfront and honest with you in an effort to show everything about my life here. The way I figure it, if you have been reading my blog from the beginning then you all know that this is nothing compared to things I have described before. It took me my entire time in village to finally remember what proper foot placements and positions my body needed to be in to accurately get everything on target. Peeing in a hole....harder than you think (especially for us girls). If you don't believe me then go outside right now and give it a whirl. If all goes well, in February my mom and her friend Audrie will get to learn first-hand about the difficulty of doing just this thing! Aside from my peeing incidents things in village are pretty boring at the moment. It is the holiday season--Tabaski, Christmas, and New Year's--so people aren't all that motivated to do anything but party and drink. So, that left me with a whole lot of time, and a whole lot of nothin' to do. After a week of sitting around and sleeping, I left village for the Christmas celebration.

A fellow volunteer, Leslie, was having the festivities in her small village of Kangala...which is even smaller and more remote than my village. Woo hoo! Thanks to some creative improvising we fashioned ourselves a Christmas tree, played Christmas carols--really we only had one Christmas song on our iPod, so we just played Akon and Harry Connick Jr.--and ate a whole lot. I brought some goodies from hom including seaweed paper, canned tuna, canned beef, Fresh Market Christmas Blend coffee, coffee mate, and so much more. The first night we dined on tuna sushi rolls...complete with wooden chopsticks that I stole from the grocery store. The next night, we had 6 chickens "sent off to pasture" so that we could celebrate in style with mashed potatoes, and a green-bean casserole--complete with cream of mushroom soup made from scratch and fried onions. The weekend was made complete by another volunteers supply of a GIGANTIC Pepperidge Farm "Yard of Beef" stick....mmmmmm!!! It was quite a weekend full of Christmas carolling, dancing, and present opening. In spite of the limiting selection of Christmas gifts available to us, I received green tea (thanks Meghann), single packets of Biore face wash (thanks Vero and your mom), a lighter that lights up multi-color when you push the button, a half-used canister of dry foot lotion (thanks Leslie), 3 Burkinabe Batteries (thanks Radhika), and a packet of tissues. It was quite a wonderful and festive event, and I couldn't be happier about my gifts. After our festivities at Leslie's we moved on to Audrie's village to continue the holiday--Pig Roast. Audrie's village, Mahon, is only 9 kilometers away, and thanks to my poor planning I didn't have a bike to get there. So, in a moment of insanity, I said that I would just run there. After my weekend of attempting to eat an entire "Yard of Beef" among all the other food that I indulged in, it probably wasn't such a good idea. It took me longer than I would have liked, but I finally arrived at the pig roast ravenous and feeling pretty good about digging into the 100-pound pig that we had selected to dine on. It ended up being about 8 of us Peace Corps volunteers and 30 or so villagers. We drank a lot of palm wine, drank a lot of beer, ate a lot of pork, and sang as many Christmas Carols as we could remember. It was a pretty fun time!

Now I am back in Bobo ready to head back to village to celebrate the passing into 2008! Can you believe it?!?! It has been over one year since I left America to come to Burkina, and here we are turning over to '08. The year that I will come home from the Peace Corps, the year that my sis will graduate college, and more importantly the year that we say goodbye to George Bush! Thank goodness!

I can only hope that you all have had as fun and an eventful Christmas holiday as myself, and I hope that your New Year's is wonderful as well. It's back to village I go...take care and stay close!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Quick Update...

Okay...so I am sitting here trying to figure out what to write about, and I will be honest...I am drawing a blank. A lot has happened in the past few weeks as I adjust back to my life here in Burkina Faso. I will admit it was a bit harder than I thought...everything looked a bit dirtier and a bit crazier than when I left.

I am finished helping out with training, and I am finished with my own training and yearly annual physical--in case you were wondering I am apparently germ, microbe, amoeba, and parasite free, at least according to my pooh samples (I'm sure you really wanted to know that too...). In about an hour I will be boarding my "bus" back to village...a place that, after being away 2 months, feels rather foreign to me now. Back I go to the world of bucket baths, battery-powered lights, latrine holes, and hauling my water from a well. To most this doesn't sound like a vacation, but to be honest with you my senses are on absolute overload at this point and I wouldn't mind a bit of solitude. And, of course, I do have a lot of work to do...

Alright, well, I will have more to write about the next time. I have lots of time in village to think up a fabulous entry that will leave you doubled over in laughter. Hope everyone enjoys their holidays and snow...I will be bundled up against 60 degree weather...woo hoo!

Stay Safe!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A warm Burkinabe welcome...sort of...

Hello all! That's right...I am writing you from Burkina Faso. The eagle has landed! Wow...I am still reeling from all the things that have happened in the past several weeks, and reflecting on how much fun I had while I was home. I got to spend 2 wonderful weeks with Mike in New York City, eating my way through every restaurant I ever wanted to visit. We went up to Boston and explored the town. Then I migrated to the South--to much more welcoming weather--where I spent two weeks with my family. With my Dad's wedding, Thanksgiving, and of course THE IRON BOWL, I had little time to breathe. But, I tell you, I don't regret one busy second of it. Everything just tasted a little sweeter, was just a little better, and I have Burkina to thank for this new found appreciation.

Now here I am back in Africa...my life has recommenced. Of course, leave it to Burkina Faso to offer me quite a rousing welcome in my first full day. I got in last night around 8:00. Thanks to some delays in Burkina we say in Niamey, Niger for an hour and a half. We finally land and I singlehandedly lug all 3--that's right, I said 3--suitcases into a taxi and back to the apartment. I absolutely crash, because I am running on zero hours of sleep. The next day--i.e. today--I was supposed to take the bus up to Ouahigouya to work the training for the new volunteers. All is going well. I get a taxi to pick me up at 9:00 and I head to the bus station. Of course, as the taxi pulls away I realize that I have (a) left my brand new Nalgene bottle in the car and (b) left all my medecine sitting out in the hostel. Way to go...and such a typical "Stephanie" move--those of you that know me are just snickering right now...STOP IT!

I get on the bus and off we go...seemingly without a hitch. I do have to get used to EVERY guy hitting on me, asking me to give them money, buy them a soda, and the "oh, if you need someone to accompany you on your bus ride" offer. We get about 30 minutes outside of Ouaga when the bus stops. I have my iPod running, so I am spaced out. But, time starts slipping by, and by, and by, and by...and then I realize that it has been an hour. I get out of the bus to ask what is going on, and all I get is jumbled responses in French--and man is my French rusty. Someone says something about our driver not having papers, and that they sent for a new one. Well, turns out the second driver didn't have papers either...go figure. Time is going by, and I am trying really hard to tap back into my "African Patience" that I packed away while in the States. Another hour goes by and there I sit in the hot sun on the side of the road. Finally, I ask that the driver give me my bag that is packed on the roof because I am going to hitchhike--I know it sounds scary, but it really isn't. Well, at this point--2 hours into our joy ride--he has been getting yelled at my the other passengers, so he refuses to take my bag off. He keeps yelling about another bus coming, and that I would just have to wait. I watch as other bus lines pass by...the passengers seemingly laughing at my poor ass sitting on the side of the road, sweating...no water, no food...no fun! So, we tick through the 3rd hour, and still no one. Now, we tick into the 4th hour...and still there we sit. If only I had the guts to climb to the top of the bus and just unstrap my bag. I am cursing in English, and it makes me even more mad that no one understands me and that I don't know how to curse in French--note to self: learn to curse or be mad in French. Finally, in the 5th hour...yes the 5th hour...the driver tells us we are turning back around. I ask him again to just give me my bag back--forget about my money, I don't even want it back--so that I can just hitch a ride on another bus. Again, he refuses. At this point, there are like 5 other Burkinabes telling him he should give me my bag, but he feels like being a jerk and refuses. So, I hop back on the bus to take my ride right back to where I started...or so I thought. Rather than going back to the station he gets taken by police escort to their impound. We pull in and everyone is asked to pile out. Again, I ask for my bag...just my bag...so I can get out of there. Again, the driver refuses to take it down. He says he won't take anything down until we reach our destination...HELLO...we are never getting there!! I am furious. I start asking the police for help, but they say they can't do anything. So, there I sit in the police compound while a policeman draws lines on a piece of paper with a ruler, and stares at a sheet of paper. My adventure started at 9:30, and we are ticking past 3:00...so needless to say I was a bit upset. With my last ounce of credit on my phone I call Erica and ask her to see if she can contact Peace Corps to get me some help. I don't want to board another bus, I just want my damn bag, and I want out of there. Finally, our security director gets the police, the bus service, and the chauffeur on the phone. Within 2 seconds of him talking with them my bag was unloaded and I was out of there. Now come on people...was that really so hard? All he had to do was get his ass on the top of that bus and just give me my bag...no problems. I wasn't asking for my money back, or for an apology...I just wanted my bag so I could leave. I couldn't help having the thoughts of, "is this what I came back here for?"

So, 6 hours after I left for what should have been a 2 1/2 hour ride, I return back to the hostel. I wish I could say I learned some valuable lesson in all of this, or that I reached my Zen place...but...I didn't. I just wasted an afternoon sitting in the hot sun, starving and thirsty. In the end, no matter how I felt or what I said, the situation didn't change...you have to just shake your head, grit your teeth, and say..."Burkina!"

To add to my first 24 hours of bad luck,
my fabulous tub of grits completely busted open in my bag. Like...everything was covered in grits, and it looked like it snowed on the floor. Not to gross you all out, but I ashamedly shook them out of the bag, swept them up, and put them in a plastic baggy. I ate some this morning. Look, if the title of my blog gives you no clue, I really like grits, and it would take a month to get more sent to me. So, I am willing to sacrifice and lower my standards.

It has been a bumpy first 24 hours back on Burkina soil, but I guess I can take solace in the fact that (a) it can only get better, (b) my cat, Shea, is still alive, or so they tell me, (c) my house is still standing, (d) it's getting cooler, and (e) the taxi driver returned my Nalgene bottle! YEAH!

I want to thank everyone at home that I saw, and those I didn't, for your thoughts, phone calls, gifts, well-wishes, etc. I had such an amazing time visiting with all of you! Stay happy and healthy...and of course, stay close!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I've only got one word for you...

I completed my 14 hour "hell-flight"--not including the 13 hour layover that I had in Paris...and here I am Stateside for the first time in 14 months. Before I get into the details of how the trip is going, I need only to tell you that being here has been pretty excellent. It isn't that I have done anything crazy, it has been the simple and ordinary that I have enjoyed the most--going to Starbucks for coffee, meeting with friends, watching TV, walking around the city, running in Central Park. I never realized how much I missed this life...and not the complexities, but the basic everyday. After only 2 weeks Burkina Faso seems like this dream. Does it really exist? Do people really live their lives there, while we live our lives here? It is so difficult to fathom that the two worlds exist in the same time-space continuum...they couldn't possibly be any more different!

My flight over was anything but fun. Thanks to yours truly and my fabulous packing/planning skills I forgot both my only sweatshirt and my only jacket...they have been keeping my empty hut in Banzon company. So, armed with a short sleeve shirt, pants, and flip flops I braved the cold weather of Europe. I FROZE my ass off in 5 degree (celsius) weather in Paris. Yup, those dreams I had of hitting up the Starbucks in Paris...FOILED AGAIN! Instead I wandered around the Charles de Gaulle Airport (which by the way is the WORST and most BORING airport ever!) for 13 hours drinking nasty Lavazza coffee. Could I have braved what from my perspective was the Artic Tundra come to life in France? Probably. Would I have gotten dirty looks from stylish Parisians as they scoffed and said, "humph, stupid Americaine..."? Most definitely. Would I have enjoyed my Starbucks? With my luck...probably not. It would either end up closed or out of coffee for the day. And, lord knows with the way the French strike I would probably have been stuck paying another 20 Euro for a cab. Thanks to the less than stellar US dollar...NOT WORTH IT...even for Starbucks!

After my very long 3-continent adventure I finally arrived safe and sound into New York City. The "City of Lights," "The City that Never Sleeps," "The Big Apple," "The Melting Pot of the World"...okay, enough with the nicknames. Mike met me there, and I swear it was as if I had never left. After 14 months away, I was able to adjust right back to life here as if I never left. Aside from the culture shock, that for the most part is just internal thoughts running through my head ("don't throw that away," "Oooohh, those onions and apples are huge," "Turn off those lights," "You mean the chicken is dead before you buy it? GREAT!"). It is really hard to believe that my two lives exist...here and there. There are times when an image or memory of my life in Burkina comes rushing forward, and all I want to do is tell someone about it, but in a lot of ways they wouldn't understand. So, I just sit there laughing to myself about the grocery stores, the toys, the food, the drinks....and a lot of words and feelings run through my head:

Enormous
Bright
Gluttonous
Ecstatic
Happy
Sad
Reminiscent
Rich
Poor
Busy
Fast

But, in the end...there is only one word that can truly sum up all that I have been feeling and thinking in the past two weeks (and it seems all too appropriate for this upcoming holiday).

GRATEFUL

I am grateful for the choices and opportunities I have in life--choices/opportunities that my friends back in Burkina will probably never get. I am grateful for my family...I am grateful for Mike...I am grateful for my friends (here and in Burkina)...I am grateful for my health...I am grateful for a shower...I am grateful for the changing colors of the leaves...I am grateful for the crisp Fall air...

As cheesy as it sounds, I can't help but smile and be grateful that this is my life, I am who I am, and I have the choices and options that I have. I know first-hand how easy it is to be blinded by other things--my job sucks, I don't have enough money, this guy in front of me is slow, where the hell is the bus!), and I think that in my trip home I have realized that I attained one of my biggest goals in going...to gain perspective.

So...if you are reading this...STOP! Stop for just one second and think about your life...about all the good things that are in it that maybe you have overlooked or taken for granted. Be grateful for those things, and maybe send some good vibes/prayers/whatever you do over to those in the world that don't have the choices and the opportunities.

Okay, that was my "Oprah" moment. I hope that everyone is enjoying the holidays, and if you haven't already...get in touch with me while I am home! Stay Safe.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ummm...no thank you!

I am preparing to travel to the "land of milk and honey" (aka The United States) and in Burkina nothing is predictable...so, before I go and bathe myself in chocolate, sushi, Jamba Juice, Starbucks, pizza, and anyother food related delicacy, I will share my last crazy moment...something I am certain does not happen often, if at all, in the States.

I am walking from Marina Market (our "grocery store"). I am accustomed to being hassled by the random "faux types" that hang out there, and the homeless man that follow me...so this was no different. This guy follows beside me for about a 20 minute walk. He is babbling in French something about how Americans are Africans, we are all the same blood...my mom is his mom, and his dad is my dad...and that if I just gave him some money he could buy something to do something (he was not talking coherently...and my French isn't that good). I get to a street corner and he is still babbling and following, and I am trying to just ignore him and hail a cab. Of course, the one time I need one no one comes! So I walk to a further street corner to see if I will have better luck. I am standing there, and at this point I don't hear him so I am hoping he just slunk away. Suddenly, a pigeon flies (or drops) down dead about 2 feet from me. It twitches a couple times...then goes limp. I turn around to see my trusty friend--slingshot in hand--trotting over to claim his newly acquired prize...yummy. Now, I can handle a lot, but this just about crossed my gross out threshhold. He picks up the pigeon, whose poor head is bobbing around like a bobble-head doll, and he proceeds to attempt to stuff it in my bag. OH YES! I kid you not! My hands aren't free because they are full of bags so I try to run away. I keep refusing his "generous cadeau" as he calls it. At this point I am scared he is going to throw it at me. All of the Burkinabè look on in amusement...huh, I am glad someone is enjoying this. Then he walks away...YES, I'm free...wait, NO I'm not. He finds a clear plastic sachet and stuffs the dead bird into it...oh my gosh, is he really going to try and give it to me again or throw it at me? I freak out and start power walking across the busy street. It is like a scene from "Dodgeball"...except luckily I didn't get hit. A cab finally turns and stops right as the man is approaching me. He is holding out the bag yelling--"Mon cherie, c'est un cadeau pour vous. Vien prendre et manger! Mon cherie!" AAAAHHHH...I hope in and don't even ask where he is going, and nor do I care...I want outtie from this psycho.

Anyhoo, everyone in the car gets a nice laugh at the crazy man trying to give me that bird...and one man asks me why I didn't take it...he would have eaten it for dinner if I hadn't. Yeah...Only In Burkina (OIB).

Stay safe...and see you in 3 DAYS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

P.S. Revenge on the Paris Starbuck's will be mine. With a 13-hour layover in Paris I will not be denied my Tall Skim Caramel Macchiatto...VINDICATION! Operation GSCMBSKS (see May 2007 entry) lives again!

Friday, October 19, 2007

A worthy adversary...

It has been over one year in Burkina, and I feel like at this point I can pretty much handle anything. Roaches, scorpions, spiders, gross food, babies peeing on me...but it wasn't until my long "sejour" in Senegal, that my most worthy nemesis became known. Oh yes....with the sudden departure of my cat, and the emptiness of a house..."Jerry" decided to move in...him and his entire family. That's right. For the past month I have been battling with an INSANE mouse infestation. Let's start from the beginning of our "tete-a-tete."

Encounter #1:
It is my first night home...I am attempting to sleep on a moldy bed, on moldy sheets, in a moldy house. Not easy or fun. Suddenly, a small furry creature skirts across the bottom of my bed, across my legs. Fully awake, I look to see 3 mice hiding under my table in my room. Not fun! I text Mike at 2 a.m. and ask him to come and kill them...unfortunately Air France only offers one flight a week to Burkina, and it's full, so he can't come.

Encounter #2:
I am doing massive spring cleaning on my house, and I pull out an old suitcase to pack some books in. Upon opening the suitcase 3 mice JUMP (I didn't even know they could jump that high) out of my suitcase and scatter. My newly attained kitten (aka "mouse killing machine") stares on in disinterest and goes back to sleep. I discover that the mice have eaten and pissed on all of the clothes in the bag, and they are all ruined.

Encounter #3:
I am cleaning dishes when a towel hanging on the wall moves slightly. My first thought is, the cat is chewming my towel. My second thought...wait, the cat is outside. BOOM, a small furry creature leaps from behind the towel onto my chest. I proceed to scream like a little baby, several people come running, and the mouse scurries off. I am laughed at by all the people in my courtyard.

Encounter #4:
It is the end of Ramadan and I am cooking up a feast of chicken, spaghetti sauce, and spaghetti. All the burners on my stove top are in use. Suddenly, my stove top starts to shake, one of the flames starts going crazy, and I hear a screeching coming from underneath the stove top. I rush, shut the gas off for fear of being blown up, and the sound stops. I thought I had killed something, but upon further exploration I see nothing. The next day I notice a little tail sticking out from under my stove. After further exploration underneath, I see a mouse nicely grilled medium well to the bottom of my stove top. My host mother proceeds to pluck it out with her bare hands, and drag it by its tail until my cat becomes interested and starts to chew it apart. As gross as that is, my first thought is...HAHAHA, and I didn't even have to kill it myself!

Encounter #5:
I am sleeping peacefully thinking that all of the mice have been eradicated from my house. I am awoken by strange sounds from my cat. The cat jumps on my bed and starts chowing down on something I cannot see. I grab my flashlight only to be awoken to the sight of a bloody dead mouse being dragged across my bed. The cat has decided that my bed is the dinner table...ummm...NO! Should I have been grossed out by this...yes...was I...no. I was more annoyed than anything else, and proud that he had actually gotten one on his own. I took him and his prize outside to finish the meal, and then covered the blood with a sleeping bag....I slept like a baby that night. And don't worry....I cleaned the sheets the next morning.

2 down! Hopefully no more go! I still hear random skitterings at night, and scary stories from neighbors about how mice like to nibble you at night. I hope that my fierce companion, Shea, is now aware of his role in my house. I really think that from this point forward I will be able to hand most any infestation...I feel much stronger...or maybe just de-sensitized. Either way, I hope you enjoyed that little story...it is to be continued!

For those of you that have been supporting me in the marathon...I have some bad news. A recurring Staph Infection and a pinched nerve have left me virtually bed-ridden these past few weeks, and I have decided that it is best if I postpone my marathon entry until next year. I am VERY disappointed, but I would like to survive the marathon...and at this point that wouldn't be likely. I am like an old woman here...I swear I have cut off at least 10 years of my life span...and that is only in year 1. Anyway, I still look forward to seeing all of you...OCTOBER 31ST BABY! Stay safe!!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Time keeps on tickin', tickin', tickin' into the future...

1 year...that's right...1 year since I touched down in the paradise that I like to refer to as Burkina Faso. Can it really be that long? I honestly feel like I just got here, and that I am still trying to figure things out, but here I am crossing the 1 year hump, and getting ready for a new set of trainees to come in. I look back at all that has happened in this past year...all the hardships, the sicknesses, the friends lost--not died...they went home, and the triumphs and achievements. It has been a rollercoaster ride, but I feel like I am finally settling in to things here, in work and in life. What's cool is that in the next few months I get to help train the new "me's"...i.e. Small Business volunteers...have I really come that far? Sometimes you expect such HUGE change...but in the end it is almost imperceptible. Only time will tell what effects this experience has had on me.

Things in village were a bit difficult coming back. As most of you know, my cat Gateau went missing...and as the drama unfolded it was revealed that my homologue--he owns my house--hit and killed him. So, I was having a hard time dealing with that--especially because in Gateau's absence an entire mouse colony (mom, dad, babies, and all) set up shop in my house. I arrived at my house a little bit in shock at the massive change that had happened in the time I was in Senegal. 8 volunteers were sent home for various reasons while I was there, so I had lost some very good friends. On top of that, upon entering my house I discovered not only the mouse infestation, but also a SERIOUS mildew problem. All my leather sandals were molded, my belts and clothes (ALL OF THEM) were moldy and damp, my mattress had mildewed, and the dust was BAD. But, thanks to a 5 1/2 hour tranport ride to my village, I arrived at night and couldn't do much about it. That first night I was unpleasantly awoken to the noise of gnawing, and then a small creature skittering across my bed. Yes, peeps, that's right...I had a bedfellow...a large mouse. That almost did me in...I called Mike and made him talk to me for an hour because I couldn't sleep. The mold/dampness in my house made it difficult to breathe...yeah...I don't think I need to say more...it was just hard. I went from an air-conditioned hotel room with continental breakfast in Senegal...to this.
My village did feel rather bad about my cat, and got me another, and although he is nothing like Gateau...he at least eats the mice, and that is thankful:

Say hello to my new kitten....Shea

Work, on the other hand, has been going well, and keeping me busy. If not for that, I fear I probably wouldn't have lasted a year. My women's groups that did the shea butter formation just started the formal process to become a government recognized Union, and a Netherlandese NGO, SNV, is coming to my village to meet them and work with them in building their capacity and skills in business management, etc. My girls camp...THANK HEAVENS...also ended. I completed another 2 weeks of the camp and then we had the closing ceremony.

I loved doing the camp, don't get me wrong. I will say that it was at times the most stressful and frustrating thing in the world. Burkinabe are anything but reliable when it comes to saying they are going to do something. I had a last minute cancellation from the nurse at the hospital for my womens roundtable, and the teacher that was supposed to come never showed up. So, my roundtable consisted of 2 people...a secretary and a HIV/AIDS specialist. An hour later the Manager of the Caisse showed up...so it was a little dissappointing. Then the guy who was supposed to help me with composting just decided he didn't want to do it and not tell me...so in about 5 minutes I had to pull together a Fuel Briquette formation for my environment group. But, as I have said countless times before...somehow, someway...it always works out. The Fuel Briquette training was a huge success...and the most fun activity I did thus far...sometimes tons of planning doesn't always make a difference. Here is a couple pics of the girls doing the briquettes:









It was a major stress for me to plan an event like this...up until this point I had hit up against cultural barriers...but nothing like this. Their rules/cultural regulations regarding parties (or "fetes" as they call them) and who you invite, what you serve, how much you serve, etc. is UNBELIEVABLE! I had to invite every major figure in our village, which skyrocketed the price of the party...it is a domino effect...you invite one person and you have to invite another, until I had a 60 person guest list. I wanted the girls to feel special, and feel that the community cared about this event...and I think I achieved that. We killed 11 chickens, and had TONS of rice, and cokes (yes...cokes...in Southern that means it could be any drink...Sprite, Fanta, Coke, whatever) for everyone. I definitely lost my patience more than once, and felt taken advantage of because I am the "white" girl...but you know what...I had the money, everyone enjoyed themselves, and in the end I threw a party for 60 people and spent about $85 USD...not bad. Here is a picture of the girls after they had received their certificates:


Now, I am at a bit of a break in my work, and getting ready to be out of my village for quite a while. I will be in village for a couple of weeks, including several days of hosting some trainees in my village so they can get the "vrai" village experience. After that I pack my stuff and leave village for good for 6 weeks! I will spend a week at the training center, board a plane to the USA...WOO HOO, and then after arriving back in Burkina I will spend another week and a half with the trainees as they prepare to swear in and move to their sites. So...I leave my village Oct. 21st and don't get back until Dec. 14th!!! To be honest, I am not all that happy about it, considering that my work comes to a complete halt...but, I am excited about visiting home and helping with the new trainees...so my village will survive. I have a lot of ideas for small projects to start in my village when I get back: A school garden to supplement their canteen lunches, a girls soccer club, an after-school study program for girls, a business management workshop, and of course their is always Shea butter kickin' around. I hope to bring home lots of samples for you all to try!

Anyways, otherwise, all is well. I am battling yet another case of Staph infection, and trying to make a decision on my marathon hopes. Right now my ankle is swollen like a grapefruit, and I am battling with my stubborness on what to do. I will keep you posted. EITHER WAY, I will be home on October 31st ready to visit and take in as much of America as I can. I miss you all...and I will see you soon! Stay close!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Burkina Sweet Burkina!

I have had serious dental work in Africa...and I live to tell the tale! As my Aunt told me, that is a first for a Gottlieb. So, I am happy to set the family record. Who is spreading this vicious rumor that root canals hurt...STOP IT...because they don't. HUGE MYTH! As scared as I was, the dentist was amazing, and I never really felt any pain. I have a new tooth to show for it...not gold, ceramic...but still fun all the same. I am glad that this is behind me, and I can move on to more interesting illnesses like parasites and giardia. It isn't all that cool to say, "yeah, I am here on dental"...much cooler to say something like, "yeah, I'm here because I have a parasite living in my intestinal tract eating away at the lining."

Burkina Sweet Burkina! Who thought I would ever say that! After a 3-week sejour in Dakar, Senegal I am back in familiar territory. It felt so good to hear a local language that is familiar...even if after a year I still don't know what the hell people are saying. It felt good to see everyone, and get caught up on all the PC Burkina Faso gossip...and believe me there is a lot! Just in the 3 weeks that I was in Senegal 6 people went home (either ET'ed or Separated). So, it has been a whirlwind trip to the airport everyday to say goodbye to someone else.

I had such a great time in Senegal...from running with my Senegalese friend Fatou, to sunbathing on one of their many islands, to scuba-diving--that's right...scuba-diving...awesome! I ate my way through most of the wonderful restaurants, met some great volunteers and people, and now it's over. When I came back from Israel it was a difficult transition, and I am feeling that again. It is hard to be back, having been away for so long, and know exactly where to pick up again. I have to rejuvenate my girl's camp, work on shea butter, and at the end of this month I will be welcoming the new trainees! Can you believe it...a year...how does that go by so fast?!?! My head is still spinning...

Anyhoo, so...back on my crappy transport to village and back to my life in Burkina. I am scared to death to see what my house looks like. One of my other friends who left for a few weeks came back to mildew and a termite infestation. So, I am afraid I will have my work cut out for me. Lord help me...if there are roaches and spiders (and no Gateau to eat them for me)...I don't know. I think I will pay some small child to just clean my house out for me...the beauty of Africa. Best part is, that would probably either be free or cost me $.50. Gotta love it.

What I am most excited about is doing my last 2 months of marathon training in village. NOT!! Yeah, this should be a blast trying to avoid gigantic mud puddles, potholes, and random farm animals. Could someone please remind me what I was thinking? I have come to a realization in the past few weeks...I am a social runner...much like a social drinker. That whole "runners high" thing...yeah, I don't get that. That is a load of crap. What I loved most about marathon training last time was the great friends that I made...so that when you go on that 20 mile hell run you at least have company and conversation...a comraderie. Now, all I have is my iPod and random people yelling at me as I go. And, lets not forget the weather conditions on top of that. How do these Kenyans do it? No wonder they win everything. Yeah...not fun! This may quite possibly be the hardest thing I have ever done. And, once again I remind you, if you would like to show your support--which I know you all want to do...hehehe, click the link at the top left of my blog to donate to my charity! I need your help to succeed in raising $2500!!

Anyhoo, I am boring you...so I will let you go for now. Stay safe, happy, and healthy. I will probably get back to the computer in a couple of weeks. So...talk to you soon...and SEE YOU IN 2 MONTHS!

Friday, August 31, 2007

RIP - My Kitty, Gateau

Well, I had heard a few days ago, but now with his continued dissappearance it is confirmed. My wonderful cat, Gateau, is gone...

I know he is just a cat, but having been with me since the beginning he has become my family and my best friend. He took care of all my creep crawlies, snuggled on my lap, and was my companion.

video

I am still in Senegal, so I feel a bit powerless about the whole thing right now, and as you know I have a LOT of free time on my hands right now, so I made this video...

Hopefully, I will be back in Burkina next Thursday. I will keep you all posted. Stay close!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

More Misadventures as GRITS navigates West Africa...

Hello from Dakar, Senegal! Sorry it has taken me so long to provide an update...I do have a lot of free time, but somehow it flies by so fast. I had a pretty interesting last night in Burkina Faso before I left to come here.

Myself, and two other volunteers decided to go out and have dinner and drinks in downtown Ouagadougou. Now, ask anyone and they will tell you that Ouaga is one of the safest capitals in West Africa. The evening goes by without incident, save for a few street sellers being a little more than persistent. We finish dinner and head out to the road to catch a cab. One cab stops, and as usual because we are foreigners, we get quoted some obscene price, so we say no thanks and move on to the next cab. We finally agree on a price, and hop in. Now, I will admit that I wasn't being all that attentive...but as we are sitting there I am texting away on my cell phone. A hand reaches into the window. Now, logically I should have been surprised by this fact...but in typical Stephanie fashion...i was completely oblivious. I thought, "why is that guy reaching in here? Is the other taxi driver pissed that we didn't go with him?" Hahaha...well, I learned pretty quickly why this hand was in the car. Yup, this little street urchin wanted my cell phone. I send my text message, and as the cab pulls away I realize that it isn't just my hand on my cell phone...but his too! He starts running by the car, and we engage in a tug-of-war of sorts over my cell. I have two hands on it, he has one. Jerk, jerk, jerk...I let out an "Eek!" type scream--like if you saw a roach on the wall or something. Everyone in the car is unaware of what's going on. After several tugs back and forth, and my child-like screech, I win the cell phone! HAHA...VICTORIOUS! I wanted to go back and confront the guy, but the taxi just kept going...and little did I know that not only was my fun-filled night not over, but that the taxi had an important role to play.

We round the corner, only to be flagged down by two women on the street. My first reaction is, "hell no...no room." Well, as it turns out this poor woman is actually in labor! Yes, my friends, when they go into labor they calmly stand outside and hail a cab. We all got out and offered her the cab, but the driver insisted that we come along. He promised it would only take a few minutes to drop her off. I am sitting in the backseat scared to death that her water is going to break on me or something. She seems so calm, even while knowing that her birth would be performed withou anesthesia (hah...epidural? What?) and in a room furnished with 2 buckets (if she is lucky). As we speed along I look her way and see that she has her head buried in her mother's shoulder, and she is whimpering. To break the tension, I ask them whether it is a boy or a girl...they don't know. "Do you have any names picked out," I ask. No...they haven't thought that far ahead. Well, I say, don't worry...if it's a girl you can call it Stephanie and if it is a boy it can be Stephane. Problem solved. They both giggle, and I see the tension wipe from the girl's face...for just a second. We pull up, she gets out, we wish her the best, and we're off. Crisis averted, and no need to deliver a baby in a taxi. Whew!

It was an interesting night, to say the least...and if anyone asks you what really happened. I slammed the robber with the door, kicked him in the groin and rode away laughing. I then proceeded to deliver a baby in the taxi, and in my honor they named it Stephanie. Now...start that rumor mill!

Now, here I am in Senegal in the middle of my dental work. By the time I am done I will have a brand new tooth (not a gold one unfortunately...I tried). Senegal is pretty great...it's crowded, busy, and modern...and most importantly has sushi, imported beer, and ice cream. Truly, I couldn't ask for more. I have even been keeping up on my running. I met a member of the Senegal National Junior Track Team, and she offered to run with me...so that has been quite an experience. I warned her ahead of time that, "white people can't jump...or run...especially this white person." So, if she is happy going at a pace that I am certain she could crawl at...then I would be happy to run with her. Luckily, she obliged...and being that she is a sprinter and only does the 200m and 400m races, I actually outrun her at times. Now THAT is a boost to the ego.

I have another week and a half here as they make the crown, and ensure that the infection has entirely gone away. Most people would think that I am living in the lap of luxury--and don't get me wrong, I am enjoying myself!--but I will be honest with you folks...as cheesy as it sounds...I miss my village, I miss my friends, and I miss my cat. Home is where the heart is...and never before has that rung as true for me. Burkina Faso may not have the food, the beaches, the beer, and the ice cream, but in the past 11 months it has become a sort of home to me. So, I am looking forward to finishing here and heading back.

For those of you that are reading this twice, or are just bored, here is a little present. I finally, with all the time I have here, have been able to edit my first little video. My neighbors were cementing their courtyard so that they could dry rice...so all the surrounding neighbor women got together and helped...it was really amazing...watch and see:

video

The countdown continues to "Stephanie's Tour d'Etats Unis"...2 months! DON'T FORGET...hop on to my marathon fundraising page to make a donation to the Children's IBD Center of Mt. Sinai (Click Here: Steph's Fundraising Page). $5, $10, $20, $100...whatever! It all pushes me closer to my goal of raising $2500...so pop out those wallets and get to donatin'!!!! Support me as I raise money and train to run in the 2007 ING NYC Marathon!

I hope you are all well, safe, and dry--for those of you in the Midwest. I am thinking of all of you. Stay Close!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Life is a rollercoaster...so just put your hands in the air

The longer that I live here the more that I am not only learning, but more importantly accepting, that things don't always go the way you want them to, or as smoothly as you want them to. Most of you know me, and in my life I like to be in control...I like to "plan" pretty much everything. My mom will tell you that by 9th grade I had my entire high school curriculum planned out for every year until graduation, and I already had my college and major selected too...at 14 years old I knew exactly how I wanted my life to go. I have always been like that...well, that is until now. I have been in Burkina Faso a little more than 10 months, and in those 10 months I have learned so much about myself. I have learned that I am capable of a great many things (and that doesn't just mean poo-ing in a hole and living without electricity), and that I am capable of handling a great many things--setbacks included. The easy part is realizing that things don't always go your way or how you planned, the hard part is ACCEPTING that things don't always go your way or how you planned.

This has been an extremely busy summer...at least by my African standards. I just finished my shea butter training with 25 women in my village. This experience, as difficult as it was at times, was so extremely rewarding for me. You all know my love of the shea butter process and the teamwork it requires of women, and my women were so amazing and inspirational. Here is a picture of them at the end of our formation holding their certificates:



The weather conditions were anything but perfect! The first day we stood for hours holding a plastic tarp over two women who were roasting the shea nuts while it downpoured. After doing that for two hours, the women decided they would rather move the fires into a one room hut and sit in there--with the smoke and heat!!--and roast them in there. Well...at least they were dry. The next day we got another torrential downpour that completely flooded the village--we are talking like over my knees, river rapid, type flooding. Yet, the 5 women who were participating from a neighboring village 5 kilometers away still road/walked their bikes in (with babies strapped on backs) to the formation. It was an amazing testament to the work ethic and resilience that exists here amongst these people. I was like a mother watching her children perform in a recital...I was absolutely bursting with pride!

Looking back on this formation, there were ups and downs...I couldn't control the weather, I couldn't control the women and whether they showed up on time, and I couldn't control their enthusiasm. The day before the formation I was threatening to cancel the whole thing because the women were not showing up for the preliminary orientation meeting, and for a moment I almost lost it. Then, I had to stop and remember...as cliche as it is..."Let go and Let God." All my life I have been told that, and all my life I have said, "oh yeah, absolutely." But, I never really meant it. Now I am truly learning the meaning of this saying, and positive impact it can have in my life. If I worried about controlling every aspect, it would drive me insane...and at one point I almost let that happen. Things here in Burkina Faso are never perfect...but in the end I am not sure I want to strive for utter perfection. I am learning that I am just happy to get to that "mediocre" level. If I see a light of recognition flash in their eyes, or a smile and a laugh...I am okay with that. Of course I will never stop striving for the best, that is in my nature, but I think that I am learning to be satisfied with the simple things...which for me I think is a step in the right direction. Here are several pictures from the shea butter formation, you can go to my Flickr site to see them all:


Here is a woman (with baby!) in the smoke filled one-room hut, roasting the shea nuts

Here are the women working together to wash the raw butter before boiling and cleaning it again as an oil



Here is your's truly getting her hands dirty



Here is Fatou, showing off our freshly roasted shea nuts

Here is a participant skimming the impurities off the top as the oil boils

I am experiencing the same thing with my girls camp as well. Again, I can't control the weather and I can't control the girls. I can only worry about the program and myself...the rest I have to leave up to them and to fate.

Here is the Welcome Sign on the first day of the girl's camp.

Some days it rains, some days the girls don't all show up, some days my speakers cancel on me, and some days the girls look bored. But, there are the days that they do all show up, and the days that they laugh and participate, and the days that they give the right responses, and the days where they look at me and I see in their eyes recognition and pride. It is those days that happen more than the bad...and it is those days that buoy me on to the next, and re-energize me. I may not have exactly the impact that I planned on from the beginning...but if just one girl learns something new, or feels better about herself...that is okay too. That is all that I can really strive for, and for the first time in my life...I am okay "letting go, and letting God."

Something very interesting to experience here in Burkina Faso is the rainy season. Wow, they don't joke when they mean it rains...just for fun, here is a "before" the rains picture of my street, and here is an "after" the rains picture...I feel like I live in a river bed.

My village before...really green isn't it?!


During a rainstorm...we'll call it the "River Banzon"

The last unexpected turn of events would be my health...definitely one thing that I have no control over! If you have been reading the blog, you are aware that my dental problems have been extensive here. I don't know what it is about Burkina Faso...but my teeth have just said "screw you!" Well, I am currently in Ouagadougou, the capital city, because it looks like I will be flown to Dakar, Senegal for a root canal procedure of some kind. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of details. A few weeks ago an abscess appeared in my mouth, and from there things have just been spiraling. My dentist back home said I have bone loss?? Could require a bone graft?!?! And definitely a root canal?!?!?!?! I have conquered my fear of needles thanks to Peace Corps and a list of vaccinations a mile long...so this should be a peace of cake right? What's one more phobia to conquer? This is just another reason to let go of the situation, since it is entirely out of my control, and go with the flow...or as I said in the title...life is a rollercoaster...so it's time to open my eyes, let go, lift my arms in the air, and enjoy the ride.

Hope all is well...don't forget to look at the entry below for my fundraising website link, and for the new pics. Et aussi, n'oublie pas, I am coming to the States Oct. 30 - Nov. 26 so clear your calendars! Missing everyone...stay close!

Monday, August 06, 2007

NYC Marathon Quest...show the love baby!!

Hello all!

I know you are going think I am crazy...and nothing is certain 'til I strap on the shoes and go to the starting line, but the rumors are true...I am running in the NYC Marathon this November 4, 2007!

Go to this link to support me as I run in support of the Children's IBD Center of Mt. Sinai! They work with patients suffering from Crohn's/Colitis. I have to raise $2500...so that is 250 $10 donations, 25 $100 donations, 500 $5 donations...so get out those wallets people and support this wonderful cause, and me, as I strive to train in Burkina Faso, West Africa!!!

Here is the link...so get to clicking!

Steph's Fundraising Page

Thank you for all of your continued support. I will be back with a more detailed post of all the new happenings here in the Faso...but am a bit limited on time!!

Also, n'oublie pas...check out my photos page for a few pics from my girls camp, and lots of pics from my shea butter formation! It has been so much fun and interesting...

Steph's Pics

Stay Close!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Mission Accomplished!

Hello all! WOW, what a whirlwind couple of weeks this has been! My 4th of July was a blast! My friends Leslie, Julia, and Kelly came to celebrate the holiday in my village, which made it all the more festive. I had a grill constructed in my backyard, and was able to get ground beef, beef ribs, and a pintard (which is pretty much just like a chicken). We barbecued, made potato salad, mashed potatos, salad, and chocolate cake...YUMMY!! It was really nice to have people over, to entertain, and just have some girl talk. It gets a little lonely out there...so it is nice to share the experience at times.

Now...for the shea butter...oh my goodness! It all started in Mali with my first introduction to shea butter, and ended with a visit from Mike's Aunt, Margie, who is looking at possibly importing bulk shea butter to the United States. We toured for an entire week around Burkina looking at and talking to various producers and shea butter experts. I have learned so much about this beautiful product, watched countless women work together to produce it, and talked with numerous experts on the benefits and the difficulties. There were so many times as we traveled around throughout the region that I just wanted to give a hug to each and every woman that was there. I felt a pride, a pride about the women, a pride about their work, that I had never felt before. It was truly amazing to see these women work together for a common aim, and to have the opportunity to be in control of their financial and professional lives. I don't even know how to accurately describe it, except to say that it was simply beautiful...I hope to have some photos from the trip posted soon so that you can see a little bit of what we saw.


One of the best parts about this trip happened on the second to last day of our travels. My goal all along had been to convince one of the shea butter producers to link up with my village so that my village could supply butter to their group. A quick background...the way shea works here is that women create cooperatives (co-ops) that are all trained in doing the work one universal way. However, because women are so spread out in the African bush, they have to do the work in their individual villages, and then have the main co-op group buy and transport it away. There are hundreds of shea butter producer groups in Burkina Faso, but only a small number of advanced producers. These producers go out into the villages searching for women's groups to link up with to expand their capacity. They then train the women in their techniques, and then guarantee that they will buy their butter. After all of my work, and all of my calls, and all of my conversations, I was able to secure just that for my village...and I couldn't be happier. A trader in Bobo-Dioulasso, my regional capital, agreed to entirely fund a one week training in my village for 25 women on the proper harvesting and processing techniques of shea nuts and shea butter, and at the end of the formation she will sign a contract with my women to buy all of their produced shea butter. Not only that, but another volunteer--Leslie--was with me at the meetings and she secured a fully-funded training for her village as well (thanks to the generosity of Margie--Mike's Aunt--at Alnor Oils). It is a pretty amazing feeling when things just start falling together, and I am quickly learning that if you do good work, and practice patience, things will work out in the end...and it is a pretty satisfying feeling. I look forward to posting pictures in a few weeks of the formation.


Most of the shea process is done by hand, and can take up to three days to complete. There is something magical about watching them produce the butter...the rythmic beating of their hands as they clean and mix the butter with water. Truly truly amazing! Here are a few pics that I happen to have from our little tour of Burkina:

Here a woman is cleaning the shea puree before boiling and attaining the final butter.


Here the women are mixing the shea liquid with water to attain what you saw in the first picture, which is a fluffy, almost mousse-like, consistency.

After they mix it, it ends up looking like this..doesn't it look like cake batter or chocolate mousse...yummy!

Here is a picture of a shea tree


Anyhoo...as you can tell, I had a wonderful week, got to spend some quality time with Mike's Aunt, met some wonderful people, got a training for my village, and so much more. It is the first week that I have felt "productive" (by American standards). Usually, productive is cleaning my house and drinking tea with a neighbor... On top of all this craziness, my girl's camp starts on Thursday, and as usual my procrastinating self has left all to the last minute. But, as I am quickly learning...things will just fall into place.

Alright...well, it is a tad late and I have to be on a bus in the morning back to my village, so I am going to head to beddy bye. Hope everyone is well...Stay close!




Friday, June 29, 2007

Fun, Sun, Staph Infection, and Laura Bush...all in my fun-filled Mali adventure...


Hello all. I write you on the eve of my departure from Mali, and who knew that so much could happen in a week long period. First off, Mali is WONDERFUL! I have had such an amazing time seeing another country (including being bribed at the border just to get in), meeting other volunteers, learning about shea trees/nuts/butter, contracting a staph infection, and meeting First Lady Laura Bush.


To say that my trip here has been interesting is definitely not saying enough. I departed Bobo at 8:30 AM for my 14 hour "joy" ride to Bamako. I was told by countless volunteers to just buy my visa at the border. It is about $80 cheaper to do that...you just have to deal with the Malian Gendarmes. I approach the border guard and he immediately starts yelling in garbled French that I don't have a visa. "Why don't you have one? You can't enter...you have to go back to Ouaga and visit the embassy!" So, I tried to explain that I came from a village and that I didn't have time to purchase one, that I was coming for a formation, and that I was told I could get it here. He again starts his little tirade about how my friends were wrong...I had made a "faux" and that he couldn't help me. I started to get a little angry, but then it dawned on me that this is Africa...there is always a monetary solution. Trying to look resigned I started to walk away, only to have him trail after me. "Oh...talk to this guy...he'll take care of you." I get ushered over to this window where they tell me I have to pay 15,000 CFS ($30) or they were going to send me back. They hand me a receipt for 10,000 CFA, so I give them that. He continues to stare at me, and places his hand out again. It dawns on me that the other 5,000 CFA ($10) was the bribe--a cheap bribe if you ask me. I ask him why my receipt says 10k when they want 15k, and he very calmly explains that if I don't pay the extra money they will keep my 10k and just send me back to Burkina...nuff said...here's the $10.

Not surprising from a 14 hour bus ride, I arrived in Bamako with "cankles"....REALLY big "cankles." At first I thought it was just the transport...but I was neglecting to remember the cuts on the bottom of my feet that I had gotten due to all my running. As the days progressed my feet only got bigger, and then developed sores on the ankles. It got to the point where I could barely walk. But, as most PC volunteers know...we practice a grin and bear it approach to feeling sick or being injured. I finally break down and went to see the PC Mali nurses in Bamako where I learn I have a staph infection...FUN! So, needless to say I had to wrap both my feet up like casts and I am now on a seriously strong bout of antibiotics to knock this stuff out of my system. Oh, I love Mali!

Regardless, I spent a fabulous week at a shea butter formation learning all about the opportunities that exist in the shea butter industry in the world market, how to produce good nuts/butter, how to create/manage women's groups that could produce/harvest the nuts, and more. It was really invaluable for me as I work to get shea groups established in my village, and help various organizations with exportation and selling overseas. From what I have learned, Shea Butter is quite a hot commodity on the world market. What makes it wonderful is that shea production is done almost exclusively by women, so it gives them an opportunity to take ownership and control over a part of their lives, in a society where they are not allowed that much autonomy to begin with. It is really inspiring to sit at a table with 25 Malian women as they become empowered by knoweledge, and discover the confidence to create their own enterprises. I can't wait to take this information back to Burkina Faso and get the ball rolling there. Burkina Faso (along with Ghana) are actually the two most developed countries in regards to Shea Butter/Nut refining and exportation...so there is so much exciting opportunity in this area and I am only skimming the surface. Not only that, but the formation was held in Siby, Mali....a world famous hiking and rock climbing spot--and even though with my infected tootsies I couldn't really take advantage, it was beautiful scenery.

As if things couldn't get better, we heard that the First Lady was making a stop in Bamako, Mali and we were invited to head out to the Ambassador's Residence and meet/greet her. Here is a little pic from the meeting:

There I am in the front row with several Peace Corps Mali volunteers...

It was so much fun. She stopped and thanked all of us for our service, and talked about some interesting initiatives that she is working on to battle Malaria and HIV/AIDS Nutrition (check out http://www.developmentingardening.org/. That is Sarah's NGO that Mrs. Bush personally visited).



I have had such an amazing time on my trip to Mali...meeting new people, conquering crazy infections, and shaking hands with the president's wife (even if I don't necessarily agree with most...actually all...of his policies). Well...I am off tomorrow...14 hours back home...FUN TIMES!


Thursday, June 21, 2007

A smile to your face...

Hello all. It has been a few weeks since I arrived back in Burkina Faso, and so I thought I would send out a little message to say hello. Things here are going well, and after a bit of a hard time transitioning back to life here in Burkina, I am feeling settled again.

I am passing through Bobo on my way to Bamako, Mali to attend a formation about the production/marketing of Shea Butter. It's an African trademark, and can be used in anything from shampoo to chocolate! It's an amazing, and severely under-utilized resource. Mike's Aunt is coming in July to tour some Shea Butter facilities in Burkina, and they are interested in exporting to Europe/US...so there are a lot of interesting opportunities on the horizon. I just might do something in the business sector after all...WOO HOO!

I have been feeling a bit introspective lately thanks to a book I have been reading, Tales of a Female Nomad (Rita Golden Gelman), which I HIGHLY recommend. It really forced me to look at my time here, and to appreciate it for the little things, the things that bring a smile to your face...that brighten your day. So, I thought I would share an experience that I just had...something that brought a smile to my day:

The sun peaks through my straw hangar, the thwack of the axe can be heard from across my courtyard, and the naying of the donkeys signal another day has begun. In Burkina Faso the last thing that I need is an alarm clock. As if set to a timer--even though usually NOTHING runs on time--my village comes to life as the sun peaks over the horizon. The people--and animals--start their day, whether I am ready for them to or not...there is NO snooze button.

I jump out of bed, thankful for the morning coolness as it flows over me, knowing that in 3 hours the sun will beat down and I will have to take refuge for a while from its rays. The mornings have always been my favorite, not only for the gracious breeze and cool air, but for the sounds and sights of my village coming to life.

For me, my mornings are the same. I lace up my shoes, take a gulp of water, and I set off. I pass several of my neigbors, all of whom have been up for hours already preparing breakfast and lunch, washing the children, cleaning the house, and preparing to set off to the fields--it is the rainy season and everyone has a field to tend to. As I run past I wave hello and pass my morning greetings to my neighbors--"Aw ni Sogoma," I shout as I jog by--Good morning in my village's local language of Joula. We rush through the greeting ritual as I pass by. At this point the odd looks have subsided, and most people just know me as the crazy american girl that "faire's le sport." Running is never done unless trying to get away from something, or in playing soccer...and most certainly not done that often by a girl.

I continue on my path through the mango groves which are teeming with ripe mangos. Their scent fills the air and I have to resist ripping one off the tree and eating it right there. I don't know if I will ever be able to buy fruits from a supermarket again. I wave to the villagers and children who are already in the grove, picking the mangos for sale in the market. I pass as the children make their way to school in the morning, carrying their little rice sack backbacks as they bound along. I dodge the various cattle, goats, and pigs along my route, Passing the river, and continuing on into the rice fields. The view is spectacular, and a far cry from 9 months ago when I was staring at the New York skyline from my office window. Oh, how much my life has changed in such a short time.

As amazing as all of this is, it is the end of my run that I look forward to the most. As I crest the hill out of the mango grove the familiar cry pierces the air. There is Brahim, my two-year old neighbor. "Madame! Madame!" he cries as he sees me come over the hill. He darts towards me from his courtyard, his little legs carrying him as fast as he can go. His eyes are lit up, and there is a smile on his face
that could light the world. Normally we shake hands, high five, and I pat him on
the head...but today is different. As he runs up I put my hands out and UP he jumps giving me the biggest little bear hug that he can muster. He has always been so shy to this point, and his affection surprises me. "Bonjour," he says...the only word of French I am sure he knows. He props on my hip and I jog him back to his mother. He pops down to the ground, gives me a hug and then runs back to his house.

I wave goodbye and finish up my run, just a little more energized than the moment before. Happy...content...that his hug is one of the highlights of my day...and something to look forward to every time I crest that hill to make my way home.

Anyways...I hope all is well. I will update you soon on the happenings in Mali. Also, the tickets have been purchased...THAT'S RIGHT FOLKS...October 30-November 26th...Stephanie's Tour of America! I will be landing in NYC to visit Mike and friends, run the marathon with a Peace Corps buddy, party, EAT, and just relax. Then I am off to the big salty 'Ham (Birmingham to those of you who don't know) for family visits, my Dad's wedding, hopefully the Iron Bowl, and much more. Start planning your parties now...and our restaurant schedule. We are a mere 4 months away! Love you and miss you all...STAY CLOSE!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Shalom Y'all!

Shalom! Yep, I am greeting you from the Middle Eastern paradise of Israel. I made it here in one piece, and Mike and I are enjoying ourselves as we tour around this amazing country.

Okay, first, I know you are dying to hear about the success/failure of my Starbucks mission. My plane landed in Paris 30 minutes early (6:00)…so I thought I was golden. I disembark and easily make my way to the metro station to go to downtown Paris. I met several nice people—I know, I was surprised to find nice French people too—who helped me navigate to the central train station. I was told to hop on this other subway and take it all the way to the end. I would be able to find my elusive Starbuck’s. Everything was going exactly according plan…as I passed the stops for the Louvre and the Arc de Triomph I couldn’t help but smile to myself. That’s right…I was doing it…I was in Paris. In your face all you naysayers!! It took a bit longer than I thought, but I finally made it to my station and realized that I was in a shopping mall…and there was a Starbucks. I got a little nervous when I saw that all the shops were closed…but there was no way that a Starbuck’s was closed. It’s a coffee shop, they open up early right? I make it up the stairs and my mecca comes in to view. My face drops as I see that the metal doors are closed…and locked! CLOSED? CLOSED! How could that be? It isn’t possible. I felt like Clark Griswold from Family Vacation. I should have broken in and make my own damn Caramel Macchiatto. At this point, the time at this point was 8:00 and the Starbucks didn’t open until 8:30. My flight left at 10:30 (boarding at 9:40)…did I have time to wait? I tried fruitlessly to find another neighboring—and open—Starbucks, but to no avail. Do I (A) wait until 8:30 for the Starbuck’s to open and get my macchiato and risk missing my flight, or (B) get back on the train…I am crazy, but nevertheless reason won out and I boarded the subway to go back to the airport. I felt so dejected as I rode the subway…to make matters worse some old lady boarded the train at the Louvre stop sipping on a steaming Starbucks beverage. I have never stolen anything, or ever felt tempted to hit an old lady…but I came pretty close here. I felt like she was taunting me with that thing. Anyhoo, I get back to the main station and switch over to the train that is going to take me to Charles de Gaulle. There is a HUGE crowd of people, and there is a lot of talking going on over the loudspeaker. The first train is being held up, and according to the monitor all the trains for CDG are “Delayed Departure”…commence heart attack please. At this point it is 9:15 . I have 25 minutes to make my boarding, and 1 hour 15 minutes until my flight takes off. Mike has already arrived at the airport and he has NO way of contacting me…so I am sure he is seething in the airport—especially since he called me about 5 times before I left Burkina to persuade me not to go on my insane mission. I board the next train which says that it is going to CDG, but as soon as the door closes the person standing next to me says…”Pardon me, this train isn’t going to Charles de Gaulle”…commence 2nd heart attack. He tells me I have to get off at the next stop, and pick up a different train. 9:25…clock is ticking away. I get out at the next stop, and once again the loudspeaker is going full blast, and I can see countless travelers throwing down their tickets, cursing, and running for the exits. OH SHIT! What? Then I listen very hard to the loudspeaker…what is this that I hear…”All trains departing for Charles de Gaulle are cancelled. Service has been interrupted.” At this point I about passed out…it was 9:30. I run out of the station and decide I am going to have to flag down a taxi. It is about 25-30 minutes to the airport from where we are, but all I have is 20 Euros…so I need to get some cab sharing partners. I spot an American couple from across the station and I dart over. Luckily, they are VERY nice…and we quickly decide to share a taxi. The only problem is that it is us, and every other person that wanted to go to the airport that is trying to hail a cab. We try for a while to get a cab, but none will stop. I am whispering expletives under my breath, and I continue to repeat, “This is my nightmare. Oh my gosh, Mike is going to kill me.” I see a man departing a taxi 20 yards ahead and I run and flag down the taxi man…because of some weird taxi laws he can’t pick us up there, but he will pull around. I was relieved to see that he actually did like he said. In the end, I made it to my gate at 10:10…with a very unhappy Mike glaring at me from across the terminal. All that craziness, about 30 Euros ($40 or so), and what did I have to show for it? Definitely no Starbucks…but I can laugh about it only because I made it to my flight…and I can’t ask for much better than that. Plus, little did I realize that Israel has the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf…and I like that A LOT better than Starbucks!

I wish I could say that my blunders stop there…but of course I had to make an idiot out of myself at least one more time. Mike and I spent our first few days touring around the magical and ancient city of Jerusalem. From there we had booked a tour to Masada—this mountaintop Jewish fortress built by King Herod, and the site where over 900 Jews committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Romans—and the Dead Sea. We arrived at the hotel where we were waiting for the tour bus to arrive and pick us up. With all the hounding I get as a white person in Burkina I have become quite good at ignoring people that are trying to sell me things or bother me. Anyhoo, Mike walks away for a second to get us coffee and this man approaches me. “Taxi, Taxi?” is what I thought I heard him say. I quickly reply, “no, no…no thank you” and go back to ignoring all of those around me. Mike comes back from coffee, and we continue to wait. 20 minutes rolls by, and the tour company is late. About 10 more minutes later the tour company calls Mike on his cell phone. “We are here, where are you?” Of course Mike tells them we are waiting out front. They tell him they are going to come around again. So, another 5 mintues later the same taxi man that approached me before, approached again. At this point I’m like, “yo dude, I said no taxi…damn.” He keeps repeating himself, and Mike starts going over there. I kept telling Mike to ignore him, he is just a taxi guy. Well, as it turns out the man was not saying, “Taxi” but “Dead Sea”…as in our tour group. For 30 minutes about 8 people were waiting in a van, staring at us, and all because I thought this guy was trying to offer me a taxi ride. I even tried to pull Mike back when he went to talk to the guy. You would think he could have made an actual sentence like, “Tour to the Dead Sea” or “Are you going to the Dead Sea.” Oh well, they didn’t leave without us. I have just gotten so good at shutting out unwanted attention…

Anyhoo, besides a few minor blunders on my part, the trip has gone amazingly well. I have been very pleasantly surprised of the beauty of this country, and in our 10 days here Mike and I have managed to dot our way to several places. We went to Jerusalem for 2 days, spent 1 day touring Masada (a fortress built by King Herod on top of this plateau where all 900+ inhabitants committed suicide when the Romans defeated them) and the Dead Sea—you REALLY float…it is amazing. I had a few rashes and cuts left over from Burkina, and when I stepped in that water my whole body was on fire! Salt may be good for the wounds, but it definitely limited how long I could stay in the water. After that we returned to his Aunt’s house where we took a drive to a little mountaintop village. After that we headed up north to the Sea of Galilee (not really a sea, a lake…and the place that Jesus walked on water, and fed 5000 people with 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread). This I have to say was my favorite place. I love lakes muich more than oceans, and we had access to natural hot springs. We laid out on the “beach” and swam in the lake. We also took a drive up to the Golan Heights (not as dangerous as it was before). This area is AMAZING! We went to a nature reserve, checked out some waterfalls, ate at this really cute kibbutz, and just drove around admiring the scenery. After that we headed back and stopped off in Haifa—the 3rd largest city in Israel—a city that is built right into a mountainside. There we toured the Ba’Hai Gardens. This is a garden/shrine dedicated to the Ba’Hai faith. This garden was unbelievable, and built all the way up the mountain. The gardens were impeccable…I will try and post some pictures because there is no way I could do it justice with words. It houses a shrine to their founder—they believe that all religions are equal and at their core the same. They believe that men and women are equal, and await a day when there is one world government and one world language. I don’t know what I think about that…but I like the whole everyone is equal, we are all the same part. After that we headed once again back to Mike’s Aunt’s house where we relaxed, saw Pirates of the Carribbean: At World’s End—which I thought was quite good except for several plot holes/undeveloped characters, but on the whole a fun time.

I know some of you feared for my safety while I was in Israel…but worry not. As wars rage less than 50 kilometers away in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the rest of Israel goes about their daily lives…they live and exist, in spite of all the violence and danger, normally and happily. Yes, every place you go you have to walk through metal detectors and have your bags searched, but it is a small price to pay, and it is a way of life for them now. Imagine if whole sections of your state…were completely off limits to go…an invisible line that you absolutely don’t cross! I was talking to Mike’s Aunt about the suicide bombings, and how she lives with it…I could never imagine that in America. I can’t imagine living every day thinking that a bomb could go off in a shopping mall or a movie theater. In such a calm and sure way she said, “Oh, it will come to America. It’s only a matter of time.” It was a shocking statement at first…but sadly a statement that is all too true. How long until the conflict and the fight comes knocking on our own doors? Before metal detectors and security guards start popping up at coffee shops, malls, and outdoor parks? All for what? For a religious ideal…it seems so absurd to me…but I guess you can’t make sense when you are talking about people that don’t have any…well…sense.

We are now preparing to go our separate ways—I to Africa, and Mike back to New York. I think it will be harder this time, not only to leave one another, but also to go back to my life. It is so difficult to wrap my head around the idea that a world like this—modernistic and capitalistic—exists outside of Burkina. How one place can have SO much, and another place have virtually nothing at all. It doesn’t seem fair, but at the same time that’s life…it isn’t exactly always fair or just. Plus, do I really want to see a place like Burkina become “Amercan-ized” with shopping malls and McDonald’s dotting the landscape? I put my third-world life on hold to join the first-world…and now I must go back. At least I have the option to switch around…

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Let Operation GSCMBSKS Begin

Hello from Ouagadougou...again! I hope everyone is doing well out there. It is, as always, HOT here! Today is Thursday, which means I am a little over 24 hours away from boarding a lush Air France flight on my way to Paris! It doesn't even seem like reality to me...I am so worried that I am going to turn into a Beverly Hillbilly the second that I load the plane. TOILET? There is a toilet? What...I get a choice between chicken or beef? Um...YES, wine please!! "Well, I'll be...kick me over and call me Susy, cause by golly I think them there attendants are gonna play one of them movin' pictures up on that little screen...Yee haw!" Hopefully I can clean enough dirt off me so as not to scare the other passengers. I am still plotting on how I can smoothtalk the flight attendants into letting me sit in business class...coming from village in my ratty clothes I can't certainly rely on my looks for this one...maybe my Burkinabe charm?

Okay, for anyone that knows me, my obsession with Starbucks runs deep. Up to this point I have been Starbucks free for 8 months. I consider the Peace Corps like detox really...forced detox, but whatever. Maybe Britney Spears should consider Peace Corps instead of Promises...anyhoo...after 8 months of instant Nescafe coffee, you can't blame me for wanting to get a decent cup a joe. So, I surfed the internet for quite a while and I have put together an action plan...we'll call it "Operation GSCMBSKS" (Get Stephanie a Caramel Macchiatto Before She Kills Someone). In using Google Earth and any other map program I have discovered that there are 28 Starbucks locations in the Paris, France area. NONE of which, by the way, are in the airport...HELLO!! My flight gets in at 0600 hours, and my connection isn't until 1000 hours. Mike arrives at 0800 hours...which leaves me a 2 hour window to complete the operation. If I can board the metro line to downtown Paris--which is approximately 25 minutes one way--I can hit up one of the 20 that seem to be centered around the Metro Stations. That leaves me enough time to take a glance at the Eiffel Tower, hop back on the Metro, and be there to greet Mike at our connection gate to Israel sipping my Tall (okay, lets be honest, it's probably going to be a VENTE) Skim Caramel Macchiatto. Oh, my mouth is watering on the keyboard right now...I can just smell it. Maybe I should buy a thermos and try to store some for later. Or, now that I have my car battery in my house, I could by an espresso machine for my hut...EUREKA! Okay, well, that is going too far, but it is a nice thought. I think back fondly on my last Starbucks Caramel Macchiato on my way to JFK airport. We stopped at a reststop and I told that barista to make the best damn machchiatto in the world, like his life depended on it. Oh, it was good...and now I am focused on my mission to procure another of those fine sweet delicacies. Oh yes, I shall prevail. Guided by my limited West African french, no knoweledge of the Paris transit system, and a nose that could smell a Starbucks coffee from a 10 mile radius...let's do this! I may be going to Israel, but the hightlight of my trip will be sipping that frothy, warm, sweet beverage...oh it's the small things in life now.

Okay, I don't want to toot my own horn...but bear with me for a minute...because I am glowing. The past couple weeks have been really amazing. As time goes on, I slowly am realizing where I fit in...in my village, in my life, in my own skin. I don't know why it suddenly dawned on me, but I just had one of those moments where everything made sense and I was just content with where I was. I ride through my village and little kids chase after me and call my name, I greet my neighbors every morning on my run, I play soccer every evening with some boys in my village--and I am earning a reputation for my play...I draw crowds...probably not for skill as much as being white and a girl, but whatever. I love sipping my coffee on my porch in the morning, or reading/napping in the afternoon. I have even gotten several projects off the ground, that have thus far proven rather rewarding. I held my first health meeting with the women, and over 70 women showed up! I talked about Malaria, and we held a raffle at the end where I gave away 3 mosquito nets and some mosquito-blocking incense. The women LOVED it, and from what I hear--because of the prize raffle--there are going to be quite a few women there next time. They keep telling me 200, but I will see it when I believe it. Generally, I am opposed to prizes, but since they are topic-related, and the women have to answer relevant questions to win...I think it's fine. It was so satisfying to see that room bursting at the seams. I also started an English Club with the high school kids where I am going to show American movies--Pixar, or other fun kids movies--in English with French subtitles, as well as have meetings and open reading hours...I am sure I can spare some US Weekly's for them to read...HAHA! Relevant English, ya know. Lastly, I held my first meeting with the girls in my village about a Girls Camp, and over 30 girls signed up! I wasn't even expecting 20 at the meeting, but I had over 50!! I really want to work with young girls on their self-esteem and making relevant/wise life choices. I know you are thinking, but Stephanie you are a business volunteer, well that may be, but I have found that my work varies quite a lot, and I am happy to go where it takes me. I am teaching a marketing seminar in June...so at least that is related to my focus. There is no way to determine how these activities are going to turn out, and I won't be happy or on a high every single day in village, but it really feels good to be doing this work. As much as I miss home, family, and friends--and I miss you terribly--things just feel very right...That is the only way I can describe it.

Okay, I am all done being all Mr. Rogers...I just had to get that out. Anyhoo, so village is good, my kitty is good, my health is pretty good, I am about to see Mike for the first time in 8 months, and I am 48 hours away from sipping on a Caramel Macchiatto...there is no way that I couldn't be content right now.

I have finally got my video camera up and running and should have a clip from village of my village women at work. It is amazing, and gives a whole new meaning to whistle while you work. I should have that posted after I get back from Israel...and I hope to continue posting video clips so that you can get some "Day in the Life" glimpses...so, STAY TUNED!

Love you guys, and as always, Stay close!